January-March 2024Vol.XXXVI No. 3
From The Faculty Chair

Our Public Sphere, or, How to Meet as a Faculty

Mary C. Fuller

A colleague wrote to us early last semester to complain that Institute faculty meetings are boring. Since then, it’s probably fair to say that meetings have experienced one of their periodic oscillations back into being energized by controversy and serving as a forum for contestation. I’d like to talk about both those poles of our communal life.

Let’s start with boredom. Not just once, but repeatedly over more than half a century, complaints like that one show up in the faculty records.[1] To have “boring Institute faculty meetings with near-unanimous votes” has sometimes been understood as a sign of successful work in committees, and there’s surely some truth to that. Typically, though, complaints that meetings are “perfunctory” (1949), “boring” (1995), or mere “briefing sessions” (1961) come with the sense that things used to be different. Meetings had been more engaging, substantive, and vital, but had somehow tended or devolved towards a lower state. Yet if things had steadily gone downhill since the late 1940s there would not be much left to talk about. It seems more likely that the “problem” of the faculty meeting is a somewhat cyclical phenomenon.

One way of thinking about that process would indeed be that “boring” signifies something going right – the right decisions are being made in committee, so that the faculty can safely focus, for the most part, on getting on with our very demanding jobs.

On that view, faculty meetings are reenergized only when there is some cause for concern. But as our colleague’s email indicates, not everyone is content with that as a status quo. When we received this message we had already spent some months talking among ourselves and with senior leadership about how to make faculty meetings more engaged and a better use of time. Finding that this group shared a common aspiration made us think about the problem a little differently, and observing that it has been a recurring problem encouraged more of a systemic view. I’ll get back to that, and to some of the interventions we have in mind or have already begun to implement.

Faculty meetings may be revitalized by modest, steady returns on attention and engagement – or they may become energized through an issue that commands our attention. Sometimes things are quiet on campus. Not much seems to be going on above the level of one’s own work, or not in a way where we feel a need to engage. This is not one of those times.

At the November faculty meeting, after planning a full agenda we made a late decision to clear time for an open discussion of events on campus and faculty sentiment, chaired by President Kornbluth; the meeting lasted for two hours. At the February faculty meeting, we modified some technical elements of our hybrid format to ensure speakers on Zoom would not again be interrupted, but a new set of issues arose related to a motion to hold part of the meeting in executive session. (The novelty of this motion, combined with the challenges of managing a hybrid meeting, caught us somewhat unprepared; see Peko Hosoi’s piece in this edition, page ?.) Some community members later expressed concerns that they were not able to hear discussion of one agenda item that had already been presented or discussion of the following item. Even voting members may not all have been aware that in executive session, discussion cannot be minuted; we thus lose institutional memory of what was said, which diminishes its lasting impact. If votes or motions had occurred during this part of the meeting, they would also have been unrecorded; none did, as both agenda items were essentially introductory. (More on the agenda below.)

The motion to close the meeting responded to a report that video from the previous meeting had been circulated online. Without going into particulars, a number of people in the MIT community have, in fact, experienced some kind of injury from having their images posted online this year, with posts leading to harassment and threats. Complaints about this practice and its effects have been widespread, and not restricted to any single viewpoint or element of the community. But I have not yet heard anyone volunteer either to stop or to ask for consent.

How do we proceed, then, in our traditionally open faculty meeting?[2] We might consider experimenting with other, voluntary measures that would keep the meeting open without, in effect, making selected parts of it open to an external audience that is unseen and not answerable for its responses.[3] (This too should be a topic of informal discussion as we prepare for the March meeting.) For instance, a once customary request not to record in the meeting might be reinstated. But it may be more appropriate here to articulate some usually unspoken ideas about what we are actually doing when we meet as a faculty.

Faculty meetings are a place where we do regular business and, from time to time, make consequential decisions. They are also a space of actual and symbolic community. Even more than Commencement, where we wear ceremonial robes and engage in formal, mostly gestural actions, faculty meetings are a moment when we act out who we are as a faculty.

That “who we are,” as we act it out in real-time, can’t be very polished. Few of us are experts on the rules. Some of us never feel at ease going up to the microphone to speak. We disagree, we change our minds, we behave badly, we are eloquent, we tell wonderful stories and propose great ideas. We should be in the process of making up our minds, and in the process of sharpening or revising our ideas and our language. We should be willing to afford each other the latitude we’d give any rough draft. And we are also performing our roles as members of the faculty (with speaking and voting privileges) in front of an audience of students and staff colleagues. Maybe I can remind that audience that the meeting is inherently a work in progress. A meeting made up of perfectly rehearsed presentations is predictable, but doesn’t call on our energies. In a good meeting, we engage without perfect knowledge of what others will say or do, much less perfect control. Over time, a series of perturbations and adjustments translate into a sense of where we are moving.

To me, one baseline is the background deference that we all owe to each other as members of the MIT community. Whoever we are as individuals, we show up in 10-250 or on Zoom as members of the faculty, as students, as staff – that is, in roles that identify us in relation to a common whole. Those roles merit a kind of regard whatever we think of the individual person or people occupying them at a given moment. When I respond or react to X, wrapped around the details of X’s discourse or behavior are “X is a faculty or staff colleague” or “X is a student” at MIT. (Needless to say, this applies for students in attendance as well, both those with and without speaking privileges.) My disagreement or displeasure, when they occur, have to be filtered through acknowledgement of those roles (and my own), and of our common membership in the very institution that allows us to occupy these roles and act in this forum. (This year, there should be additional tenderness in the knowledge that some members of our community have suffered terrible loss.) While we go to meetings to work through an agenda, in doing so we are continually recreating and defining the community to which we belong, as the kind of community to which we want to belong.

MIT confers on us an important part of our identity and, reciprocally, we are an important part of what makes MIT, MIT. Much of that making goes on in labs, offices, and classrooms, but it goes on visibly, publicly and officially in the faculty meeting.

That is where we model decision-making and debate as well as formal and informal norms around the kinds of discourse or action we accept as reasonable or tolerable. Sometimes the sense of the group becomes visible in speech or conduct that we all admire and appreciate, and sometimes the limits become visible when we push against or cross them. There are things we can do: we can recur to articulating some expectations and to having a parliamentarian on call, and we can continue refining the ways we use and manage Zoom – or consider abandoning it. But Robert’s Rules and the affordances of technical tools can only do so much in creating conditions that “encourage inclusive and open dialogue.”[4] Procedure is important for a sense of trust and order, but the rest of this community-making (and certainly the dialogue) has to come from our voluntary effort. Let us be vocal, respectful and flexible in considering the kind of meeting we want to make.

A sense of emergency may energize our participation and heighten our awareness, but if we rely on emergencies to set us in action, we may not be ready when they come. Thus it is also important to look for interventions that can make meetings matter in ordinary times. One type of intervention, probably the most meaningful one, is to bring topics that faculty care about at a stage when debate can have a meaningful imprint on decision-making. The pulse survey we administered appears to confirm that many faculty felt the principle of institutional neutrality briefly introduced for discussion in February by President Kornbluth should indeed be a topic for ongoing consideration, precisely because it was brought to the faculty as an open question.[5] The co-chairs of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Campus Expression anticipate returning to the faculty meeting repeatedly as they shape their recommendations for next steps. The co-chairs of the new Task Force on the Undergraduate Academic Program, charged with a broad review of the GIRs and undergraduate education as a whole, will also visit at least one upcoming meeting this spring to begin discussion of their work and make public a plan for community engagement.[6]

Including agenda items that either engage faculty experience and expertise, or respond to faculty concerns, may be the most important thing we can do. We have proposed two other best practices in the agenda-setting group. One is to shorten the time devoted to information delivery on items that don’t call for discussion; the second, to provide pre-reading that can inform richer discussions.

Information. Often items are proposed for our agenda as, in effect, public service announcements. Members of the community want to inform or remind faculty of an event or opportunity, and the faculty meeting is one channel for doing so. We’ve sought to shift such items towards being, simply, announcements; other such information will show up in emailed invitations to faculty social events or in the weekly faculty pulse survey.[7] The faculty meeting offers itself as an attractive place for announcements because there are few alternative means to gain the attention of the faculty as a whole.[8] But we need a different and better solution to that problem.

Some other agenda items are mandatory reports, and these can devolve into what appears to be pro forma on the part of speaker and audience alike. Typically, the request for regular reports to the faculty originated from a sense that we needed to keep our eye on trends, or that the faculty needed to be engaged to some degree with activities delegated to some part of the governance structure or the administration. We don’t always retain in our collective memory the reasons for these reports to the faculty on faculty composition and hiring, undergraduate tuition and financial aid, or cases reported to the Committee on Discipline. Yet apparently routine topics were important in the past and can become critical again in unanticipated ways. Such information should continue to be delivered, and we should remind ourselves to pay attention.

Preparation. Ideally, we all would come to the faculty meeting ready to engage on key topics because we have had a chance to examine data or proposals in advance. This, too, is challenging. Our time and attention are always under siege from competing demands. Some customs and norms may be at work on the delivery side, too. I wonder whether less time on polished slide decks might enable readier circulation of pre-reading. In order to make earlier information and preparation a norm, some changes of habits or redeployment of resources may need to happen.

Sometimes circumstances line up, and the materials are already available. In March, we expect to have on the agenda a required update on the progress of Task Force 2021 and Beyond. This Task Force – co-chaired by Rick Danheiser and Sanjay Sarma – began during the pandemic and represented a major investment of time, effort, data collection and focus over several years, as more than 200 members of MIT’s faculty, administration and staff worked on “blueprints for building a better MIT.” In a second phase, 16 Refinement and Implementation Committees focused on topics ranging from graduate student advising and mentoring, career support for instructional staff, to under-recovery and the shape of the undergraduate program. Progress on these topics is tracked on a frequently updated dashboard; some of the work is in progress, some is completed, and other areas are in various stages of implementation. There are some extremely meaty topics that may take more than one meeting to dig into, but we invite you to review the current state of progress on what emerged from the Task Force’s study as deserving attention and improvement. Getting your questions and suggestions for coverage will help make our March discussion of these topics more focused, detailed, and pertinent to faculty concerns. We invite you to send these to: tf2021progress@mit.edu .[9]

There are many more topics on our institutional agenda than I can cover here. Among the internal matters we want to open conversations about later this year will be the shape and process of faculty governance. Many of us came into this academic year with growing concerns about the future of higher education. There is also no shortage of matters with arguably existential stakes – beyond the crisis in Israel and Gaza that continues to cause pain to so many of us. We are concerned about the future of civil society; the future of humans in an age of AI; the future of the planet. The world needs MIT, more than ever, and MIT needs us. I hope to see some of you at the March faculty meeting.

[1] The 1949 “Lewis Report” comments that “the faculty . . . is . . . a large, unwieldy body” whose “meetings have become perfunctory and ineffective.” It reported “considerable comment about the importance of revitalizing the activities of the faculty as a deliberative body” (Warren Lewis et al., Report of the Committee on Educational Survey, 65; https://facultygovernance.mit.edu/reports.) Julius Stratton (President 1958-66) commented early in his presidency that he “regretted the rarity of discussion of significant education problems in Faculty Meetings” and that “the meetings of the Administrative, Academic, and Faculty Councils tended to become briefing sessions rather than group discussions” (Minutes of the Institute Faculty meeting, November 16, 1961, Institute Archives). Larry Bacow, during his term as Chair of the Faculty in the early 1990s, wrote (more optimistically) that spirited debate and successful consensus-building in faculty committees could mean that “most interesting questions are resolved . . . well before the issues reach the full faculty for consideration” and thus “presentations at monthly faculty meetings are frequently pro forma, and faculty attendance sparse” (Lawrence Bacow, “From the Faculty Chair” (Faculty Newsletter 8.1, October ’95, 5).

[2] Faculty meetings were closed prior to April 1969, when the faculty approved a pilot of open meetings; open meetings were approved annually until 1983, when the faculty voted to revise Rules and Regulations 1.32 to make this a standard practice and no longer require an annual vote.

[3] Such as, for instance, adopting the Chatham House Rule.

[4] Cited from https://www.chathamhouse.org/about-us/chatham-house-rule.

[5] Useful information on the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report and a recorded talk about the report by Professor Malick Ghachem (History) were attached to the call for the February meeting. We hope to give these and related materials a more permanent landing place to help inform future discussion by the MIT community.

[6] The Task Force was one of the recommendations emerging from Task Force 2021 and Beyond (see below); its charge and membership can be found here. Both research and prior experience led us to charge a relatively small group. This design anticipates that the Task Force will both build on existing reports and create a plan to solicit engagement and concrete input from colleagues whose expertise can play a role in informing their work.

[7] Governance office hours, the faculty pulse survey, and dates for monthly faculty breakfasts at the MIT Museum and for regular coffee hours in 10-100 are posted on the faculty governance website. Emeritus faculty, lecturers and senior lecturers are warmly invited to breakfast and coffee.

[8] Tech Talk, a hard-copy publication, served this purpose until 2009 when it was replaced by MIT News online, but its functions as an outlet for community-focused news remain unreplicated. Since the pandemic, the student-run The Tech appears less frequently and is no longer distributed around campus in a visible and tangible form.

[9] We would like to receive input by March 11th; while we will monitor this address for your input until the day of the faculty meeting, having early notice will help the Provost to organize information and, if necessary, schedule additional speakers.