Our Faculty Agenda
This article, by then MIT Faculty Chair Rafael L. Bras, is reprinted from the Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XVI No. 4, February/March 2004.
The faculty of MIT is a very diverse group who see the Institute through the lenses of schools and units with different cultures and experiences. The above is the overarching conclusion I reached during my visit last school year to practically all academic units of the Institute.
The idea of visiting each unit arose from the realization that the position of chair of the faculty is poorly defined and even less understood, and by the fact that in my 27 years in the faculty I do not recall a visit by a chair, at least to my departments. Steve Graves, outgoing chair, resonated with the idea and we embarked on a nine-month long trip.
The focus of the meetings was a discussion of issues that could become the faculty agenda over the next few years. Following I will try to discuss six of those issues and attempt to summarize the feedback received. It should be clear that any one of these issues is sufficient to occupy us for some time, and that furthermore the issues are not independent - addressing one will have impact on others. That interconnectivity should be the key to a successful engagement strategy.
Is the system of faculty governance working? Is the faculty informed and involved in important policy decisions? What are the mechanisms for faculty input in the business of MIT? Why are faculty meetings so poorly attended?
MIT’s system of faculty governance has been in place for a long while, dating to the time when the Institute was a fairly small organization. It is quite unique among universities. At MIT, the president of the Institute also holds the title of President of the Faculty. As such, the president chairs faculty meetings and, with the provost, chancellor, and officers of the faculty sets the agenda of the meetings. The current officers of the faculty are the Secretary (Ken Manning), Associate Chair (Paola Rizzoli), and Chair. All of us were identified by a nominating committee and “voted” into office by the faculty at large - the few that showed up to that particular faculty meeting. The chair of the faculty floats in the organization diagram, under the president, in parallel to other officers of the Institute, but has no staff or budget and her/his appointment lasts for two years. The influence of the chair as a representative of the faculty lies in the fact that he/she sits on Academic Council and the Deans sub group. Equally important, the chair has good access to the president and works closely and collaboratively with him in a myriad of issues, large and small. As chair of the Faculty Policy Committee, the position also influences all the standing committees of the faculty.
Faculty committees are where all the work is done. Some committees are extremely powerful and influential; others struggle with defining a substantial agenda. Less than 10 percent of the faculty are involved in standing committees and even fewer are the number of faculty that consistently influence the decision-making in the Institute through standing committees. But at any one time there are probably as many presidential or ad hoc committees and task forces active, which do a significant portion of the important work. These are generally appointed by the president, normally in consultation with the chair of the faculty.
The opportunity for the faculty at large to influence the governance exists in the monthly faculty meetings, which are very poorly attended. Discussions during departmental meetings yielded three main reasons for faculty not attending the monthly meetings. Many feel that the issues discussed are unimportant. Many argue that all decisions are effectively made before they reach the floor of the faculty meeting and hence their influence is very limited. Many state that they are too busy and that the timing of the meetings is inconvenient. I believe all of the above are true.
Some are happy with that state of affairs and argue that the committees do their work well and that they will attend faculty meetings when the occasion demands it. Others simply have given up for the reasons stated above, and are somewhat cynical.
My own sense is somewhat in the middle. I do feel that the faculty at large is not participating in the decision process to the extent that it should. I also believe that the governance system works because of a long tradition of inspired and quality leadership, but could become unstable in times of financial and other stress, when difficult decisions need to be made. To make the analogy to New England towns: Is it time to move from a town meeting of the whole to a representative town meeting where the responsibility to represent the opinion of the faculty resides in a significant subset of the faculty?
I invite your thoughts on faculty governance in general. I will revisit the topic in future columns. I have asked the Faculty Administration Committee to do a quick assessment of our system and catalog the models of other institutions.
The Institute has taken a very proactive and visible position in favor of diversifying the faculty in terms of gender and race. The Women in Science report and the more recent companion papers dealing with the four other schools have been influential in and out of the Institute. There is no doubt that consciousness has been raised. Many would argue that we have turned the corner and that biases in hiring, retention, and promotion of women are on the way out. Indeed we have had very successful hiring seasons over the past few years, with excellent women joining the faculty. This was particularly true in some of the departments in the School of Engineering. My own sense is that it is too early to claim victory. We still need to prove that we can retain women on the faculty and that we can keep up the hiring pace that will be necessary to make a difference in a reasonable time frame.
In the case of underrepresented minority faculty I believe, and most agree, that we have failed in hiring and in retention. We have not made progress. We need to do better. Pipeline arguments are the most common explanation provided for this failure. The same argument used to be made for the past failure to hire women. I did not believe it then and I do not believe it now.
The great majority of the faculty I met agreed that this is an issue we can and should address, working closely with the Council for Faculty Diversity. Nevertheless, the feeling was not unanimous. The officers of the faculty and the administration do feel that we can and should do something about hiring more minorities and keeping the momentum in the hiring of women.
There is nothing that consumes more time, hundreds of person-hours, of administration and faculty deliberation than promotions. There is probably nothing more important. There is universal agreement that the overall quality of our faculty is excellent and that we must keep it that way, hence the promotion and tenure processes are extremely important.
If promotion and tenure are time consuming to senior faculty and administration, they are nerve wracking to most junior faculty. During my conversations with junior faculty I was surprised at their perception of the process. Many see it as less than transparent. Many do not understand the mechanics of the process. Many feel that the signals they receive relative to what constitutes a successful case are mixed and confused.
MIT has three main promotion steps: assistant to associate without tenure (AWOT); AWOT to associate with tenure; associate with tenure to full professor. All the promotions essentially involve outside evaluation letters, inside evaluation letters, personnel record and personal statement, and a written statement by the department head. The promotions are generally vetted by sub-units, senior department faculty, school councils, Academic Council, and ultimately the Corporation. Except for the corporation, cases are known to fail in all steps, albeit with decreasing frequency as they move up the decision ladder. Should all promotions receive the same treatment? Should the criteria be the same for all levels of the decision process? Are all those promotions necessary? For example, is AWOT a necessary step? Should tenure imply full professorship? The five schools and even some departments differ on answers.
Finally there is the issue of consistency in the process, particularly from year to year as the decision-making bodies and the institutional culture evolves. Given the necessarily subjective nature of all decisions, this is a difficult and almost impossible issue to resolve. One could argue that the decisions are necessarily absolute judgments and comparisons meaningless. Every situation, like every individual, is unique.
Quality of Life
The results of the survey distributed last fall on the quality of life of faculty and staff, were disturbing. It is clear that we are all working significantly harder than a decade ago. For the most part all faculty feel that pace and pressure is increasing to the detriment of their life. But even more disturbing is the fact that the level of unhappiness and stress reaches alarming levels, particularly for younger faculty and women. There were not enough minorities in the survey to gauge their condition. Almost all faculty responded enthusiastically to this issue. Ironically, few had read the Quality of Life report and even fewer had attended the faculty meeting dedicated to its discussion. Once again, the failures of governance do impact our ability to influence our well being.
The survey identified individual actions that could improve the quality of life of faculty and staff. They range from housing programs to child care. These do have solutions and the provost is trying, through several working groups, to come up with action plans. More difficult to deal with is the pervasive culture of increasing demands on our time. Some argue that our hyperactive personalities are responsible. Maybe partly so, but I believe that we find ourselves caught in a web of internal and peer pressure to respond to too many initiatives and opportunities, or mandates, which we cannot control or influence.
The discussion of undergraduate education took several dimensions. First, is it necessary for all programs to have viable undergraduate majors? In fact, times have changed so that in many disciplines graduate education is a necessity and undergraduate education in a particular field is, on its own, of little value. Even in fields of engineering the first professional degree is quickly becoming the Masters degree. Is a major in management science consistent with the philosophy of the professional MBA, which is the core of the business/management education nationwide? In some schools and departments of the Institute, a lack of undergraduate students is the source of much anxiety. That the same unit has a very successful graduate education program does not matter much, particularly in the competition for resources. The reality of MIT is nevertheless that we live and die by research and its inseparable education of graduate students, yet for some units a graduate program alone is not a viable option.
Second, should we worry about the fact that a handful of departments have the overwhelming majority of undergraduates? This imbalance reflects our entrenched belief that students vote with their feet and they are in turn very sensitive to markets, public perception and, more importantly, peer pressure. Selection of majors is highly non-linear. It is very hard to choose a small major when during your first year you never meet (particularly within the housing system) an individual in that major. On the other hand, when four-tenths of your peers are, for example, EECS majors, it is easy to enthusiastically embrace what is, after all, a good program. The quandary we face is that if we truly want to be a university we must maintain a diversity of programs, attracting a diversity of students with varied interests.
Third, and certainly most urgent, is the discussion of our educational core. In essence, the concept behind our educational commons, which defines an MIT student, has not changed much in 50 years. Yes, we have added courses, redefined HASS requirements, changed the content of courses. But basically we still require largely the same body of knowledge that the Lewis Report defined some 50 years ago. Yet MIT and its students have changed a lot since then. We have all new fields of endeavors. Management science is one of the largest majors. Humanities and social sciences have gone far beyond playing a service role for engineers and scientists. Professional education means something very different nowadays. Demographically our students are very different. The administration and the dean of students are seriously exploring initiating a major effort to review our undergraduate education, particularly its common. Discussions started in earnest during a retreat this past August 20th. The president, chancellor, provost, and all academic deans are involved in the discussion. The Faculty Policy Committee will discuss it September 4. Input from all of you would be welcomed.
The discussion on graduate education is also multi dimensional and inseparable from that of undergraduate education. Foremost is what I call the schizophrenia that we have between undergraduate and graduate education and to which I alluded in the previous section. MIT depends on its excellence in graduate education. As a research educational institution it could not survive without it. But in many ways graduate education, the realm of academic units and individual faculty, gets short changed in the discussions at the center of the institution where undergraduate education, in my opinion, dominates. The bottom line is that we must excel in both and nobody is going to compromise on that point. To continue to excel, though, we must elevate the discussions of graduate education and provide a better forum for it at the policy discussions that occur at the highest level of the Institute.
Is the balance between the number of graduate and undergraduate students correct (approximately 6200 vs. 4200)? How can we reconcile increasing sponsored research (generally a very good thing) and the idea of controlling the graduate student population? How do we keep our competitiveness in terms of cost of graduate students stipends and tuition, in an atmosphere of increasing cost of living for the students and decreasing Institute resources to subsidize graduate student education?
On another topic, we must keep vigilant to maintain our education accessible to foreigners, while at the same time encouraging U.S. citizens to pursue graduate studies, particularly at the doctoral level. This is particularly true in the case of women and minorities that begin to leak out of the pipeline in graduate school.
It should be clear that we do not lack agendas for the next few years. I expect to initiate efforts to address at least some of the above issues during my two-year tenure as chair of the faculty. Honestly, I do not expect that many of the major issues will be fully discussed or resolved, if there is a need to resolve anything, in the next two years. But jointly we can try. To do so, I beg you to consider getting more involved in faculty governance. Let’s make the meetings worth attending and let’s have open debates on many of these issues. For that, you must participate.
Underlying all of the above is the unpleasant budgetary reality that we will face in the next two years. The budget crunch is real and serious and you will hear more about it soon. The president, the provost, and many others are working very hard on this issue, and I hope we can arrange for them to address us frequently. I urge you to pay attention and attend at every opportunity, because it will affect all of us and all of us need to cooperate to weather the tight times to come. Nevertheless, I think everybody I have heard is enthusiastic about the direction of the Institute and the opportunities that we have and must take. The budget issue will be resolved and, as usual, we will come back stronger.
Let me end with one promise. I will not write this long again!