MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXI No. 5
May / June 2019
The Danger to Civilian Science
from the Growing Pentagon Budget
Greetings to You the Graduates –
And to Your Families!
Time to Up Our Game
An Update on MIT's Climate Action Plan
Rick Danheiser New Faculty Chair
Random Faculty Dinner Notes
Academic Year 2018-2019
Hayden Library Renovation:
What You Should Know
Introducing the Faculty Committee
on Campus Planning
Should MIT Break All Ties With Saudi Arabia?
U. S. Discretionary Spending 2017
Printable Version

Random Faculty Dinner Notes
Academic Year 2018-2019

W. Craig Carter

The monthly Random Faculty Dinners continue Samuel Jay Keyser’s tradition of convening faculty from across the Institute for a meal and collegial chat. Toward the end of the meal, Jay would initiate a conversation by asking the faculty guests, “What is on you mind?” We continue to ask Jay’s question at the monthly dinners, regularly hearing candid viewpoints and poignant questions. The lively discussions are informative, and often surprising.

Each conversation is summarized – with care not to identify the discussants – and communicated to the upper Administration. Thus, the dinner conversations provide a venue for collecting observations from across the Institute while providing a potent vehicle for communicating faculty perspectives to the Administration.

Jay Keyser, Faculty Chair Susan Silbey, and I believe the conversations provide a snapshot of current faculty opinion and deserve to be circulated broadly. Therefore, we summarize what was on the faculty’s mind this past academic year. We do not adjudicate nor synthesize across the various voices.

Here are some of the recurrent themes:

1. The creation and implications of the Schwarzman College of Computing.
2. MIT’s engagement with Saudi Arabia.
3. The nature of our students and increasing levels of stress.
4. The undergraduate curriculum and the GIR experiment.
5. Rising cost of living in Cambridge and Boston and its implications for faculty housing.
6. Climate Change.
7. Overspecialization and its educational implication.

1. The creation and implications of the Schwarzman College of Computing (SCoC)

There were many opinions and assumptions about the how the SCoC would be structured. Faculty raised concerns about the rate at which the SCoC was created and academic decisions may be taking shape. A principal concern was that faculty were not given reasonable time to deliberate, or to ask the question whether the SCoC was even necessary. They felt that there was no time or venue for collective dissent, or to suggest guidelines that ensure that the mission is not led astray. As a counterpoint, venues for discussion and input were created and more than 100 faculty are participating in working groups.

Uncertainty about the future of EECS (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) and involvement of faculty around the Institute were concerns. Faculty reacted to rumors that EECS might be broken up, or might relocate as a group into the SCoC. The former choice may have adverse consequences for a universally recognized excellent department; the latter may create a bloc that would foil cross-School involvement. There were concerns that the SCoC is an attempt to fix internal (and public) squabbles within EECS and that the SCoC is the wrong way to do this. There is worry that the bridge-to-other-Schools model would fail and that many faculty would be hindered from participating.

Faculty see the SCoC as an opportunity for MIT to influence the moral hazards of artificial intelligence and the effects of the Internet on democracy, as it seems to enable coalitions of nefarious actors. Faculty want to ensure that this mission is not lost, and that multidisciplinary approaches and considerations are applied.

2. MIT’s engagement with Saudi Arabia

Faculty ask whether we have general guidelines for engagement with other countries. This question addressed President Reif’s meeting with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, as well as new or renewed engagements with Saudi Arabia. Some faculty expressed frustration that they had no influence on such decisions and had limited venues for dissent although the Institute’s name gets attached to these actions. This frustration was not limited to the issue of international engagements with problematic nations, but other issues including the invitation of Henry Kissinger to attend the opening ceremony of the SCoC.

It was pointed out that Associate Provost Richard Lester did circulate a request-for-comment and received substantial input, although faculty participation was low. (Limited faculty participation was a common refrain and not limited to this topic). Faculty comments were varied, but there was significant criticism of MIT’s engagement. As a consequence, President Reif has asked Faculty Chair Susan Silbey to form a faculty committee to deliberate and construct general guidelines for external engagement.

3. The nature of our students and increasing levels of stress

Discussions focused on recently circulated reports of a striking increase in self-reported student stress and melancholy. Eighty-three percent of the student respondents indicated that managing their course load was moderately or very stressful; overcommitment and concerns about the future were 70% and 65%. There are reports of similar trends at peer institutions showing increases over the last five years. (Authors’ note: Examination of the 2015 and 2019 enrolled student survey indicates that there is not a significant difference in self-reported stress: however, there is an increase in students’ reporting feeling being overwhelmed: downloaded 15 May 2019.)

It was generally agreed that MIT’s culture exacerbates stress, but that this is a national – if not global – trend. A member advising first-year students for many years remarked that such stress is observable in students when they arrive and before classes start, and has noticeably escalated.

There was general agreement that faculty have not changed the amount of work we are giving the students; in other words, MIT hasn’t changed – the issue is larger than that.

Some wondered if this is a parenting issue: undergraduate students are not prepared to deal with stressful environments. Or, whether constant distraction through digital media is leaving students unprepared for what we are asking them to do: that is, concentrate on one thing with dedicated focus for extended periods of time. Others commented that the number of courses in which students are enrolling is a symptom or a cause.

Others suggested that the stress may derive from a misplaced desire to become an instant celebrity, entrepreneur, or other objects of envy. MIT’s culture encourages this – not only in students but also in young faculty who specialize in and are rewarded for public affirmation. Others suggested sources of generalized anxiety from the financial crises that occurred within these students’ adolescence, climate change, or the polarized political environment.

It was suggested that there is a need to incorporate how to deal with stress and societal pressure into our curriculum and faculty culture.

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4. The undergraduate curriculum and the GIR experiment

Last summer, the CUP (Committee on the Undergraduate Program) sanctioned an experiment – for this year’s incoming students – in which the Science/Engineering/Mathematics portion of the General Institute Requirements (GIRs) could be taken Pass/No-Record (P/NR) at any time during the student’s years before graduation.

 There was general discontent that the SEM-GIR-P/NR decision was made over the summer. Some faculty felt as if oversight over curriculum had been relinquished. However, there is general agreement that MIT is about bold experiments which should be encouraged. The general discontent about this experiment took two forms: a) its curricular implications were ill considered; b) there was insufficient time to obtain faculty input.

Most faculty who spoke up agreed that the GIRs are foundational and exploratory – and the experiment sends the message that they are not. The motivation for the SEM-GIR-P/NR experiment – to encourage more exploration of majors – had the consequence of sending the message that the GIRs do not involve exploration; furthermore, the experiment sends a message that the GIRs are not to be taken seriously. There was anecdotal evidence that a fraction of students were completing only enough work to pass SEM-GIR subjects.

The first semester P/NR was designed to reduce stress and provide an opportunity for variations in student preparation before MIT to have a chance to equilibrate. Some incoming students were taking advanced topics for which they lacked prerequisites. This may increase stress, especially for those who are taking advanced subjects with the objective of getting an internship.

Some faculty voiced a fear that we are making MIT too easy in response to perceived institutional competition or perceptions that students want an easier path so they can have time to obtain other experiences. In particular, if MIT were to make things easier in response to perceived competition for students with other universities, then we will have lost what makes MIT special and decrease the value of the MIT brand.

Regarding the corollary effects of delayed GIRs, some believed that if a particular GIR has no direct bearing on a major, then it could be taken anytime. Others believed that learning a discipline without the context of fundamental GIR material created graduates who may be far too narrow in their understanding of the applications of their discipline.

The question is whether the GIRs should be designed for fundamental knowledge (as they are now) or whether they should be subjects that teach “skills of an educated person” for lifelong learning in the 21st century. For example, the GIRs could be organized around functions of “critical thinking,” “statistics,” “computing,” or “communication,” rather than around disciplines.

There was disagreement as to the extent to which students’ passion should influence curricular changes. Some believed that there is an obligation to provide opportunities for passionate projects or learning because that is the nature of the students admitted to MIT. Others thought that moderating freedom with a proscribed curriculum provides a more meaningful future passion, or allows the discovery of alternative passions. Others worried that we too often characterize the student body by focusing on a small set of the students.

5. Rising cost of living in Cambridge and Boston and its implications for faculty housing

The median sales price of homes in Cambridge has increased by a factor of three in the last 19 years; the current median price is currently just less than $1M. This price is likely to accelerate as MIT invests in Kendall Square and high-value companies locate nearby. Thus faculty costs of living are increasing more rapidly than their salaries and housing-assistance has not tracked housing costs: faculty express that we are a "victim of our own success."

There are many consequences of faculty housing costs: a) our ability to recruit junior faculty; b) stress associated with financial insecurity; c) the need to move ever farther from MIT which increases commute time and traffic; d) reduced engagement with on-campus activities.

Faculty point out that MIT plays a role as a landowner and a developer – why not do the same with real estate to benefit the MIT community? There were suggestions that MIT might invest in housing along the Red Line.

There was an interesting suggestion that – in parallel to student interest groups that organize around common interests and housing locations that appears to reduce student stress – faculty would benefit from living groups with shared interests. It was pointed out that faculty who were here in the 60s and early 70s would have valuable perspectives on such an endeavor.

6. Climate Change

Climate change was a recurring topic. It is viewed as a grave existential crisis and the most important problem conceivable. There is a consensus that MIT should – must – lead in mitigating climate change. Predictions of sea-level rise suggest that MIT would be under water – literally and metaphorically.

There is also consensus that technological fixes alone will not suffice. This is a problem that will require a multidisciplinary multi-dimensional approach.

Some wonder if the SCoC is a distraction from this more important problem. Others express hope that mitigating climate change might become a primary focus of the SCoC.

7. Overspecialization and its educational implication

Many of the senior faculty bemoan the trend towards overspecialization of disciplines and its effect on scholarship. Previously, MIT had a substantial fraction of its faculty who were generalists – meaning that they had a conceptual understanding about a general discipline and could rapidly comprehend connections to other disciplines, and/or fields within their own. It was recognized that the value of such faculty transcend their nominative contributions and their influence was extraordinary. Such faculty could describe what they do, relate it to what others do – and were also able to converse about topics from any of the five Schools.

MIT has embraced specialization at the expense of promoting generalists. We do this in the way we hire faculty, promote faculty, and reward faculty. Now, it is becoming rarer that two random faculty can have a substantive conversation. (It was remarked that many faculty who attend the random faculty dinners do so because it provides a venue for substantive conversation and that the frequency could be increased to afford more such opportunities.)

There was great enthusiasm for the Killian Lecture that Prof. Gerald Fink delivered on “The Cell.” Those who attended remarked how uplifting it was to hear a colleague give an educational and inspiring lecture. It was suggested that once a year is far too infrequent. Why not one such lecture a month? Or, certainly several times a year?

In part, the rules of the academic system have changed. Nevertheless, the disappearance of polymaths has a correlative effect on comprehensive education and on the quality of faculty life. A junior faculty attendee said, “I wish I had the courage to write fewer papers.”

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