Are We Moving Toward a Two-Class
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Thus far in my 15 years at MIT, during which time I have witnessed five department heads, four Deans of Engineering, and three Institute Presidents, I have had no reason to believe that this august academic institution could be under any threat. Quite the contrary, in my firm belief in the principle of scholarly equality, I even encouraged senior colleagues in both research and industry to consider research scientist and lecturer positions at MIT, and managed to attract some of them to join our community and to participate in our commitment to MIT’s excellence in research and education.
But as I recently have come to realize, our colleagues in the non-tenure track are highly vulnerable to intrinsic inequities built into our (still imperfect) system.
My wake-up call came with the appointment of a new department head. He believes strongly that only faculty should lead research projects and that only they should teach most subjects. Since the positions of the non-tenure track staff is at the pleasure of the departments, this change in policy immediately overruled the historical balance between tenured and non-tenured personnel, and exposed our non-tenure track colleagues to an unprecedented level of vulnerability. It opened the door for the termination of the excellent careers of many who had devoted years – or even decades – of their lives and talents to our institution. But don’t get me wrong: This article is not about departmental policies, per se, or about department heads and their considerable executive power, given that this is an administrative structure that has worked very well for our Institute. Instead, it is about the vulnerability of our colleagues in research scientist and lecturer positions to changes in the administrative chain and policies.
Over the past year in the new administration, I have seen the careers of some of the most gifted and transformational researchers-lecturers at the Institute come to an end. I witnessed the sudden change in the covenant between the administration and non-tenured research scientists and lecturers concerning the terms and conditions of their employment, with previous agreements with past department heads either voided or ignored. I have learned about the termination of their office and/or lab space allocation, and the cancellation of their administrative services by the department. On account of their eminent status beyond the walls of MIT, many have simply given up and resigned, and have sought more equitable employment elsewhere.
This vulnerability of a subset of our community to changes in the administrative chain exposes a true flaw in our system, which I believe endangers the very research and educational fabric that defines our community. I fear that this flaw makes us de facto a two-class society.
And then I realized that MIT’s non-tenure-track faculty is not alone in this predicament. In an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe of February 2, 2014 entitled “The invisible Professor: On most campuses, adjuncts are an undervalued, invisible population,” Jay Atkinson provides testimony of what some have come to call a “national crisis of academic labor.” It is regrettable that MIT should be part of that crisis, and that the dual peril to non-tenure-track colleagues described by Atkinson should take also place at MIT: unequal pay and absence of job security. [As a data point, the non-tenured teaching staff in my department often carry out their teaching duties at pay levels far below market rates. Pay for a 12-unit subject typically equals 30-40% of the price of a graduate teaching assistant (for the same time period)! In a survey of space allocation in my department, I also found out that office space allocation to faculty exceeds by 100% the office space allocated to full-time scientists and lecturers.]
My own sense is that this is an issue in urgent need of being addressed by the Institute. It is my belief that we faculty need to take a firm stand, irrespective of our tenure-status, and live up to the standards of the “MIT-Family.” Given our demonstrated ability to solve hard problems with bold ideas and inspired solutions, MIT should act now to redress this injustice, and lead the way out of this crisis of academic labor. The 1999 landmark "Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT" is a possible model for inspiration.
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