MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVII No. 5
May / June 2015
A Letter to the Class of 2015
Interview with New MIT Corporation Chairman Robert Millard
Is Research the Soul of MIT?
Reflections on My Time
as Chair of the Faculty
Krishna Rajagopal New Faculty Chair
Federal Budget Priorities: Public Transit
Rather Than Nuclear Submarines
Professor Stephan Chorover
Launching a Next Generation
Sustainability Framework at MIT
Faculty Demographics
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

Reflections on My Time as Chair of the Faculty

Steven Hall

My term as Chair of the MIT faculty ends this summer, and it has been a joy and an honor to serve in that role. For my last column as Faculty Chair, I’d like to reflect briefly on the role, and talk about a few issues of ongoing interest for the faculty as a whole.

Around the time I agreed to become Chair, I realized I had spent two-thirds of my life at MIT. I was here for eight years as a student, earning SB, SM, and ScD degrees. I’ve been a member of the faculty for 30 years, active in faculty governance for many years, and an associate housemaster of Simmons Hall for seven years. Nonetheless, the role of Faculty Chair has brought some unique opportunities and given me new perspective on the institution I have called home for many years, by allowing me to see things I otherwise would not. The result has been confidence in the many areas where things are going well, and an opportunity to try to engage other faculty in areas where we might have more to contribute.

During my time as Chair, the administration has taken a positive and constructive approach to consulting the faculty on important issues, ranging from potential legal strategies to the challenging decisions around reorganizing academic units. Even when there are different views, having insight on decision-making processes has given me an appreciation for the administration’s commitment to acting in a deliberate, decisive, and principled way.

One responsibility of the Chair is to serve as a member of Academic Council and the Academic Appointments Subgroup. This is the Institute-wide council that hears appointment, promotion, and tenure cases after they have been heard by the appropriate School council.

Over the past two years, I have been repeatedly amazed at the quality and achievements of our faculty colleagues. Our newly tenured faculty are doing brilliant and innovative work. They are naturally multidisciplinary, blurring the lines between departments and Schools.

They care deeply about research and teaching, and the work they do is bold and audacious. They choose to tackle difficult and important problems that will have huge impacts on society and the planet. The chance to see just a slice of what our colleagues are doing across the Institute has been a joy.

I have also worked to represent faculty interests and concerns on such committees as the International Advisory Committee, the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, and the Collier Permanent Memorial Committee. The latter deserves a special word. The death of Officer Sean Collier was a blow to MIT and the larger community. The memorial committee sought input from the MIT community, and the response was inspiring, both for the depth of feeling for Officer Collier, and for the vision the community had for a fitting memorial. The memorial, designed by Professor Meejin Yoon and engineered in collaboration with Professor John Ochsendorf, beautifully captures that vision. All of us who served on the memorial committee are honored to have had a small part in the process.

MITx and edX

There are three issues that have dominated discussions over the past two years and can be expected to remain priorities in the near future. The first is MITx and, more generally, online learning. At almost every Random Faculty Dinner this year, the conversation seemed to turn to new technologies and concerns, that someday soon students will be taking all of their subjects in a dorm room instead of interacting with others in the classroom.

Debates about technology-driven educational initiatives aren’t new to MIT. When Project Athena was created in the 1980s, there were many projections about how it would change the residential classroom, but its ultimate impact was largely to provide ubiquitous computing to students, rather than on the classroom itself. The TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) project was launched in 2000 at the dawn of Web 2.0. TEAL has been enormously successful, but over time it’s become clear that TEAL is about active learning as much as the use of enabling technology.

Today, we are in the midst of the MITx and edX initiatives, driven in part by many of the technologies described by some as Web 3.0: efficient sharing of rich content, especially video; the near universal reach of the Internet, both to populations and personal devices; very high network speeds; and social networking. Many colleges see these technologies both as an opportunity to expand their reach, and as an existential threat if others are more successful at doing so. It’s too early to tell how this revolution will play out. If past experience is a guide, there will be valuable lessons learned for how we teach, and no doubt some technologies will emerge as essential components of future education.

Meanwhile, MITx has thrown a spotlight on inherent tensions in our mission and helped launch a number of important conversations about priorities. One trade-off is finding a middle ground between the desire to move quickly in developing innovative ideas and the desire to protect the quality of our existing residential education system. One approach that the faculty committees have taken is to approve curricular experiments, while seeking data to help understand different classroom experiences and outcomes.

MITx is driving important conversations about how we can improve residential education, and at the same time reach more learners across the world. Here there is a real opportunity for faculty to join the conversation. Everyone recognizes the promise and potential of lifelong learning, but how do we match our aspiration to provide broad access to education with the resources required to do so? How can new digital tools benefit our residential educational system? Is there an opportunity to rethink the structure of our programs, for example, by making them more modular, and if so, what does modularity really mean? In short, we need to continue developing the business case for online education and find the right fit with our residential system.

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Campus Planning and Capital Renewal

A second issue that has topped the faculty governance agenda is campus planning. Here again, I think a lot of progress has been made. The new faculty Committee on Campus Planning was stood up this past fall, and despite an inherently steep curve in getting up to speed, they have done important work in informing themselves about the many capital projects in progress and planned throughout the campus, and the issues raised by those projects. The members of the committee also serve on other standing and ad hoc committees, such as the Building Committee and the West Campus Study Steering Committee. Their role is to serve as a point of contact for anyone with questions or concerns and to ensure that faculty perspectives are heard before decisions are made. The committee has taken this charge very seriously and has been actively reaching out to hear from stakeholders.

On a related point, I think many faculty will agree that there has been significant progress in addressing capital renewal needs. MIT has for many years deferred maintenance on its buildings, and the results are apparent to anyone walking through campus. In the last few years, the administration has formulated a plan for reducing the levels of deferred maintenance, and has allocated significant resources for the repair and renewal of our physical plant. By next year, MIT will have completed the renovation and renewal of Building E52 (Economics) and Building 2 (Mathematics), as well as the landmark Kresge Auditorium and MIT Chapel. The renovation of Building 2 is especially significant, as it marks the beginning of the renovation of MIT’s Main Group, the historic buildings built 100 years ago when MIT moved from Boston to Cambridge.

In the longer term, work on the MIT.nano building has begun with the demolition of Building 12. Less visible are the numerous upgrades to the utilities infrastructure that will support MIT.nano and the rest of the MIT campus. MIT also has ambitious plans for the renewal of the East Campus area and Kendall Square, and for new dormitory space for both undergraduate and graduate students. There will certainly be many changes to campus during the term of the next Chair of the Faculty, and no doubt some disruption due to construction as well.

Student Life Issues

If there is one issue on my list that would benefit from greater faculty involvement, residential culture would be it. From sexual misconduct to mental health to housing policy, student life has been an increasingly visible topic of conversation on campus.

MIT’s unique residential culture forces us to make daily choices in how we manage competing values. For example, how do we balance autonomy of living groups with the need for discipline and safety? What is the right balance between making our residences welcoming and inclusive versus encouraging and allowing freedom of expression? Between individual choice and diversity? The debate around these issues is sometimes framed as issues of communication and transparency. I would argue that the central points of disagreement among students, faculty, and the administration are not around communication and process, but around values, and the choices that those values imply. To take one small example, in the last two years, MIT has substantially increased security in the dorms. As a housemaster, I no longer find people who don’t belong in Simmons Hall wandering its corridors, and I believe that our students are safer as a result. On the other hand, students miss the ability to spontaneously visit a friend in another dorm without signing in. No one is opposed to safety and security, or freedom and spontaneity, but people naturally may place higher emphasis on one or the other. If we as faculty think that the magic of MIT is partly about learning outside the classroom, then we should all be concerned with the experience of students in our residences, and there is an opportunity for the faculty to help define that experience through shared principles and values.

On all these issues (online learning, campus planning, student life), it is difficult to imagine that conversations could be managed by the administration or the Corporation alone. All three are fundamental to the academic mission of MIT and will require the serious participation of faculty and students.


In closing, I would like to wish my successor, Professor Krishna Rajagopal of Physics, all the best for the next two years. I would also like to offer my deepest thanks to my fellow officers, Associate Chair John Belcher and Secretary JoAnne Yates, and also to Lynsey Fitzpatrick, the Faculty Governance Administrator. Most of the work of faculty governance is done through faculty committees, and I’ve been especially fortunate to have had an extraordinarily good set of faculty chairs. Nearly every person I’ve asked to join or chair a committee has agreed to do so, and I’ve been enormously grateful to work with a faculty that cares so deeply about governance issues.

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