MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVIII No. 4
March / April 2016
Some Steps Forward on Climate Action,
More Needed
Nuclear Weapons Divestment
Announced at MIT Conference
An Update on Climate Action
MIT and the Climate Challenge:
The Need for More Than Technical Solutions
An Updated Suggestion
Regarding Climate Change
A Century in Cambridge
Does MIT Really Need a Faculty Senate?
MIT Engineering Systems Division R. I. P.
LabArchives: Store and Organize
Your Research Data Online
Asking the Important Questions
Replanting Our Social
and Emotional Landscape
Defects in the MITIMCo Proposals
Questioning Construction Plans
for Kendall Square
Status of World Nuclear Forces
Printable Version

Does MIT Really Need a Faculty Senate?

Patrick Henry Winston

In the January/February 2016 issue of the Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XXVIII No. 3), the Editorial Board Editorial Subcommittee, noting low turnout at faculty meetings and other problems, called for an elected body – some sort of faculty senate perhaps.

I write in opposition. I believe we should ask not only where we are but also what we aspire to be. I believe at MIT we aspire to be a community in which the administration and the faculty are in harness together. An elected faculty senate would move us in the opposite direction. By its nature a faculty senate suggests there is an us and a them.
This is not to say we shouldn't argue. Any organization benefits from a family squabble now and then. Squabbles challenge sleepy thinking. Questioning everything is what we do at MIT. So when something big comes up, let us have arguments, let all sides be heard as much as they want to be, let us get angry, let decisions be made, let us then get over it and move on.

Wouldn't a faculty organization, with members duty-bound to show up at meetings, promote being heard, increase transparency, and lead to better decisions? I think not, because a faculty senate would end up being a big committee. I've been on many committees, small and large, unnoticed and prestigious, local and national, and all have been capable of hasty reviews that endorse bad ideas. If we have a problem, it is more likely to be noted and brought to light by passionate individuals, not by a faculty senate, and when I am one of the passionate individuals, I don't want a faculty senate sitting between me and the administration. I want to be heard directly. I don't want a layer of campus politicians misunderstanding or averaging my thoughts.

Instead of creating a faculty senate, full of opportunity for unintended consequences, I suggest we fix our faculty meetings and see what happens.

Here are obvious improvements:

  • There should be no faculty forums. Their content should to be moved to faculty meetings. The parliamentarian, equipped with a copy of Robert's Rules of Order, can figure out how to get us into a Committee of the Whole and back out again when someone wants to offer a motion.
  • No final report, with everything already decided, should be presented at a faculty meeting. That's what email is for.
  • Ad hoc committees should describe how their recommendations are trending in faculty meetings while debate can still matter. Hard work should not insulate the committee members from aggressive questioning.
  • We should restore question time. Without an easy means of asking for explanations, explanations tend to be hallucinated, and hallucinated explanations tend to be worse than real reasons.
  • The time appointed for our monthly faculty meetings should be sacrosanct, just like the 5-7 pm period set aside for athletics. Faculty meetings should not be competing with personnel committee meetings and job talks.
  • Faculty meetings should be at the beginning of the month not the end. It takes a pretty big issue to turn faculty out near Thanksgiving or right before the winter break. There is no faculty meeting during IAP. All this means there is no faculty meeting or not much of a faculty meeting in the four months between the end of October and the end of February.

And of course if we want faculty to show up, there should be a tradition that the agenda will include a presentation of sure and certain interest. Why not devote some time to the way admissions is done these days and how it has changed in the past decade, or to mental health trends and addiction problems, or to what alums are telling us as we pitch the campaign, or to where the administration hopes to go with professional programs and degrees, or to lessons learned from the Skolkovo enterprise, or to the concerns of the Corporation during the past year, or to new initiatives under consideration, or to whatever problems MIT's President is currently wrestling with. Surely in any given year there are eight such topics.

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