Faculty and Staff Views on the Choice of the Next MIT President: A Recap of Last Spring’s Faculty Newsletter Zoom Forum
On May 24, 2022, the Faculty Newsletter hosted a Zoom forum on the selection of the next president of MIT. Following is an abbreviated version of that presentation.
Jonathan A. King
Professor of Molecular Biology, Emeritus
Good afternoon, and thank you for joining this “Forum on the Selection of the Next President of MIT.” The appointment of a new president of MIT will influence education and research at the Institute for years – and perhaps decades – to come. We do not yet know whether the committees and procedures put in place recently to correct prior administration errors will be effective. These errors included – in the aggressive pursuit of income – allowing undue influence on MIT from fiscal donors such as Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Jeffrey Epstein, and others. Thus, the choice of a new president needs broad and close scrutiny.
This forum has been organized by the Editorial Board of the Faculty Newsletter. Newsletter Editorial Board members are elected by the faculty, independently of administration input. We have invited members of the Postdoctoral Association and the Graduate Student Union to join. All the panelists are speaking for themselves.
We note that the general Administrative Staff is not represented, nor are undergraduate students.
Before introducing our faculty panelists, I would like to call your attention to the very substantial article on MIT governance in the current issue of the Faculty Newsletter, by current and former faculty chairs Lily Tsai, Rick Danheiser, Bob Jaffe, and Tom Kochan. The situation at MIT is correctly described as Shared Governance. However, the Faculty and the Administration are in no way equal partners in this shared governance. The Administration holds many levers of influence, not available to the Faculty, most notably the budget.
Thus, the policy for decades of underpaying our female faculty was not set by input from the female faculty. Similarly, the decision of the Reif administration to use the invaluable campus land on the East Campus for commercial office buildings rather than graduate student housing and academic buildings, represented ignoring the faculty, grad student, and postdoctoral preferences. The dominant influence of the president and close advisors in MIT Governance makes the selection process deserving of our closest scrutiny.
It’s worth mentioning two other features that add to our concern. MIT is one of the only research universities in the country in which the faculty does not have their own senate or council, that can confer independently of the administration. The MIT Corporation is also somewhat unusual in the scarcity of national research, scientific, or educational leaders among its members.
Our first panel will be five-minute statements from four senior faculty:
Professor Rosalind Williams from the Program in Science, Technology and Society; Professor Ceasar McDowell of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning; Professor Ruth Perry of Literature; and Professor Robert Redwine from Physics. After their presentation we will open the floor for general discussion.
Roz, you have the floor.
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Bern Dibner Professor, Emeritus
Program in Science, Technology, and Society
I want to use my five minutes to offer three descriptions:
- Of this moment in history
- Of an ideal MIT President
- Of the current MIT governance structure
Order matters: These three things are connected in a logical sequence.
First: the historical moment.
In modern times (at least since MIT’s founding in 1861) universities were widely assumed to be good for society – their quest for knowledge, led to research, useful applications, economic prosperity, social progress.
Today, there is much less conviction that this is how history works.
Instead, there is distrust of universities as institutions and suspicion of motives and behavior of many faculty.
Coming years will be very different from previous ones for universities because they will not have the civic and political support that universities have long enjoyed.
Second: the ideal MIT president will need skills to navigate in these troubled waters.
These will be partly political skills but most of all they involve moral leadership within the Institute and beyond.
Often heard is such a person described as someone with a strong moral compass.
What does this mean in the context of higher education?
The true north in a university setting means dedication to the ideals of Enlightenment – to the discovery of knowledge, the quest for truth, dedication to understanding how the universe works, both non-human nature and human societies.
The president and the institution need to point towards the values of Enlightenment, but both must understand their limits: there is an ideal but there are also human shortcomings and both need to be acknowledged.
An example would be MIT studying its own history of exploitation connected with enslavement – using tools of research and study to understand its own failures.
Third: an ideal person is not possible and also not enough.
MIT needs a governance structure where the moral compass of the president can operate.
Currently this is questionable.
In the latest issue of the FNL (May/June 2022) Faculty Chair Lily Tsai has described the shared governance of MIT – Faculty, Administration, and Corporation – as a triangle where the relation between Faculty and Corporation has become weak and needs to be strengthened.
Similar themes were raised by Leigh Royden and myself in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of the FNL.
We put particular emphasis on the December 2012 quarterly meeting of the MIT Corporation, where a series of votes by the Corporation renamed the “Bylaws of the Corporation” as “Bylaws of MIT”; extended the responsibilities of the Executive Committee of the Corporation; and, most significantly, determined that the Executive Committee would no longer be chaired by the president of MIT but by the chair of the Corporation. In practice this has meant that the Executive Committee is no longer headed by someone with experience as an academic leader, and sharply limits the authority of the MIT president.
I would also note that the president of the MIT Investment Management Company reports directly to the Chair of the Corporation, without going through the President of MIT. At a time when the MIT endowment has grown remarkably, this means that its payout and related matters, which are increasingly significant, rest entirely within the reporting structure of the Corporation.
In sum: The new president of MIT may bring a strong moral compass to the job – but the structure of MIT as it now stands does not make it clear whose compass will be consulted to direct the course of the Institute. The search for a new president should bring intensive discussion by all parties involved not only of the values and priorities of individual candidates, but also of the governance structure which will make it more or less possible to act upon those values and priorities.
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Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities, Emeritus
When I first came to MIT 50 years ago, the faculty meetings were large, noisy, energetic events. There were speeches and debates on the floor – and votes. Presidents – Wiesner, Gray, and then Vest – recognized people to speak but did not direct the discussion. If you wanted to send a message to the entire faculty – this was before email – you could get a roll of faculty labels, stick them onto a letter or a flyer folded in thirds, and put them in intercampus mail. I communicated this way with my colleagues across the Institute a number of times, without any oversight. I knew many of my colleagues in other Schools. And the big names in those Schools – Herman Feshbach, Phil Morrison, Salvador Luria, Art Smith, Joe Weizenbaum, Patrick Winston – were highly literate with interests in the arts and humanities and enjoyed discussing literature with me.
In the last 15 years the position of the faculty in the governance of MIT has deteriorated. No one comes to the faculty meetings anymore because there is never open debate on issues and little time left for comments after planned announcements and committee reports. One is encouraged to submit comments on important matters – privately, separately, individually – but not as part of an ongoing collective discussion. The administration has been switched to broadcast but not to receive. The layers of bureaucracy and administration have multiplied and thickened, muffling communication among the faculty. The administration communicates with its faculty and the world through public relations agents. The old face-to-face connections are far less frequent.
And that is a shame because MIT is its faculty. You could change out the Corporation and it would still be MIT. And you could change out the administration – which is about to happen – and it would still be MIT. But you could never replace the faculty and stay the same institution.
So that’s one imperative: the new president must value and strengthen faculty participation in the governance of MIT. We need a return to transparency in our leaders’ decisions and increased trust in faculty voices and representation.
Then there is the issue of intellectual balance. Every week new initiatives are being announced – encouraging start-ups and entrepreneurial activity and new businesses. MIT has become the R&D arm of the technology and business community – instrumentally geared to serve industry rather than to develop a balanced educational institution. The irony, of course, is that this corporate and entrepreneurial culture will be less creative than its earlier intellectual exploratory version. Our Corporation used to have more MIT faculty members on it as well as faculty from other institutions. Nowadays it is largely made up of people from the business world and even the faculty on it are faculty from business schools.
But capitalism and the profit motive are not the best guiding principles for an educational institution. Strategies for making money do not lead to new understandings about the solar system or breakthroughs in biology or physics; a focus on maximizing real estate investments won’t illuminate a complicated tract in German philosophy or help us understand the meaning of a nineteenth-century English poem, a French painting, or a Romanian social movement.
We need a president who comes from a more traditional and less corporate university – who has operated with a different set of standards to those of business – a leader who believes more in the collective production and open dissemination of knowledge than in leveraging corporate gain. We need a leader who has another intellectual register to draw on other than business and who resonates to other values than merely that of cash. Let’s
find a climate scientist determined to halt the heating of the planet. Or an engineer who has been involved in forestalling surveillance techniques. Someone with an ethical stake in the world of technology and science.
It ought to be possible to locate a new president interested in:
- Strengthening the hand of the faculty in the governance of MIT.
- Committed to hiring a diverse faculty.
- Broadening the educational objectives of the Institute beyond the entrepreneurial.
- Bringing an ethical dimension to the Institute’s initiatives.
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Robert P. Redwine
Professor Emeritus, Department of Physics
Thank you to the leaders of this forum for inviting me to have a significant role in this important event.
I have been on the MIT Faculty since 1979; I formally became emeritus faculty in 2021. In addition to doing teaching and research in physics over these many years, I served as Director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science from 1992 to 2000 and as Dean for Undergraduate Education from 2000 to 2006.
Given the structure of leadership at MIT, it is hard to overestimate the importance of choosing the right person to fill the role of president.
Obviously, the Corporation has the formal responsibility to appoint the president, but it is very important that the Corporation members get a broad range of inputs and perspectives in making this decision – from faculty, students, research staff, and administrative staff. I think we are doing a better job than before at including input from faculty and students, but the staff, including administrative staff, is really important as well. It is important to remember that administrative staff members are in an especially complicated position, as they may feel that expressing their honest opinions may put their jobs at risk.
The search should be broad. We know from experience that even someone who has no MIT past can be a great president. I was fortunate as dean to work closely for several years with Chuck Vest, who did not have an MIT connection before he was appointed president. Chuck was broadly viewed as very successful in many ways as president.
Clearly, we want a president who has appropriate experience and who has demonstrated that he or she has the moral compass and commitment to making sure that MIT makes the right decisions and moves in the right direction. However, how the president interacts with the broad MIT community is also very important.
One feature about Chuck Vest that I really liked, and I hope that those who choose the next president will care about, was his willingness to listen to different points of view. If you were concerned about the direction MIT was going on an issue and you went to Chuck to express that concern, he would listen carefully. And if you had good arguments for changing direction, he would almost always agree to do so. He was not concerned about being seen as personally right all the time, he just wanted MIT to be going in the right direction.
This leads to the general issue of connections between the president’s office and the rest of the Institute. It is important that the president receive regular input and feedback from a range of roles across MIT. When I was Dean for Undergraduate Education, the Academic Council played an important in providing this. Meeting once a week, there was time not only for specific agenda items but also time for general discussion and for people to raise issues they were concerned about. Academic Council is certainly not the only mechanism for providing such input and perspective, but one way or another it is important to make sure the president is exposed to such discussions and to make sure that the president is a person who will welcome such discussions.
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Jonathan A. King
Professor of Molecular Biology, Emeritus
Though a stable financial base is essential for any institution, it is all too easy for that goal to supersede others.
In my personal estimation, focus on income above scholarship and teaching, led to a number of abuses which have undermined rather than advanced MIT in recent years.
When President Reif took office, I was part of a faculty and grad student group pressing for alleviating the acute housing shortage for graduate students. The Institute had available campus land on the East Campus, and plenty of capital. Sadly, rather than expanding graduate student housing to meet the need, President Reif chose to build commercial office buildings.
Many people don’t understand that the university environment is unique in promoting open communication – grad students, postdocs, and faculty are all trying to communicate what they have learned, and to learn more from you. That is a central component of the culture, and key to discovery and innovation.
The commercial sector operates in the opposite mode; corporate secrecy, patent monopolies, non-disclosure agreements. For decades to come our East Campus will have culture of open communication and cooperation undermined, weakening MIT’s ability to contribute to national and international needs.
I want to see a new president chosen for their commitment to the role of the university, and not to increasing income available to the administration.
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Department of Earth, Atmospheric,and Planetary Sciences
Thank you very much for the opportunity of being part of this panel and lend a voice to the postdoctoral community! As briefly mentioned by Nader [Nikbakht, Postdoctoral Association President], we created a survey to assess the current financial situation of the postdoctoral community at MIT in February of 2022. This was in response to frequent comments that the ever-increasing cost-of-living in the Boston area is mentally draining, fuels existential fears, and restricts postdocs from performing their research at peak performance. Indeed, the results of the survey were eye-opening and the high rate of response, approximately a third of the MIT postdoctoral community within 48 hours responded, emphasized the grim financial situation of many postdocs currently working at MIT.
The depressing truth is that 85% of all postdocs at MIT feel financial stress every single day. There are multiple reasons for this such as the fact that MIT pays among the lowest postdoctoral salaries in the Boston area, two consecutive years of high inflation, and an increase in housing costs of up to 30% in a single year. As a result, over 50% of the postdoctoral community pays more than 50% of their salary for rent, 65% of the postdoctoral fellows cannot afford to pay into rental savings, and the 15% of postdocs that have children pay an additional $20,000 to $40,000 per year for childcare. A number of postdocs commented in the survey that the only way to make ends meet is to work a second job, and others have accrued significant debt since joining MIT.
It goes without saying that this is not sustainable. Since MIT expects their postdocs to work at the cutting edge of research and technology in a vastly competitive environment, compensation and working conditions should empower us to do so and not be a further burden on mental health.
Due to the current financial situation of postdocs and actions of MIT under the previous president, many postdocs identify themselves less with what MIT stands for. I therefore believe that the next MIT president needs to govern MIT less as a corporate institution, but focus on the core mission of MIT: excellence in teaching and research. Reigniting the sense of belonging and nurturing trust in the leadership not only among the postdoctoral community but across MIT faculty, staff, and students will be paramount in successfully navigating MIT through the next decade.
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Department of Physics
Hello my name is Adam Trebach, I’m a 5th-year graduate student worker in the Physics Department and I’ve been organizing with the MITGSU [Graduate Student Union] since fall 2018. As a union organizer, I’d first like to encourage any grad students in the audience to fill out your bargaining survey! Go to tinyurl.com/mitgsubargainingsurvey. It takes about 10 minutes and your voice matters, so please share your thoughts.
I have three primary points that I would like to make: two stemming from my status as a graduate student worker and one from my status as a young person.
As a grad worker, I know that it’s of paramount importance that our next president is committed to honest collaboration with the MITGSU. We share the same goal: we want to build an MIT where bright young academics, regardless of class or race or gender, can thrive as we hone our skills and discover new things. And we want to work with the administration to make this happen.
So, when grad workers say we need protections from abuse, that’s because we know that abuse and harassment and discrimination hamper our work here. When we say we need affordable housing, that’s because we know that rationing food and stressing about paying our rent hampers our work here. It is my sincerest hope that the next president will view us as allies in the quest for a better MIT. A good start to this would be honest communication with grad workers here and respect for our needs, something that was conspicuously absent during the administration’s anti-union campaign.
For example, we repeatedly received messages claiming that the administration could not negotiate with the MITGSU about housing even though this is strictly, verifiably false. Housing is not a required subject of bargaining but it is absolutely permitted. This was a deliberate lie that was spread to dash the hopes of grad workers who saw and see a union as a vehicle to improve our lives and work here. In this church where we worship the pursuit of truth, dishonesty is blasphemy. Eventually the administration conceded that they *would* not negotiate on housing. This, at least, is an honest statement of intention, although I sincerely hope that the administration changes their tune. I have heard some faculty are being told that you cannot talk to graduate students about the union. This too is disinformation, and seems to be an effort to divide us even though, as fellow academics, our interests are largely aligned.
This actually neatly brings me to my second point: housing. We need it, but we can’t afford it. Housing costs have risen faster than our wages for several years running now. While this has happened, MIT administrators have demolished the Eastgate dorm and replaced it with site 4, raising rents by over 50%. This is the wrong direction. I know from my hundreds of conversations with grad workers that this issue is both important and urgent. So I would urge the next president of MIT to construct grad dorms that are not luxury apartments and rent them below market rate so that grad workers aren’t rationing our food.
Finally, I speak as a young person. From 2007 to 2020, our departing president L. Raphael Reif, sat on the board of directors for Schlumberger (the world’s largest offshore drilling company). To be clear, this is not an energy company, this is an organization that is almost exclusively an oilfield services contractor. During that time, President Reif received compensation of at least 4.3 million dollars, including over 36,000 shares of stock. Now I’ve only been able to find the SEC filings since 2010, but the stocks listed in there are today valued at over 1.5 million dollars (source: https://sec.report/CIK/0001396628/Insider-Trades). MIT has a vital role to play in the global decarbonization effort, but any breakthroughs in this endeavor could cost President Reif millions. This is an obvious conflict of interest.
I am not claiming that President Reif has steered the Institute away from decarbonization, but the possibility and incentives for this clearly exist. And I do know for certain that my generation will pay the price for our sluggishness in addressing the climate crisis. Being president of MIT is an awesome responsibility, and the next president should have no financial entanglements that oppose MIT’s commitment to building a better world. MIT can and must be committed to producing new knowledge and to the public good, not simply to the enrichment of itself and its executives.