November/December 2021Vol. XXXIV No. 2

Is MIT Losing Control of its Own Destiny?

Eduardo Kausel, John Williams

Most people will take for granted that MIT is currently the most preeminent technical university in the world, and that it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Its prestige and aura as the place where geniuses are at work is unrivaled in the public perception as well as in the news media at large. This enviable position was attained in no small part because of how the Institute functioned over its long 160-year history. Some of the key reasons for this functioning were:

  1. MIT was, and continues to be, a highly elitist institution, as are other Ivy League sister institutions like Stanford, Caltech, or Yale. It has consistently discriminated in favor of the intelligent and the super-talented both in the selection of its students as well as in the hiring and retaining of its faculty. In so doing, MIT has never really wondered how people from various backgrounds and places of origin have gotten to be valedictorians and super-achievers in the first place, but has routinely chosen the best among the best. It also seems clear to us that no institution can simultaneously be elitist and egalitarian. Indeed, these two concepts are polar opposites. Give up the elitist and meritocratic values and you surely will affect the course of the institution’s evolution.
  2. The Institute has always had a vertical command structure: Department heads have ruled over departmental faculty when deciding on salary raises, promotions and possible tenure, even if wise DHs have still sought the input from the senior departmental faculty; Deans in the various Schools have ruled over their respective department heads; and the senior administration in the Academic Council has ruled over the Deans. All the while, the balance of power between faculty and their various Heads was maintained by the ability of the tenured faculty to speak out their minds. And all of the Illuminati in this hierarchy were usually chosen by a rigorous search process that promoted and called upon faculty to serve in the upper ranks following again the principle of the best among the best. This process worked very well indeed, and in no small part contributed to the extraordinary success of the Institute
  3. All of the important administrative and academic decisions were made by members of the long-term faculty, and never by students and/or the non-academic administration. Thus, the system relied on the talent, wisdom, experience, and knowledge of the senior faculty to direct and advance the institutional goals.
  4. Although MIT is a private institution, it belongs to nobody in particular. Instead, it is chartered as a non-profit organization governed by a privately appointed Board of Trustees known as the MIT Corporation. Historically, MIT has had very few explicit, written rules, and this has been by deliberate design. That way it was able to deal with complex situations as they arose, and was not hampered by time-invariant precepts and needless bureaucracy. For example, nowhere at MIT is there any rule governing that classes must be taught on Mo-We-Fr for one hour, and/or Tu-Th for 1:30 hours, even though that has been – until recently at least – the unwritten norm. Nor are there any rules as to whether or not a department must require a graduate student to write a master’s thesis to graduate with an SM. Perhaps more importantly still, MIT has never openly declared if tenure is granted by the home department or by the Institute. Indeed, when years ago Gene Brown, Dean of the School of Science, saw fit to dissolve the Department of Nutrition and Food Science, MIT did its best to accommodate all tenured faculty in other departments, yet never openly clarified the issue as to where tenure resided. And so on and on and on. Add detailed explicit rules as well as MIT values, and that will surely add sand to the rails of institutional evolution and slow down or even obstruct academic life at the Institute.
  5. MIT has given tenure to its senior faculty to guarantee freedom of opinion and expression. This has been the key, universal academic privilege that is granted to faculty so they can engage in controversial ideas that not everybody, not even a minority, might agree with. By its very definition, life at a university requires allowing to be exposed to “dangerous” ideas or to personal opinions that may cause moral pain in some, i.e., the “feeling of being insulted.” But you cannot experiment with ideas if these are corralled by a fence of “permitted” thoughts and acceptable values.

We observe with some alarm that this hallowed, well-functioning tradition in the organization of MIT is now being undermined. We note that many reports and decisions of the senior administration are now faculty-light, produced mainly by a cadre of administrators and perhaps also lawyers.

For example, of the 22 members of the current draft of the Values Report, only some seven are faculty, and of these only three are from the School of Engineering. This report is rather long and contains “values,” some of which we disagree with. But more importantly, we question the very premise of establishing rules under the guise of “MIT Values” to begin with, especially if these were never discussed and approved by the faculty at large. Whose values? Will these values remain in force for decades to come? Any such values will invariably be tainted by the dominant, ideological currents du jour, which will favor strident political activists over reasoned debate – think of modern day McCarthyism. These do not represent lasting organizational principles. Instead, the codification of these temporary values into instruments of coercion will prove to be straight-jackets restraining the very principle of diversity aimed at by the Institute, not to mention that it will severely constrain the freedom of thought and opinion.

In lieu of the proposed set of MIT Values, we recommend instead adoption by MIT of an excellent set of recommendations outlined by the University of Chicago’s Kalven Committee report on The University’s Role in Political and Social Action, which can be found here: [ ].
A summary of the Kalven Committee recommendations is as follows:

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.

When we consider the actions of our leaders and ask what impact they have made on the morale of the faculty, it is rather telling that a majority within a large group of faculty recently polled by the Institute responded affirmatively to the question: “Do you feel on an everyday basis that your voice, or the voices of your colleagues, are constrained by MIT?” Moreover, the second question “Are you worried given the current atmosphere in society that your voice or your colleagues’ voices are increasingly in jeopardy?” was answered in the affirmative by a whopping 77% of the group.

Given this compelling evidence, we believe that MIT sorely needs a written document of import and clarity that lays out MIT’s defense of freedom of speech.

Indeed, we are amongst the faculty who are proposing that MIT adopts the Chicago Principles formulated by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, which has already been adopted by nearly 80 universities in the U.S., among them Princeton, John Hopkins, Columbia, and Boston University. More details can be found here: It is our understanding that Professors Byrne and Trout address this matter elsewhere in this same issue of the FNL.

We strongly believe that the direction of MIT as an institution should be the sole province of the faculty leadership and of the faculty as a whole, and not of a mélange of political actions committees, lawyers, untenured administrators, and students. Indeed, it is the faculty who are trained in education and research and it is they who ultimately provide luster to the Institute. Thus, it seems to us that the widespread adoption of democratic and egalitarian principles into the stewardship of MIT may well end up killing La poule aux œufs d’or.