November/December 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 2
From The Faculty Chair

A High Bar in Hard Times

Mary C. Fuller

This column is being written in late November, into a future of several weeks from now that seems especially unpredictable. This has been a chaotic semester, as we’ve all experienced the ripples here of violence in Israel and Gaza: conflict that has evoked the most primal emotions. As a person and as a scholar, I feel them too.

Other submissions to this issue may speak to the wider landscape; this column will stay close to home. The effects of the conflict here on campus have been profound, if not experienced universally. Without abandoning our core commitments, we’ve wrestled with questions about speech and freedom of expression, about policy and its application, about our physical campus, about governance and about the role of the university.

The other faculty officers and I have been immersed in practical problems and urgent conversations, as we seek to keep our eyes on principles and how these can best manifest in concrete decisions and actions. Yet some of our collective needs as members of the campus community have simply been for trustworthy narrative. What happened here today, this week, this month? How should we respond? Writing the history of the present is difficult, though, even at close hand. A coherent, well-sourced, and balanced account of the last few months at MIT would serve us all well, but I know how much work it would take to produce such an account (my own scholarship deals with the challenge posed by divergent first-person narratives). Each time I speak to someone, my knowledge and perspective evolve, and that experience demands epistemological humility. Even in these conditions of partial knowledge, of course we all continue to talk, write, and post all the time about what we believe is happening around us.

A colleague told some of us a story this week that captured our attention. Before she joined the faculty, she said, she did something in a way that was pragmatic and widely accepted but not by the book; afterwards, she began to follow the rules strictly even though doing so was impractical, because whenever she acted, as a faculty member she was now implicitly representing MIT. As she said, now “I had my MIT hat on.”

What would it look like to speak and write with “my MIT hat on” in this contested, painful, and difficult moment? It might look like passionate advocacy, or like the voice of moderation; both are reasonable responses, even necessary ones. What I think about the most, though, is what might be demanded by our identity as an institution based in rigor and standards. Whether we are designing a rocket or composing music, describing the structure of language or inventing a new material, solving problems or embedding equity in our computational tools, we aren’t satisfied with the first pass; we hold ourselves to standards of excellence and test our output many, many times. What would it look like to do that with the stories, the conclusions, the images we circulate? We certainly have our MIT hat on when we publish in Nature or Econometrica. What are we wearing when we post on social media or talk around the water cooler?

Forgive me; I don’t mean to preach a sermon to this brilliant audience, nor to lose sight of a bigger picture. Both social media and gossip have powerful affordances that can serve to resist and correct more official narratives. I would like to see us use them well and responsibly. Perhaps we should ask the historian’s question about the information we consume: “What do I trust this document to tell me?” About the things we say, perhaps we might ask not, could I get this through peer-review, but would I be willing to say this face to face at normal volume. Some things need to be shouted, I can almost hear someone say. I’ll concede that too – you’re right. But ultimately, to be able to work as colleagues, we need to disagree (especially) at room temperature, in our manner if not in the content of what we say. It’s not a matter of being less passionate, or not having the courage of our convictions; in fact, I believe that disagreeing face to face in this way takes considerable courage, and I believe that in part because it is so frequently avoided in favor of louder but more circuitous routes. And it is not easy to hold onto ourselves when there’s conflict. I say that with humility as well. (I’m a small, middle-aged woman, and one time in the dojo someone made me so angry that only prudence held me back from starting an actual fight with him.) Governing speech is even harder. Sometimes it’s easier to yell than speak, almost always it’s more inviting to talk to many multiples of strangers than to the person we have conflict with down the hall.

But what about it – are we afraid of doing hard things? Do we really not want to hold ourselves to a high standard, or at least aspire towards it? One unexpected treasure of this fall has been discovering what some of our colleagues can, in fact, rise to. You come to MIT knowing you will meet your intellectual heroes and heroines, but not necessarily expecting to meet people who are also heroes at being human, at carrying the burden of the present with grace, calm, persistence and generosity. Even if it urges us beyond where we’re comfortable, that example is welcome: we are not here to do what’s easy. Let’s frame one of our challenges as how best to be human in this difficult world, and maybe we can also learn how to teach our students that.