May/June 2023Vol.XXXV No. 4

The Brave New World of Higher Education

Daniel W. Stroock

In one capacity or another, I have spent all but the first of my 83 years at school. Until I was 26, I was a student. As such, I thought of my teachers as employees of first my parents (I went to private schools) and later of the governmental and private funding agencies. I was grateful for the support I received even if at times my use of those funds made me question the judgment of those who provided them.

When I became a faculty member responsible for educating others, I thought of myself playing the same role as those who had educated me: I was an employee of the parents and/or the federal and private foundations who were paying for their education. As time passed, my obligations as an employee evolved.

Following the tumultuous period during and after the Vietnam war, faculty became increasingly responsible for their students’ psychological well-being. For example, lest they embarrass weak students, we were first prohibited from posting grades, and then, after hiding grades was determined to be insufficient protection from harsh reality, we were encouraged to inflate grades until they became meaningless.

President Reif espoused and championed the idea that faculty should be their students’ surrogate parents. At times his emails made one suspect that, when not hobnobbing with the pillars of society like the Koch brothers and Stephen Schwarzman, he was attempting to turn MIT into an annex of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Pandering to students this way, especially during the period when many of their less fortunate peers were dying in Vietnam, was distasteful, but employees have to either resign or follow their employer’s instructions.

Thus it was interesting to learn that faculty and students are about to exchange roles. In a recent meeting with the Mathematics Department faculty, Vice Chancellor Waitz did a superb job of explaining that, as a result of a vote in which approximately half the eligible participants chose to be represented by a union, federal law required MIT to negotiate a contract with its graduate students. As a result, for several months Waitz and his colleagues have been meeting with officers from the Graduate Student Union. Fortunately, Waitz seems to be a remarkably good negotiator who has full mastery of not only the financial but also the educational perils that could result. For instance, he has convinced the union that MIT, having last year increased their salary by 9%, simply cannot afford to increase it again by the 40% that the union proposed. Also, he appears to recognize there is something strange about the whole situation. MIT accepts approximately 10% of its graduate school applicants, and presumably those whom it does accept applied because they sought the advantages of an MIT education.

However, it appears that half of our students are not satisfied to have us enhance their future prospects, they now want us to pay for the privilege of doing so. Most of them already receive a total compensation package that is twice the average salary of the American working class and higher than that of some junior faculty. You cannot help but admire their self-esteem, but you can question whether it is well-founded and should be rewarded.