MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIII No. 5
May / June 2011
A Letter to the Class of 2011
A Call for Nominations to
Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board
An MIT Housing Dream Finally Comes True
Can Nuclear Disarmament Become a Reaility?
Faculty Governance @ MIT:
Strengths and Future Challenges
Faculty Priorities for MIT
Thanks to the 150th Staff
Technology Enabled Transformation
in the MIT Learning Experience
Interim Report on the HASS First-Year Focus Pilot Program, to be Renamed the HASS Exploration Program
Sam Allen New Chair of the Faculty
Preventing Utter Devastation in Tornado/Hurricane Prone Areas
MIT Subject Evaluations Now Online
MIT Class of 2015: Incoming Freshmen Stats
Center for Work, Family & Personal Life Changes Name
Sponsored Research Expenditures
(2001 – 2010)
Printable Version

Report of the Faculty Policy Committee

Faculty Priorities for MIT


This term, members of the Faculty Policy Committee visited with faculty in a cross section of departments to gain an informal sense of the issues of greatest interest and concern to the faculty. A full report on the rich array of information and ideas generated has been shared with the President, Provost, Chancellor, and other members of the Academic Council.

Here are some recurring themes that we heard:


Not surprisingly, space and infrastructure ranked high on the minds of the faculty. But we heard some new aspects of these longstanding concerns that reflect changes underway in how we teach and do research. Faculty in several departments noted the need for not just upgrading existing laboratories and research facilities, but also for space and resources for faculty to explore new collaborations with colleagues in other disciplines, and to do the initial research needed to attract sustaining funding from government or industry. Some worry that Harvard and other peer institutions are ahead of MIT in providing space and infrastructure support to explore new areas.

Classroom renovations tailored to emerging models of teaching came up in many of the meetings, but again with an interesting twist: Flexibility in classroom space and technology was stressed.

Not all faculty want to rely solely on electronic media for communication. Chalk and talk still reign supreme in many classes. The growing emphasis on teamwork was cited as another reason for reconfiguring traditional classrooms. Flexible, multi-purpose spaces and tools are key priorities.

Basic Research

“Curiosity” based research remains a core value and strength of MIT. Yet shrinking government funding, the significant challenges encountered in dealing with under-recovery from foundation funded research, and the increasing attention given to attacking big and known problems may lead some to think MIT is no longer the place to follow one’s instincts and curiosity about questions of pure scientific research and theory. We must find the resources needed to promote pure research.

Considerable interest was expressed in having MIT expand and improve its efforts to demonstrate and communicate the importance of scientific discovery to the world. One idea that emerged was to encourage and support writing that communicates better the results and implications of basic science and discovery to the media, government leaders, and the public. One faculty commented:

“The world is getting more complicated and the challenges we face demand a diversity of experts…. Let me suggest that MIT attempt to play a significant role in helping others to understand the big picture in areas that we understand.”

And, on this theme, our award for the most novel suggestion goes to: “We ought to start a law school, so that more scientifically trained people get into decision-making positions.”

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Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching

We heard a lot about the growing trends toward interdisciplinary research and teaching. Faculty across the Institute recognize the reasons these trends are growing and many see themselves moving in this direction. But many also see significant barriers to doing so. The need for facilities that support new cross-disciplinary experiments and projects was mentioned above. Time was noted as a scarce resource. Strong interest was expressed for having funds available to support “bridging” activities and developmental opportunities needed to invest in new, often mid-career ventures. One faculty member noted that from time to time the School of Engineering has provided funding for “internal sabbaticals” to support faculty contemplating a transition to a new research and/or teaching area.

A wide range of “big” problems was put forward as high-potential investment opportunities, most of which reflected discussions already taking place across faculty from different departments and laboratories. We are likely to see more ideas and proposals for new, problem-based research bubble up from the faculty in search of Institute funding and support in the future. Widespread interest was expressed in seeing the Institute develop a strategy and resource base to respond to these “bottom up” ideas.

Faculty Life

We spent considerable time discussing the quality of faculty life and ways to improve it. Perhaps the best way to summarize the ideas that surfaced is to refer back to the faculty life cycle model described in the last FNL:

  • Pipeline and Recruitment: A number of faculty reflected on times they have spent going out to high schools and elementary schools to build interest in science and technology studies. There is a perception that we may be doing less of this today than in the past and a widely shared interest in doing more in the future. Some suggested more direct financial and/or other support for providing materials and educational programs for elementary and high school teachers by building on several models already offered for teaching math and selected science and engineering concepts at the elementary and high school levels.
  • Early Career: The need to increase support for childcare was a recurring theme. Appreciation was voiced for the expanded support that has been put in place in recent years. But it is clear that additional resources will be needed to help young faculty meet their professional and family responsibilities in the early years of their careers.
  • Mid-Career: Discussion of the idea of mid-career transitions, as noted above, sparked interest and spirited discussion in many departments. It appears that many faculty have had an interest in considering mid-career transitions but have not had convenient opportunities to voice or act on this interest. Once the issue was put on the table, the need for resources – time, physical infrastructure, and seed funding for starting up new research and teaching activities – resonated with a significant cross section of faculty.
  • Renewal: The common theme for faculty retirements is one of transition. Instead of seeing retirement as a sharp end point of their professional work, most of our colleagues see it as a gradual transition from full-time to part-time research and teaching, supplemented by other personal, professional, and civic activities. Demand for more community involvement (see discussion above regarding schools) and for other phase down activities will continue to grow as the faculty ages. The key to renewal will lie in how well we support these transitions.

We want to thank our faculty colleagues for participating and department chairs for facilitating these discussions, and we look forward to continuing these conversations in the years ahead.

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