Introducing an Institute-Wide Referendum at MIT
Can and should MIT selectively adopt the tools
of direct democracy?
I attended the MIT Faculty Forum on February 5, 2020 in 10-250 as I wanted to hear what is on the minds of my colleagues on the current state of affairs at MIT in terms of governance and the general climate. This was especially important to me as I recently returned from a two-year leave of absence from MIT in France and had felt a bit out of touch. I did not speak during the meeting but listened carefully to my colleagues and took mental notes.
At the core the issue seems to be that large portions of the MIT community (not only the faculty) feel disempowered and have the impression that their views and opinions cannot currently influence the way in which the Institute is managed and how it is evolving in the future. Specific contentious issues that have affected the MIT-wide community in recent years are:
- Accepting major financial gifts and donations from individuals who have been convicted of criminal acts and/or whose actions are demonstrably in conflict with MIT’s mission and values (even if some of those individuals are MIT alumni/ae);
- Major changes to MIT’s campus and physical plant such as the demolition of beloved but unsafe or outdated dormitories or the leasing of land for 99 years, or the building of lucrative commercial real estate on land owned or controlled by MIT;
- The creation of major new initiatives and organizational structures that touch more than one School and the dismantling of programs that may be perceived by the Administration as non-competitive or obsolete.
On any of these issues we find and will continue to find a wide range of opinions amongst faculty, students, staff, and the Administration. Some pro, some contra, and many ambivalent somewhere in the middle.
I am personally in favor of a strong Administration with a clear vision and ability to execute this vision to help maintain MIT at the forefront of universities and progressive academic institutions in the world1 . For example, I do not favor the establishment of a “faculty senate” which might act as a separate check and balance against the Administration, but not automatically include the voice of other stakeholders on campus such as the students and the staff. It seems that there is a distinct impression that has formed on campus that the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation effectively runs MIT with no direct accountability to or ability by the MIT community to influence or override decisions made by the Senior Administration and Executive Committee of the Corporation and that several recent decisions run counter to the beliefs and opinions of a majority of the MIT community. However, this is really unsubstantiated speculation on my part from reading the MIT Faculty Newsletter2 (FNL) and The Tech and participating in faculty meetings, the Random (formerly Keyser) Faculty Dinners and listening to students, staff, and colleagues sharing their impressions.
Without explicitly asking and “voting” on specific issues it is impossible to know what the will or preference of the MIT community really is. Formation of opinions through mechanisms such as discussion panels, community forums, and so on will only give a partial view and reflect only the opinion of a small and often vocal subset of MIT.
An answer or partial answer may be found in the principles and instruments of direct democracy as I experienced them as a child and young adult growing up in Switzerland. I remember the tradition, every three to four months, of going to the local polling place with my parents and my brother and dropping off the paper voting slips in a sealed gray envelope on specific issues that affected us all. This act of direct voting was and is deeply ingrained in the culture of what has often been described as one of the most successful pluralistic societies and countries on Earth3 .
Some of the more memorable votes that I can recall were:
- Lowering the retirement age (1978, 20.6% For, 79.4% Against)
- Abolition of the Swiss Army (1989, 35.6% For, 64.4% Against)
- Lowering the voting age to 18 (1991, 72.7% For, 27.3% Against)
- Joining the European Economic Area (1992, 49.7% For, 50.3% Against)
- Sunday shopping in Transit Hubs (2005, 50.6% For, 49.4% Against)
- Building of the new Gotthard Trans-Alpine Tunnel (2016, 57% For, 43% Against)
The outcomes of some of these votes were clear, while others were a very close call. Most of them ended up with what in retrospect I would personally qualify as the “right decision”, a form of collective intelligence4 . Even the fact that a population would voluntarily raise its own tax rates is possible as long as it is clear what the money will be used for. It has to be acknowledged, however, that some votes led to results that I personally found to be wrong, even shameful:
- Prohibition regarding the building of minarets (2009, 57.5% For, 42.5% Against)
- Imposition of immigration quotas by country (2014, 50.3% For, 49.7% Against)
I am not arguing that direct democracy is perfect, but that it is a powerful form of governance that gives the population the distinct feeling and real possibility of being able to influence the course of history, even if not all decisions turn out “perfectly”. One of the beneficial side effects of direct democracy is that both the executive branch and the legislature have to explain their positions in detail even as the government has the right to offer up counterproposals. Each cycle of referenda voting is accompanied not only by the ballot itself, but also by a carefully prepared booklet presenting the arguments “pro” and “contra” with data, facts, and interpretations in a balanced fashion. An external neutral watchdog organization ensures the fairness of the way the information is presented to voters.
With this article I want to raise the possibility that two specific instruments of direct democracy, the initiative and the referendum, may become new tools of MIT governance that would give the larger community a voice, while preserving in parallel the hierarchical management structure (corporation-senior administration-school/college-department) that is needed to run a complex enterprise such as MIT with an annual budget on the order of $4 billion (including Lincoln Laboratory) and over 14,000 faculty and staff and 7,000 students.
What exactly are we talking about here?
MIT Initiative5 : A vote by the MIT community on a particular issue of interest could be forced by the collection of a sufficient number of validated physical or electronic signatures.
MIT Referendum: A major announcement or decision by the MIT Administration and/or Corporation Executive Committee could be challenged or overturned by the MIT community.
What might MIT’s version of an initiative or referendum look like?
The referendum and initiative as instruments of direct democracy are not set in stone or a one-size-fits-all solution. There are many ways in which these tools can be designed to have more or less teeth and be more or less easy to initiate. The key is to hear from the community directly on specific issues using either an open or secret ballot. The following table shows a range of potential implementations of direct democratic principles and tools at MIT. By selecting one alternative from each row a particular “MIT version” of a referendum or initiative could be created.
Anchored in MIT’s Bylaws and Regulations
Who gets to vote
Faculty and Students
Faculty, Students and full-time Staff
Impact of Vote
Consultation only (non-binding)
Mixed (binding only for some issues)
Binding (effectively a veto right)
Issues subject to Referendum and Initiative
Academic only (Curriculum)
Academic and Operations (incl. Infrastructure)
Minimum number of signatures required
Fixed number (e.g. 1,000)
Relative number (e.g. 5% or 10%)
Twice per year
Arguments in favor of introducing such instruments of governance at MIT are that they would empower the members of the MIT community to voice their opinions – through an official vote – on issues of common interest. It might lead to higher levels of engagement, and potentially less conflict between the Administration/Corporation and faculty, students, and staff. It would also force the Administration to better explain its rationale for major decisions.
Arguments against direct democracy at MIT that I have heard are that it may lead to a de facto shackling of the Administration in launching major new initiatives and moving the Institute forward in important ways that may be unpopular but necessary. Other arguments are that major strategic issues and smaller tactical and operational issues would become co-mingled leading to a confusing thicket of new regulations, rules, and contradictory directives.
I am not yet convinced that an MIT initiative and/or referendum is the right way forward but I am hoping we can have an active discussion and perhaps implement an MIT-wide initiative and referendum on a trial basis as an experiment for a period of one or two years. This would probably be an initiative or referendum of the non-binding kind and would allow us to gather some experience with direct democracy at MIT.
What would this look like in practice?
Imagine receiving a future email such as this one:
27 March 2023
MIT is considering the elimination of all car parking (except for electric vehicles and visitor parking) on campus and converting existing parking lots and garages to other uses such as student and faculty housing and research laboratories. Current car commuters will receive free passes for public transportation on the T and MBTA network and subsidized parking at official park-and-ride facilities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Are you in favor of this proposal?
Please submit your kerberos certified vote at https://voting.mit.edu/2023/parking by 1 May 2023.
Would you like to participate in MIT governance in this way?
Or do you trust the Administration to make the right decision on behalf of all of us?
We have a history of experimentation at MIT, for example we have made significant changes to our first-year curriculum such as PNR. Why not experiment with direct democracy in this way? Here are some topics that might be potential subjects of upcoming MIT-wide interest that could yield a meaningful community-wide referendum:
- Future campus development beyond the current MIT 2030 framework;
- Overhaul of the current General Institute Requirements (GIRs), impacting particularly the first-year experience for undergraduates;
- Policies for how MIT defends not only itself as an institution but also members of the community, including faculty, staff, and students who are accused by the federal government and its agencies of having broken the law;
- Major structural changes at MIT such as the creation of a new School or College.
I look forward to your feedback and comments on whether you think some instruments of direct democracy such as a referendum and/or initiative should have a place at MIT. Should the Institute launch an experiment with an MIT-wide referendum in the future?
?Author's Note: This article was submitted before the current Covid-19 crisis and is not meant as a criticism of the current Administration, who has handled the situation very well, but as a contribution to discuss longer term governance issues at MIT.
1 It is difficult to argue that MIT is not and does not continue to be one of the, if not the top university in the world with a focus on the “arts and sciences” as reflected by many international rankings such as the QS Rating of World Universities where MIT has been rated #1 for many years. Side note: My alma mater ETH Zurich in Switzerland is rated 6th.
2 I served on the Editorial Board of the FNL from 2004 to 2013.
3 Switzerland is ranked first or at least in the top 10 globally in a number of categories such as Global Competitiveness (WEF), Global Innovation Index (WIPO), Prosperity Index (Legatum Institute), Happiness (Gallup), Income per Capita in PPP (IMF), and Human Development Index (UN). It is difficult to argue that direct democracy does not work or has not worked for Switzerland based on the merits.
5 The word “referendum” was first used in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the 16th Century. In Switzerland a referendum requires 50,000 validated signatures and an initiative 100,000. Unfortunately these numbers are fixed constants in the constitution and not expressed as a percentage of the population. As a result, now that Switzerland’s population has grown to nearly 10 million, it has become easier and easier to launch a referendum, leading to an overload of issues to be voted on.