From The Faculty Chair
The Role of Faculty Governance in Campus Planning
At November’s faculty meeting, Professor Jonathan King introduced a motion to establish a new faculty standing committee. As proposed, the Campus Planning Committee would consist of six faculty, two students, and three representatives of the administration. The charge to the committee was amended at the December faculty meeting, to the following:
“The Committee shall keep itself informed of plans relating to the future of the MIT built environment, including its physical campus and all MIT-affiliated off-campus structures, and shall be concerned with the relationship of construction projects and space planning to the activities of the Faculty, students and staff and the future academic and community needs of the Institute. The responsibilities of the Committee include representing Faculty and broader MIT Community interests and perspectives in the development of the campus and its surrounding properties and other MIT affiliated properties, including mechanisms of stewardship and oversight. The Committee shall insure that major construction and renovation projects are discussed and assessed by the Faculty.”
The motion was submitted by 10 faculty ((N. Choucri, J. Jackson, J. King, H. E. Lee, D. H. Marks, R. Perry, N. Rabbat, F. Solomon, R. Summons, S. Teller) concerned about the impact of economic development in the Kendall area, scarcity of available land for campus buildings, and increases in real estate costs in Cambridge, which they argue has a detrimental impact on faculty, staff, and students.
The motion generated considerable interest, with more than 50 faculty in attendance at the December meeting. There was a spirited debate on the merits.
Many of those who opposed the motion seemed to be in favor of the general idea of a campus planning committee, but argued that the motion had not been carefully vetted, and that a number of important questions concerning the role, composition, and charge to the committee had not been answered. Prof. Bob Jaffe moved to refer the matter to the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) for additional study. After a friendly amendment that the charge to the FPC include a requirement to report back to the faculty at the April meeting, the motion to refer was approved by the faculty.
Other than the requirement that we report back in April, there was little specific direction to the Faculty Policy Committee. I expect that the FPC will look at the proposal broadly. There are a spectrum of possible recommendations: (1) The FPC might recommend that the proposal be approved. If so, the FPC may propose an amended resolution to address concerns raised at the faculty meeting. (2) The FPC might conclude that the faculty should not adopt the proposal; if so, it would certainly provide its reasons. (3) The FPC might recommend some other structure, such as a presidentially-appointed or joint committee, as more appropriate. Whatever its conclusion, the guiding principle is that we will endeavor to produce a recommendation that best serves the interests of the faculty and the Institute.
At MIT, we sometimes include students as full voting members of committees, but not uniformly. Not surprisingly, we include more students on committees that directly impact student affairs (as on the Committee on Discipline), and fewer on committees with less relevance (as on the Committee on Outside Professional Activities). What is the right number in this case?
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In my September Faculty Newsletter column, I discussed opportunities to strengthen our governance structure to make participation in faculty governance in general and faculty meetings in particular more meaningful, and asked whether we might consider governance structures other than our town-meeting form of governance. I noted that some schools have experimented with online voting, with voting open for a short time (say, a day or two) following meetings. The November and December faculty meetings hold some important lessons on this issue and others related to faculty governance.
First, although on average faculty attendance is lower than desired, and often lower than that required for a quorum, issues of broad impact can still prompt debate. At the December meeting, where a vote on the campus planning motion was scheduled, we saw the highest turnout yet this year. My sense was that both sides of the argument were well represented in the discussion. At least in this instance, there’s evidence that important issues, about which people may disagree, will bring out faculty to participate, which I think is a positive sign for our current system. Of course, there is still the problem of achieving a quorum for noncontroversial but equally important motions.
Second, the events of the December faculty meeting show the benefit of public debate around potentially controversial issues. My sense is that some faculty came to the meeting expecting to vote in favor of the motion, but through the course of the discussion, decided that the motion wasn’t yet ready for a vote. Likewise, many of the faculty who came to the meeting expecting to vote against the motion were persuaded that the idea of a Campus Planning Committee has enough merit to warrant further consideration. In the end, the faculty voted unanimously to refer the issue to the Faculty Policy Committee. It’s remarkable that very few (and perhaps none) of the faculty voted in the way they had expected before the meeting began.
Third, whether or not the faculty chooses to establish a Campus Planning Committee, the events around this motion underscore the importance of faculty committees in our governance structure. One reason often cited for low attendance is that nothing of importance happens at the faculty meetings, that agenda business isn’t controversial. I would argue that this is a feature of our system, not a bug. Most motions brought to the faculty are developed first in one or more faculty standing committees, which carefully vet them and consult with appropriate stakeholders. If faculty committees do their jobs well, most motions will be noncontroversial when voted on by the faculty.
Finally, groups who bring proposals to faculty standing committees are often frustrated by the process, sometimes justifiably so. It’s time consuming, and may involve several rounds of iterations as each committee with jurisdiction considers the proposal. But the committee vetting process ultimately benefits many proposals, and can help groups prepare motions that are more likely to succeed once they reach the faculty meeting.
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