May/June 2020Vol. XXXII No. 5
From the Faculty Chair

“May You Live in Interesting Times”: The Year in Review

Rick L. Danheiser

My term as Chair of the MIT Faculty began on July 1, 2019. To say that it has been an interesting year would be something of an understatement. Revelations about Jeffrey Epstein’s connections to the Media Lab began to emerge in August, setting in motion an often emotionally charged examination of Epstein’s relationship with MIT, as well as a highly critical appraisal of how the Institute evaluates potential sources of funding. It would not be until the early months of 2020 that the intensity of these discussions began to diminish, at which point the sudden advent of the Covid-19 global pandemic turned our world upside down. An interesting year indeed.

In this brief column, I thought I would outline just some of the issues that have received significant attention from Faculty Governance during the past year, with particular emphasis on matters of continuing interest that are likely to receive further major attention in the coming year.

The Epstein Affair and Outside Engagements

On January 10 the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation released the long-awaited report by the law firm of Goodwin Procter titled “Concerning Jeffrey Epstein’s Interactions with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” Included in the charge given to Goodwin Procter (GP) was the question of who among MIT’s senior leadership was aware of the donations from Epstein and approved their acceptance. In the early fall I obtained agreement from the Chair of the MIT Executive Committee for a group of 12 current and former officers of the faculty to meet with representatives of GP with any questions we might have following our review of the report. The meeting with the GP lawyers took place on January 13 and lasted four hours; a summary of our findings was sent to the faculty on January 21 and I have written about these findings in my January/February FNL column “Epstein and MIT: The Unanswered Questions.”

In August, soon after the first revelations about Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to the Institute, I suggested to my fellow faculty officers and to Provost Marty Schmidt that I believed that MIT needed a group to develop principles and improved processes to define what were and were not acceptable outside engagements. Concurrent with these discussions, President Reif asked Provost Schmidt to convene a committee to review MIT gift processes. After discussions at several meetings of the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC), and after consultation with other key faculty including several former Faculty Chairs, I decided to convene an Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements. The charge to this committee has been to define a set of values and principles, consistent with MIT’s mission, to guide the assessment of outside engagements, where outside engagements include grants, gifts, and any other associations and collaborations involving MIT with governments, corporations, foundations, or private individuals, domestic or foreign. The report by this “principles committee” (chaired by Professor Tavneet Suri) was originally due by June 1, but regrettably has been delayed by the emergency due to the coronavirus. Nonetheless Professor Suri, together with several committee members, presented a briefing on the conclusions of the committee at a Community Forum on May 21, and their final draft report will be posted for community comment within the next several weeks.

Faculty Governance

Governance has been a major focus of attention by the Faculty Officers and the Faculty Policy Committee this past year. Questions include: What is the role of faculty governance vis-á-vis that of the Administration and the MIT Corporation? What should be the role of faculty governance and how can our current system of governance be improved? Are there alternative systems of governance that would better serve the Institute?

The overarching goal in these discussions is to make our system of faculty governance more democratic, ensuring that a full range and diversity of views are represented in the discussion of issues and in decision-making. I have previously outlined our aims in my November/December FNL column “A Peculiar MIT Concoction”: Our System of Faculty Governance. Our progress this past year toward achieving these goals are outlined below.

The Committee on Nominations. As I discussed in the above-referenced FNL column, the Faculty Officers and the Faculty Policy Committee urged that changes be considered in the way that the key Committee on Nominations is appointed. In contrast to the manner in which candidates for the other 10 Standing Committees of the Faculty are chosen, Rules and Regulations of the Faculty called for the members of the Committee on Nominations to be appointed by the President, who also selected the Chair of the committee. If nothing else, this encouraged a perception that the Administration exercised significant influence over the membership of the committees of faculty governance. At the March Institute Faculty Meeting, I introduced a motion on behalf of the FPC for amending Rules and Regulations so that the membership of the Committee on Nominations would be elected by the Faculty, with the candidates for the election suggested by the elected Officers of the Faculty with allowance for additional candidates to be nominated by the usual process by the Faculty-at-large. This motion was overwhelmingly passed at the April Meeting of the Faculty.

The Application of Electronic Technology. In my November/December FNL column I suggested that the election of the faculty officers and perhaps members of the faculty committees could be carried out more democratically through online voting rather than by a show of hands at the usually sparsely attended May Institute Faculty Meeting. This was discussed extensively at meetings of the Faculty Policy Committee this year, along with related proposals calling for voting on motions to be carried out online rather than at faculty meetings. The aim of these changes would be to enable wider participation of the faculty in elections and decision-making. As it turned out, the Covid-19 emergency expedited the implementation of these proposals as it became necessary to convene the last three Institute Faculty Meetings of the year virtually using Zoom technology. The results exceeded our expectations, as each meeting attracted several hundred attendees, and votes on several motions and on the election of the new faculty committee members were held electronically at the April and May meetings. The online voting employed a platform developed by FPC members Professors Ike Chuang and Duane Boning, and their system functioned very smoothly and efficiently. It is clear that the application of electronic technology in faculty meetings will continue and see further development and expansion in the coming academic year.

Shared Governance. MIT operates with a system of “shared governance” under which the Faculty, the Administration, and the Corporation all have roles in plotting the direction of the Institute and the management of its day-to-day affairs. In the wake of the revelations concerning Jeffrey Epstein’s interactions with MIT, the Faculty Officers heard calls from a number of quarters suggesting that the role of the Faculty in the governance of the Institute should be re-evaluated with the aim of “re-balancing” the faculty’s role relative to the Corporation and the Administration. Toward this end, a Faculty Town Hall meeting was convened on February 5 to engage the MIT faculty in a “community brainstorming session” to consider ways in which the shared governance system of the Institute might be improved. This discussion continued at the Institute Faculty Meeting on February 19 and resulted in an agreement to establish a Working Group on the Faculty and MIT Corporation. I began discussions to set up this working group with Corporation Chair Bob Millard shortly thereafter, but these were suspended in March with the advent of the Covid-19 emergency. A side note: One of the concerns raised by faculty in the above discussions was the fact that the Corporation includes relatively few members with academic backgrounds. A positive development in that regard was the election to the MIT Corporation in June of former Harvard President Drew Faust and former MIT Professor and Provost, and Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton.

Promotion and Tenure

MIT’s promotion and tenure processes were the focus of discussions at several meetings of the Faculty Policy Committee this past year. These conversations in fact constitute a continuation of a review initiated by then Faculty Chair Bish Sanyal in 2009, which led to a report of a special ad hoc faculty committee chaired by Tom Kochan and Bob Silbey. Discussions on promotion and tenure will continue at FPC in the fall, and I tentatively plan to devote my first FNL column to this subject. Under consideration are improvements in the communication of expectations concerning promotion processes to pre-tenure faculty, the mentoring of junior colleagues, and in particular, the current promotion process that involves three stages (AWOT, AWIT, and Full Professor) with external reviews required at each stage. The Faculty Officers support a proposal to simplify this process by allowing either the AWOT or Full Professor promotion to be carried out with internal letters only, with the choice being made on a School-by-School basis.

Two Current Crises

Space constraints do not permit me to discuss the role of faculty governance in addressing the many issues that have emerged as a result of the Covid-19 emergency. And I would be remiss if I did not mention also the recent increased focus by the MIT community on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. It is earnestly hoped that this increased attention will continue into the coming year and be accompanied by positive change.

On the Horizon

  • In the arena of education, one focus will be on subject evaluations. In early March the FPC called on the Faculty Officers to collaborate with the Office of the Vice Chancellor in appointing an Ad Hoc Committee on Teaching and Mentoring Assessment.
  • The FPC discussed the high cost of graduate tuition at several meetings this past year and in response the Provost and Deans Group of Academic Council began deliberations to address this problem.
  • With regard to faculty benefits, on the list for attention are the availability and cost of childcare and the availability of convenient and affordable housing for faculty. Analysis of the results of the recently released results of the 2020 Quality of Life Survey will also receive attention in the coming year.
  • Climate action is another area for attention in the coming year, and this is particularly important with the approaching end of the five-year “Plan for Action on Climate Change” which was released in October 2015.

In closing, I want to express my sincere gratitude to my fellow Faculty Officers Duane Boning and David Singer for their wisdom and counsel. Both have significant other responsibilities (Professor Singer is Head of Political Science!) but have been unstinting in their effort and dedication throughout this eventful year. And special thanks to Dr. Tami Kaplan, Faculty Governance Administrator extraordinaire, whose familiarity with all aspects of Institute governance, command of MIT’s myriad policies and regulations, wisdom and common sense, and remarkable dedication is beyond compare.