The Right to Vote; Prof. Woodie Flowers;
Undermining the Institute Professorships
The Right to Vote
The good news from the October Faculty Meeting was: a) the high attendance of faculty; and b) the announcement of the formation of the Senior Women’s Council independent of the Administration. The bad news was: a) once again the establishment by the Administration of two committees on Guidelines for Outside Engagements to tackle critical and contentious issues, unelected, and therefore not accountable to the faculty; and b) the voting down of the motion for a truly independent committee of the faculty elected by the entire faculty.
We interpret the latter vote as perhaps reflecting concerns of many members of the faculty that additional oversight of gifts, grants, or donations might somehow affect the flow of possible funding and impair their ability to solicit or accept anonymous gifts. This is a legitimate concern, but should be addressed by improving faculty-directed oversight, to work out actual guiding principles and procedures. Unfortunately, in part due to the hurried manner in which discussion and voting proceeded, this opportunity to expand the Faculty’s role in MIT governance has for the moment run aground.
As pointed out at the meeting, none of the 73 faculty who had signed the earlier letter of concern from Senior Women Faculty were included on the newly appointed Committee. None of the nine senior faculty who proposed the motion for an independent committee were appointed or approached.
The subsequent letter from President Reif on MIT culture hostile to women on our faculty and staff is a step forward in accurately describing existing problems. It was deeply disturbing, however, that the letter did not explicitly call for more fundamental reforms, such as correcting the omissions above, direct failures of representative governance, in a key process.
All over the country citizens are battling to ensure the right to vote, eroded by a multitude of pseudo-legal actions by state legislatures. Among current best-selling non-fiction is Eric Foner’s description of the struggles after the Civil War to enact the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which would guarantee voting rights for all. Yet at MIT in 2019, the committees of the Institute are still elected by the 4%-5% of the faculty who attend the meeting in which the committees are voted. All nominations come from the Nominations Committee, which is appointed by the President, and the number of nominees for each committee equals the number of open membership spaces, so no choices are offered to voters. Critical committees like the Ad Hoc Committee to review MIT’s external engagements, as well as the committee announced in October on guidelines for gifts and donations, are not elected either.
There are much better ways to proceed. The Editorial Board of this Newsletter is elected by electronic vote of all members of the faculty. Participation is far higher than for election of any of the standing committees. Since President Reif has called for suggestions on how to improve the culture at MIT, we propose six straightforward steps:
- Election of faculty to all committees should be electronic, allowing all members of the faculty to vote by closed ballot.
- Particularly important is that members of the Nominations Committee be nominated and elected directly by the faculty. Many organizations do this, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- The Institute Faculty Meetings should be chaired by the Chair of the Faculty, who should be elected.
- Some form of Faculty Senate needs to be established, so that faculty concerns can be voiced clearly and independently of the Administration’s interests.
- A Staff Council also needs to be established to give an independent voice to these stakeholders who also work here, making them a part of the governance process.
- The role and representation of MIT students in MIT governance needs to be strengthened, including through the currently elected undergraduate and graduate student councils.
Professor Woodie Flowers
Professor Woodie Flowers was a visionary, an agent of change at MIT, and a deeply valued member of the FNL Editorial Board.
In the 1970s, as the movement from empirical to theoretical studies in our undergraduate engineering classrooms was its peak, Woodie advocated strongly for a symbiotic balance, and then showed the way by developing the sophomore design class, 2.70, that became and remains a national model. Realizing the impact that designing can have on self-efficacy, Woodie scaled up the 2.70 design experience into the national FIRST program, the robotics competition for high school teams, which has touched millions of students. This continues to bring cadres of them to our front steps, positively affecting the diversity of our undergraduate population.
We went to Woodie for advice and input on every issue that touched on education and student development. His breadth of understanding of how young scientists and engineers develop and blossom was unparalleled among our colleagues. We will miss him greatly. (Please see "In Memoriam."
Undermining the Institute Professorships
Appointment as Institute Professors has long been a major means of honoring members of the faculty who have made particularly valuable contributions to MIT, to their disciplines, and to society. Recently two named Institute Professorships were announced, decided without broad faculty consultation: the John Deutch Institute Professor and the David Koch Institute Professor. We find it difficult to believe that there would be widespread faculty support for attaching the names of these individuals to the Institute Professorships.
Professor Deutch was responsible, as the Provost at the time, for the arbitrary termination of the former Department of Applied Biological Sciences, ignoring the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty. The immediate faculty outcry reversed the termination of the ABS Faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. Provost Deutch was almost formally censured by the faculty. The effort to protect our ABS colleagues was the origin of this Faculty Newsletter (see: "20th Anniversary of FNL: A Brief History of its Founding," MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XX No. 1). Responding to Deutch's support for biological and chemical weapons, Physics Professor Vera Kistiakowsky, an FNL founder, noted that "he has no business being in the education business." (The Tech, 27 May 1988, Vol. 108 Issue 26.) His problematic engagement at the CIA exemplified behavior that could hardly be held up as a model for the behavior of academics who move to the halls of government.
David Koch certainly did good things for MIT. But across the nation he used his wealth in efforts to undermine electoral democracy, to suppress regulation of environmental carcinogens, to subvert scientific evidence of climate change, and even the teaching of evolution. When journalist Jane Mayer published her carefully documented accounts (Dark Money) of the campaigns and influence of the Koch brothers, they tried hard to discredit her and limit her publication.
These are not the kinds of people that MIT Institute Professorships should be named after. Given that Institute Professorships are the highest honor we bestow on our colleagues, any sense of impropriety undermines the very integrity of the honor itself. These two named chairs are further examples of decisions that, although affecting the entire Institute, turn a deaf ear to the sensibilities and values of a great many members of the faculty.