MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVIII No. 3
January / February 2016
Improving Faculty Governance
For Changing Times
Is This Really Who We Are?
Constraints on Civilian R&D Budgets
From Excessive Pentagon Spending
The Roles of the Standing Committees of the Faculty in the Governance of MIT
Introducing Sandbox
A Critical Look at the Plan
for MIT's East Campus
Our Faculty Agenda
MIT Campus Research Expenditures
Printable Version


Improving Faculty Governance For Changing Times


In this issue, Faculty Chair Prof. Krishna Rajagopal describes in detail the role of the Standing Committees of the Faculty in ensuring a smooth governance process for the Institute, and also refers to a prior column by previous Faculty Chair Tom Kochan. Many close observers of MIT have noted its unusual governance, lacking a faculty association or faculty senate, so that no faculty not serving on standing committees are delegated responsibility for governance, and all committees are in essence joint committees of the faculty and the administration.

The health of MIT as an institution depends on the contributions of all of its sectors: students, faculty, staff, and administration. The Faculty Newsletter, since its inception, has attended to the singularly important role of the faculty in ensuring the quality of both the educational and research functions of the Institute, its deepest social missions. Thus we continue to be sensitive to the question of whether faculty concerns, experiences, and views remain central in MIT governance.

MIT’s academic governance is built on the assumption that parts done well will produce a good whole. Joint faculty/administration committees are indeed effective for dealing with routine issues that don’t challenge the organizational culture of the Institute. However, the standing committees sometimes become more occupied with rejecting undesirable change, than seeking productive change. Krishna carefully points out how they improve proposals, but the system is not structured to encourage innovation and/or ensure that our overall strategy is appropriate.

When deeper issues arise, the committee mechanism has often proved inadequate for ensuring the full range of faculty discussion, debate, accountability, and action. For example, over the past few years, a number of issues arose that needed broader consideration than was provided by the committee system; two of these are a) the decision to use the East Campus for commercial real estate development, rather than fill the deep need of graduate students for affordable on-campus housing; and b) the recent “Open Letter to President Reif” signed by 83 faculty, calling on MIT to divest from its investments in fossil fuel firms. Other earlier examples include the inequity between male and female faculty, the slow rate of recruitment of minority faculty, and the dissolution of the Department of Applied Biological Sciences, (which gave rise to the FNL).

In fact, in both of those two recent cases, numerous faculty who were not then serving on standing committees had serious interest in the resolution of the issues; however, substantial debate was relegated to special forums where the faculty had no power to move a resolution, censor a position, or take any other form of effective action. As noted by Prof. Kochan, in these situations further committees tend to be constituted which may or may not provide truly democratic input. They generally are appointed, as the faculty – with no organizational or parliamentary structure – has no mechanism to ensure that its full range of views are represented in such bodies.

From this point of view, it is worthwhile to read the views of a previous Faculty Chair, Rafael Bras, reprinted within, whose assessment of the committee system was much more ambiguous. Bras was more sharply aware of the failures of the committee system – failure to ensure equity between male and female faculty, failure to ensure that the diversity of the Institute faculty and student bodies was growing as fast as was needed.

The existing form of the faculty meetings where few attend, and those that do attend have no delegated authority, is one of the weakest forms of democratic governance, and is eschewed by institutions who have faculty senates or associations, as well as by most towns, cities, and states.

To quote Prof. Bras: “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?”

The academy is hardly trusted more than our political system. Does our existing governance system encourage the changes needed to remain a leading institution? Digital media, intelligent systems, brain science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, etc., are all changing much more rapidly than our education programs. Students face very different career choices and constraints. What part of our governance system is encouraging change rather than selectively resisting changes? Our colleagues are up to their ears with research and teaching. Unless they are charged with overseeing the Institute as a whole, they are not likely to do so. Thus the argument for true delegation and representation.

Some Modest Proposals

The Institute would be served better by a governance system in which faculty members were elected to a governing body by their peers (by department, for instance) to represent them, thus ensuring that the faculty meetings provided a representative governance function. An alternative would be to enlarge the Faculty Policy Committee and have its members nominated and elected from academic units. (This would also solve the embarrassing problem of faculty meetings, which repeatedly come close to failing to reach a quorum.) An additional reform would be for primary responsibilities of the Chair of the Faculty to include actually chairing the faculty meetings, and ensuring that the views of faculty were expressed and heard. The faculty as a group – who bring in much of the total income of the Institute – should also have their own modest budget to support initiatives that might not be valued by the administration. (For example, we know from letters to the Newsletter that Research Associates and junior faculty often have serious housing problems, but this issue has never been seriously studied or addressed at MIT.)

Please click here for the complete text of Prof. Bras’ comments from 2004.

Editorial Subcommittee

Christopher Cummins
Woodie Flowers
Jonathan King

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