I. Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak;
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The Covid-19 outbreak has compelled MIT faculty meetings to now be held virtually (see March 17, 2020 email from Faculty Chair Rick Danheiser, "March 18 Faculty Meeting: Zoom Meeting Info and Request for Questions"). When the need for faculty voting arises in this new virtual context, as it invariably must, then this will of necessity require some form of electronic voting. This would be a welcome step forward for MIT. E-voting is technologically and operationally feasible, and is likely to be more secret and universal. E-voting may also increase faculty attendance. There’s plenty of evidence for this: Participation in the FNL faculty-wide Editorial Board election is much higher than votes at the faculty meeting for faculty committees; states that have adopted mail-in ballots as a default, like Washington, have seen the voter turnout increase by more than 10% above the national average. There is strong reason to believe that e-voting can similarly boost faculty participation.
E-voting can also ensure the secrecy of voting, one hallmark of a genuinely democratic process. Open voting by a show of hands at faculty meetings always has the potential to subject faculty members to unwarranted peer pressure and, for untenured faculty, fear of retaliation.
E-voting avoids this defect as well as others such as miscounting, and so may well lead to a more genuine and honest expression of views by faculty members, especially when voting on controversial issues.
It turns out that there is nothing in the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty that explicitly prevents virtual meetings from taking place – and now, such meetings will take place. Similarly, nothing in the faculty regulations prevents e-voting, which of necessity will now also take its place for the time being at faculty meetings. We have no doubt that both will work, providing empirical evidence of improvement. The only remaining question: Once the current crisis passes, why roll back this better engineering to the more imperfect past? That would be very unlike MIT. Rather, it seems to us that the successful use of both e-meeting and e-voting for Faculty meetings points the way ahead to a permanent move for a better MIT during the remainder of the twenty-first century – squeezing at least a little bit of lemonade from the terrible times we now navigate.
The Faculty Newsletter periodically receives criticism of its content. An example is Professor Weinberg’s pointed letter in the current issue, where he inquires about the multiplicity of voices in the FNL, and which deserves response.
The pages of the Faculty Newsletter exist to enable the faculty to share ideas, perspectives, opinions – and, in so doing, to make our work environment more vibrant and our actions more informed, responsive, and responsible. The articles express the views of those members of the faculty who choose to take the time to express them. The FNL Editorial Board welcomes and encourages contributions from any and all faculty members, particularly those who feel that important perspectives are not being included. Submissions should not be libelous, and should bear some connection to issues and concerns of the MIT faculty. Other than those general filters, the Editorial Board does not exercise limitations on articles submitted for publication by faculty members.
The Editorials are the views of either the Editorial Subcommittee responsible for that issue, or the entire Editorial Board. These pieces are not intended to represent average, median, or popular representation of faculty views. Rather they represent the views of the Editorial Board members, who have been elected by the faculty at large in an electronic election. Many more faculty vote in the election of FNL Board members than vote for the Standing Committees of the Faculty. The FNL Editorial Board is also the only committee of the Institute for which only faculty, and all faculty, can vote. (The preceding editorial calls for changing the current situation, and having the full faculty vote electronically for all faculty membership on all committees.)
Articles submitted to the Faculty Newsletter by faculty are not vetted or sent out for review beforehand. We publish opposing views, refutations, or corrections, typically in the subsequent issue. (Though given some uncertainty during this Coronavirus emergency of when the next issue of the FNL will be published, we are responding to Professor Weinberg’s letter in this issue.)
Editorial Board members receive little academic or professional credit for their service. In general, they are colleagues who strongly believe that the faculty form an absolutely essential constituency at MIT (as opposed, for example, to the model of the faculty as simply individual employees of the Corporation), deserving and requiring an independent and active voice. Given the absence of an elected Faculty Senate or Council, the FNL role in providing independent faculty expression is particularly valuable.
This imperative is what launched the Faculty Newsletter [see: http://web.mit.edu/fnl/vol/archives/fnl00.pdf] and this ethos is deeply engrained in FNL function. Some of these beliefs stem from a conservative viewpoint with respect to the privileges of academia, stemming from the medieval tradition of the autonomous university. Others come from a more progressive view that faculty have special responsibilities in society in their role as teachers of the next generation. Periodically we also publish submissions from postdocs, graduate students, research staff, administrators, and others when in our assessment the expressed views need to be heard by our colleagues.
We urge you – members of our esteemed faculty – to share your views, concerns, and proposals with your colleagues through the pages of this Faculty Newsletter.
We also acknowledge some good news: a member of the Editorial Board of the Faculty Newsletter, and a faculty colleague from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, has recently been voted by the UN Human Rights Council as the next UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. No MIT faculty member has ever been elected to this important position in the human rights field, as far as we know.
The human rights work of the UN is led by the UN Human Rights Council (47 States elected by the UN General Assembly yearly), representing member States from around the world. The Special Rapporteurs are independent experts who are selected for their expertise, independence, impartiality, and objectivity to be in charge of specific issues areas. Those areas include a range of human rights matters such as freedom of expression, torture, racism, housing, health, food, water and sanitation, etc. Major investigative and legal work on the topics which the FNL has covered recently, such as the Saudi-led war in Yemen, or the killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Prince Salman’s coterie, have been led by Special Rapporteurs on torture, illegal executions, etc. The Special Rapporteurs are appointed in their personal capacity by the UN Human Rights Council for three years initially, and the positions are honorary.
The Rapporteurs have three main kinds of duties: first, they submit thematic reports on major issues of concern, to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council. Second, the Rapporteurs deal with urgent calls/complaints about human rights violations within their mandates. Those are received on a daily basis and require public and private interventions with countries and other parties. Third, the Rapporteurs conduct selected country visits and then file reports based on their detailed field investigations on the status of human rights adherence in those countries. In addition, the rapporteurs are also often called upon to speak at various forums at the UN, engage in public communication and advocacy, and function as the global voice on the issues within their mandates. For a general description of Special Rapporteurs, see: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Introduction.aspx
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