A Frog in Water
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By the mid-1970s other universities attempted to copy the prosperous “research universities.” They hired our graduating doctoral students. The State universities asked for new facilities and staff from their legislatures. Their successes at becoming elite research institutions were marginal. There is more to creating the culture and intensity of an MIT or a CalTech than buildings and money as so many other universities around the world have proven over the past 50 years.
The culture of MIT resides in the people who make up the Institute. Some complain that MIT is too inbred; but some inbreeding is necessary to preserve the culture to excel, to think creatively, to have the humility to know one’s limitations, to be in an environment where others of similar qualities can help us overcome our individual weaknesses.
The balance of accepting people from all world cultures while preserving enough inbreeding to perpetuate the culture that started with William Barton Rogers and was established over our first 100 years is essential to our future success. We attract the best and the brightest students and we should not fear keeping some of them, especially those who understand the legacy of MIT.
With their limited success in competing with the research universities for federal grants, the other 250 universities changed their tactics and made their case directly to Congress. Research grants should be distributed geographically since citizens from every state paid taxes, and many of these other universities had even better football teams than MIT. Who could argue with such logic? Pork barrel funding of research and geographical quotas became new metrics for receiving a research grant. Although Congress expanded the funding several fold, the 10-fold increase in universities seeking grants caused the success rate of grants to fall dramatically. The 25 percent rate at NSF fell to 5 percent, and if you were from one of those overfunded traditional research universities, your prospects were dim. No more than one federal grant per investigator became a measure of equal opportunity.
Obvious excesses, such as Stanford’s funding of its alumni party yacht, were in the news. The old agreements that federal agencies would pay the full cost of research were unilaterally withdrawn by the new leaders in Washington. These new administrators in the funding agencies were babies when Congress lured the original few research universities with promises of new buildings, fellowships, grants, and the like. MIT took some serious financial hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to these broken agreements by Washington. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, MIT took additional financial hits by hardening faculty salaries, although the rule of one subject per semester for science and engineering faculty was not changed. The faculty numbers might not grow, but neither would they shrink. Through the strong economy and the generosity of alumni, the Institute survived the 1990s academic financial crisis.
With the 1990s financial crisis and new government regulations (I also believe as we passed the billion dollar per year budget mark) MIT added administrative staff and new regulations both external and internal. A faculty member now has to respond to new paperwork, new internal oversight with the attendant decrease in quality of life and time for academic scholarship.
With the new competition from our former students who are now faculty at competing universities, and the lower success rate of proposals, we are forced to steal time from our students, our research, and our teaching. As difficult as I thought my own time was as a junior faculty member, I would not want to endure what the junior faculty today have to endure in seeking funding from Washington. I am not sure I could adapt to the environment they face today. Surely we give them more start-up resources, but they compete in a larger world. They must not only sell the intellectual merit of their ideas, they must package the ideas for the approval of Wall Street and others. The junior faculty (and the senior faculty) are no longer being judged by their scientific peers; everyone criticizes their ideas. This is not the path to the best science; scientific research is not a populist enterprise.
Compared to 40 years ago, the faculty spend too much of their time writing proposals as opposed to doing the research; filling out paperwork rather than teaching; and sitting in meetings with well-paid administrators who have never been on the faculty and who do not understand how to teach and mentor students.
The environment has changed; the frog’s water is slowly getting hotter and we do not seem to notice.
In Part II I will explore the broader and longer-term consequences of these changes in our environment.
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