Catalyzing a Conversation
At the September Institute faculty meeting, one of us lamented the difficulty of knowing what to do regarding MIT’s receipt of gifts from Jeffrey Epstein. That difficulty challenged, and continues to confront, both the senior leadership team, who had to decide whether and how to accept gifts from a convicted sex offender, and the MIT Faculty, who must decide whether and how to reject poor judgment and weak leadership. The intervening months have brought greater clarity even as the list of concerns has grown and fueled a deepening crisis of leadership. This letter discusses aspects of MIT leadership and governance in the spirit of inconvenient truths, calls for both accountability and a strategic plan for governance and priorities, and seeks to catalyze a broad conversation for the future of MIT.
President Reif wrote in October 2019, “I have also heard very clearly that cultural change needs to be championed and supported by those in leadership, but that it cannot be dictated; to succeed, it requires that units across MIT define their own specific priorities and solutions.” Yet many women faculty have expressed concerns with the senior leadership. It is not up to department heads alone to handle problems of gender harassment. Some faculty leaders have indeed effectively advanced the professional success of women at MIT. The importance of this to all of MIT calls for stronger leadership from the President.
President Reif has told some of us in meetings with faculty in our departments last fall that the discontent of MIT staff he heard in October was news to him. In fact, the Institute Community and Equity Officer repeatedly raised concerns of staff to him and other members of the senior leadership, beginning in November 2013, when an entire Academic Council meeting was dedicated to this topic. In at least one departmental meeting this fall attended by a co-author of this letter, President Reif stated that the problem was treatment of staff in “academic units,” that is, by faculty, ignoring the serious morale and turnover problems in the MIT Libraries and other non-academic units. MIT’s leadership should continually assess and address staff concerns more effectively.
The Administration has not addressed openly the harm to MIT caused by the declining satisfaction of our students. Over the past four years, the fraction of the graduating class contributing to the senior class gift reported at Commencement has declined from 88% to 64% to 51% to not being reported at all in 2019. The disaffection of our students, due to student perceptions of repeated violations of their trust, has consequences for their giving 30 years from now. Failing to acknowledge and redress their grievances lessens the likelihood that new alumni will become donors.
This Administration has a mixed record on women in leadership. While five department heads in the School of Engineering and three senior leaders are women faculty, the Women’s Power Gap in Higher Education study ranked MIT 86 of 87 among Massachusetts colleges and universities for women in leadership in November 2019.
Not all of the factors are directly under the control of President Reif; for example, he does not select members of the MIT Corporation. Nonetheless, the senior leadership provides input. Another factor in the Power Gap report is the salary of the highest paid employees. Only one of the top 10 highest paid employees at MIT is a woman. MIT’s President and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation should heed these issues leading to MIT’s poor ranking.
President Reif’s administration has undertaken many valuable new initiatives, such as the Schwarzman College of Computing, MIT.nano, the Met Warehouse project, the Kendall Square Initiative, edX, the MITx MicroMasters programs, The Engine, a major renewal of the MIT campus, an Innovation Initiative, a Quest for Intelligence, all while undertaking a major capital campaign and starting numerous new degree programs. Individually, these all make sense and the individuals who initiated and spearheaded them should be applauded. Taken together, however, the effect is to leave many faculty and staff feeling excluded from decision-making and burdened with additional responsibilities or unable to get the attention of a senior administration overwhelmed with managing so many new projects. The senior administration asks each department to prepare a strategic plan but there is no overall strategic plan nor overall planning process for MIT. As individuals, we cannot add responsibilities without subtracting something. We do not believe MIT can grow endlessly, and therefore needs a clearer setting of priorities. Remedying this may require changes to our governance structure.
President Reif has not taken responsibility for the actions taken by his administration, including the acceptance and hiding of donations from Epstein by three vice presidents. Instead, according to the Goodwin Procter report, he “does not recall discussing Epstein prior to 2019.” This raises questions about accountability and leadership that impact MIT’s future.
President Reif has strengthened MIT and increased its visibility in the world in important ways. Governing an organization as complex as the leading research university in the world is a difficult undertaking in the best of times. In this challenging time, the faculty bear a responsibility in helping to shape the culture and leadership for a better MIT.
We suggest that the time has come to discuss changes in leadership and governance structures to bring about a better future for MIT.