The Faculty Role in Building and Sustaining Community
MIT’s Mission Statement:
MIT is a special community. We are guided by values (e.g., integrity, excellence, curiosity, openness to exploration) and dedicated both to generating and disseminating knowledge and to identifying and addressing the world’s most important challenges. We attract some of the most talented and creative young people in the world.
We are entrusted with the task of preparing these young people to apply knowledge and wisdom to solving the world’s problems, both technical and nontechnical. If our students are to work and lead with confidence and maximum impact, they need more from us than problem sets and lectures. They need our experience and values.
How can we best transmit this knowledge to them? We must not assume that our students will absorb our values, perspectives, and life lessons through mere proximity. We need to be proactive in engaging our students. And we need to better appreciate how valuable our reflection and wisdom are to these young, brilliant minds.
Some years ago, when I served as MIT’s Chancellor, I was interested in developing a set of curricula and co-curricular activities that would emphasize leadership development. I wanted the faculty to be involved, and I engaged several faculty members about this initiative. One of these faculty members protested that he was a science professor, not a professor of leadership, and he did not have time to participate because of his responsibilities leading and developing scholarly activities and providing leadership on various MIT committees and within his department.
I couldn’t ignore the irony. Although he and others I approached were major leaders in their fields, in the community, and at MIT, they did not consider themselves live models for leadership. But the fact is that they are. They model our ideals, challenging convention, taking calculated risks, championing inclusiveness, mentoring new people, and fostering global collaboration, and they also model styles of engagement and coping that our students need to learn if they are to succeed.
Each MIT faculty member has a special opportunity to impart habits of mind and styles of leadership to students. But few students have any exposure to these other dimensions of faculty, which shine most brightly outside of lecture halls and labs. By declining to share their experience, these colleagues missed opportunities to expose students to the complex social technology of caring and inclusion.
A “respectful and caring community” is not merely tolerant and civil. It is not uniformly neutral to issues, and it doesn’t repress difference. At MIT, we take on hard problems such as honoring differences and attempting to learn from them, so that we can receive the best each person has to offer, and work for a world where the benefits of progress help all to advance. We regard difference as an asset to be used, not a convenient filter for exclusion.
The statement President Reif delivered when he took office reminded us that leadership is neither mechanical nor sterile, but grounded in commitments to “meritocracy and integrity,” “excellence,” “care for the MIT community,” “equity and inclusion,” and “[teaching students] not only the rigor of their disciplines, but also how to use their gifts, and human values that make those gifts worthwhile.”
So, as faculty, how do we harvest and share our experiences and our values in action? There are several approaches I would suggest.
First, I believe that we should share our personal journeys with our students. We collectively possess a remarkable array of stories of resilience, success against the odds, and cultural integration. We are the products of many transitions, from many cultures, and from backgrounds of poverty as well as privilege. We have lived multicultural lives. We have embraced challenges and made contributions that extend far beyond our disciplines.
Moreover, each of us is on a leadership journey, but we rarely even acknowledge this, let alone compare notes. Our faculty could tell hundreds of stories of overcoming shyness, rising to the occasion, growing into different roles, and dealing with failure and loss. But we don’t often tell these stories. To do so, we will need to overcome any resistance we have to sharing our wisdom.
Our personal stories are of great value not only to doctoral students but to all students who will take similar journeys, regardless of their ultimate destinations. Students don’t always get to hear these stories from their families of origin.
When we share our object lessons with eager learners, we help them manage their own fears of the unknown, and we shine a light on paths by which they can achieve their aspirations. This will not be easy but we have created community solutions to far more complex problems.
The second approach I would suggest is to enlist our spirit of entrepreneurship. Derived from the French verb entreprendre, to undertake, entrepreneurship is central to MIT’s legacy. Entrepreneurs don’t just theorize or dream – they take action. Our history underscores the power of this narrative as an institutional tradition. We should encourage students to apply this concept to their roles in the MIT community as practice for a life of taking initiative, risks, and responsibility.
Students are already comfortable seeking recognition for the clever machines and software they invent. This enthusiasm can be expanded to social invention and learning. Student embrace of public service signals a readiness for these opportunities. If students recognize an unmet need, at MIT or elsewhere, we should encourage and support them in addressing it. A legacy of involving students in all aspects of our institutional life means that we can be joint agents with students, supporting and advising them, and engaging them as partners.
The final approach I would suggest is to teach our students how to lead in non-MIT communities.
There are three basic strategies we can use to do this. The first is to teach the theory and methods of analysis and change. We do a decent job of this. The second is to involve students in Institute affairs and provide them with practice opportunities to use the theory that they have been taught. We do a fair job of this. The third strategy, teaching students to understand themselves in an organizational or environmental context, is where we fall short.
By expanding our efforts and working with our student-life deans, we could help students situate themselves in organizational and community settings, including new and uncomfortable ones, and help them navigate the challenging, fundamental questions that often arise in such settings: Who are you? What are your responsibilities and opportunities in this setting? What knowledge do you need to obtain to understand what is going on? What talents do you bring to the table? What talents do others bring? How do you set goals for yourself, and how do you measure personal progress or success? What problem-solving approaches work best in this situation? What support do you need to be effective? How do you grow? How do you learn? From whom do you learn?
Students who leave MIT capable of framing such questions for themselves in novel settings with people different from themselves will be more capable of making an impact with the talents they possess. They will inspire all sorts of people to engage and embrace them. And they will be better equipped to create and sustain caring and respectful communities, wherever they go.
In the classroom, we can create opportunities to empower students in creating and sustaining caring and respectful communities. For example, if, as part of our teaching, we assign students to groups, or we encourage students to form groups, we can take the next step of helping them use these group opportunities to address some of the core questions noted above and, in any case, make the group a learning community that works for all. Students can subsequently use this experience in other kinds of groups and relationships on campus. Over the course of their time, students will get progressively more challenging opportunities to lead and to follow.
The report Advancing a Respectful and Caring Community provides important insight into our community and offers valuable suggestions for how we can advance our community goals and enrich the student experience. In particular, the report suggests actionable steps by which we can more strongly activate our core values and make them more real. Our suggestions for the faculty here can play a role in many of the report’s recommendations. Faculty embrace of these recommendations would normalize these ideas for students, reinforce administrative leadership, and empower all staff – not just those with formal student-life responsibilities – to implement them.