April 2024Vol.XXXVI No. 4

Presentation to the Institute Faculty Meeting

Jonathan A. King

20 March 2024

Madame President, Officers and Members of the Faculty, and Faculty Committees.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to address you on the origins and current working of the MIT Faculty Newsletter. Though the FNL has been published continuously for 36 years, this is the first time an FNL representative has been invited to address an Institute faculty meeting. Perhaps we are benefitting from the sound instincts of our chair and new president. Hopefully, this will set a new pattern, and we won’t have to wait another 36 years.

There are many examples where our academic community has faced serious stresses, and all stakeholders – faculty, students, staff, and administration – worked together effectively to protect the intellectual and social productivity of our MIT environment.

Some examples include unexpectedly large cuts in Congressional appropriations for NIH, NSF, and Department of Energy programs. These put many graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty at risk and under stress.

Another example is the recent disastrous pandemic. Faced by unprecedented difficulties, all sectors came together and were remarkably successful. New committees were formed as needed and all put their shoulders to the wheel.

However, there have been other times when the interests of, for example, the faculty and the administration of the period diverged, with differing goals.

One of these gave birth to the Faculty Newsletter.

In 1987, at the start of the Christmas vacation, then-Provost John Deutch and School of Science Dean Gene Brown announced the closing of the Department of Applied Biological Sciences (ABS). This implied the layoff of all faculty, students, and staff of the Department. Little attempt was made to conform to the spirit of The Rules and Regulations of the Faculty. A few of our senior faculty understood this, but we were denied access to the faculty mailing list and were unable to communicate with our faculty colleagues. Nor were we able to bring a counter motion before the faculty.

Professor of Physics Vera Kistiakowsky, Professor of Nuclear Engineering Larry Lidsky, and I went through the MIT Directory (no longer published) and hand typed office addresses for all the faculty. The mailed communication calling for opposing the action of the provost was the zeroth issue of the Newsletter.

Professor of Physics
Vera Kistiakowsky

Here is Vera’s statement from that issue: 

“A group of faculty members which has been discussing the recent events concerning the Department of Applied Biological Sciences has concluded that difficulty in communication prevents faculty consideration of the problems except in crisis situations. There exists no channel for the exchange of information between faculty members for the discussion of problems at MIT, since neither Tech Talk nor the faculty meetings serve these purposes. Therefore, we decided to explore the desirability of a newsletter, and one purpose of this zeroth edition is to see whether there is support for such a publication.”

Eventually we were able to mobilize a sufficient number of faculty to prevent the layoffs of any of the ABS students, staff, or faculty. Because of the difficulty of getting onto the faculty meeting agenda, this wouldn’t have happened without the independent communication represented by those first FNL publications.

In the intervening 36 years the FNL has been maintained by a dedicated group of more than 70 volunteer faculty, who shared the belief that the faculty are an essential component of a university, particularly a research university such as MIT.

MIT Numbers (back page) lists the 62 members of the faculty who have served on the Editorial Board over the years. Chairs are in red. The group covers quite a range of disciplines: Fred Moavenzadeh was Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Steve Lippard was Chair of Chemistry; Gordon Kaufman and Ernst Frankel were on the Sloan Faculty; John Belcher was from Aero and Astro; Patrick Winston was from Computer Science; Ruth Perry and Helen Lee from Humanities; Woodie Flowers was from Mechanical Engineering.

In addition, through these years we have had the benefit of a dedicated, though woefully underpaid, managing editor, David Lewis.

Since its inception the FNL has published all faculty submissions as long as they avoid libel or slander. This includes refutations or critiques of editorials or other articles.

Some 177 issues have been published, carrying more than 1000 articles. A short list doesn’t capture the range of content, but perhaps two examples make their value clear.

It was the Faculty Newsletter that first published the report of the Hopkins Committee documenting differential pay scale for male and female faculty, a very hot potato at the time. To his credit, President Charles Vest stepped forward and united with the Hopkins analysis.

Our desire to provide the broadest audience for the Hopkins report led to the establishment of the FNL website.

The data collection and analysis of the acute affordable rental housing shortage by the Graduate School Council was invaluable not only for faculty and students, but for the surrounding Cambridge Community.

President Vest was not only a visionary with respect to women faculty, but also in 1997 confirmed the Faculty Newsletter as a special Standing Committee, within MIT’s structure, but operating according to its own Policies and Procedures set by a Board of Editors composed only of MIT faculty and emeritus faculty. The Board elects its officers. Our current officers are me, Sally Haslanger as Vice Chair and Ceasar McDowell as Secretary.

President Vest established a small budget for a staff editor and for the costs of publication, which was later transferred to under the Office of the Provost, and has carried forward to the present. He specified a follow-up five-year review. This was carried out by an FNL Review Committee, chaired by Professor Stephen Graves. Their investigation affirmed the value of the FNL to the campus community.

Despite the support from Vest, the Graves Committee, and many faculty, a faction within the administration continued to try to undermine the FNL and curtail its publication. This took the form of refusals to make our managing editor full time; refusal to promote him to an appropriate level; denial of deserved salary raises. Faced by a petition from senior faculty to bring this before the faculty meeting, these efforts failed. They are described in detail in the FNL issue of March/April 2007: The Saga of the Struggle for Survival of the Faculty Newsletter.

Before reviewing FNL election procedures it is important to review some unusual features of MIT Governance:

  1. MIT has no Faculty Senate, or equivalent deliberative body independent of the administration.
  2. For decades the faculty meeting has been chaired by the president or provost, rather than the elected chair of the faculty.
  3. There is serious under-representation of scholars, engineers, scientists, and educators on the MIT Corporation.
  4. Officers of the MIT Investment Management Corporation (MITIMCo) have exerted undue influence on MIT policies.

Nomination and Election to the Editorial Board

All MIT faculty and emeritus faculty are eligible to vote in the Editorial Board election. In 2008 we moved to an electronic confidential ballot election in which all faculty and emeritus faculty could vote for Editorial Board nominees.

Recruitment of nominees follows three paths; a) Self-nomination in the Committee preference questionnaire; b) Self or other nomination in response to the call published in the Newsletter itself; c) nominations from prior and current Editorial Board members.

Given the continuing absence of an elected Faculty Senate the primary criteria remain:

a) Commitment to defending an independent voice of the faculty, and a
b) Professional situation that doesn’t require close support from any sector of the administration.
c) Gender and disciplinary diversity.

Unlike other standing committees that have spheres of action or influence within MIT, the FNL has no influence whatsoever over any aspect of MIT governance or policy. The FNL Editorial Board is much closer to a shadow cabinet or a judiciary function. Thus, just as we don’t have judges, department heads, deans, provosts, or presidents turn over every two years, the FNL Board needs the accumulated experience of its members, and we encourage re-election of incumbents.

In the last election, more than 300 faculty voted for Editorial Board nominees. That same year, fewer than 60 voted in the regular election for faculty committee chairs and members. Of course we always want broader participation, but at present the FNL numbers establish the legitimacy of its electorate.     

The FNL also maintains a website. Over the past month, the website received nearly 30,000 hits from 95 countries. We also on occasion hold forums to facilitate direct exchange among concerned faculty, staff, and students. One FNL forum brought the Director of Human Rights Watch to the campus to review the roles of Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia in the famine and deaths in Yemen. This was the only forum for open discussion held at MIT.

In addition to occasional live forums, the FNL co-sponsors the annual “Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War” conferences, commemorating the nuclear disarmament advocacy of Professors Vera Kistiakowsky and Aron Bernstein. Over the past decade these have featured congressional leaders of such efforts, including US Representative Barbara Lee, US Representative Jim McGovern, US Representative Ro Khanna, US Representative Pramila Jayapal, and US Senator Ed Markey.

Continuing Need for an Independent Voice of the Faculty

A similar dynamic that led to the founding of the FNL, has in fact been repeated in subsequent conflicts where, absent a Faculty Senate, the level of scrutiny and candor needed could not be comfortably expressed in the faculty meeting itself.

  • Conflict over the decision to build commercial office buildings rather than graduate housing in the East Campus;
  • Conflict over the political and financial embrace of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman;
  • The mishandling of the donations from Jeffrey Epstein;
  • The suspension of the student organizations supporting Palestinians in Gaza.

Some progress has been made, and a spotlight was eventually shown on the mishandling of the Jeffrey Epstein funds, which many here participated in. In fact, that process would have been much easier if we had a Faculty Senate independent of the sitting administration.

In the continuing absence of an elected Faculty Senate, the FNL fills a distinctive need.

Thank you for your attention.