The Paradox of Institute Performance and Faculty Perceptions

During the last few months, as I served as the chair of the MIT faculty, I have been surprised by a phenomenon which I can only describe as a paradox. While all the indicators of MIT’s institutional performance look quite positive and convey clearly that MIT remains a leading research university in the world, the faculty — not all, but a sizeable number — seem to feel that the Institute is not moving in the right direction, that its institutional norms and practices are changing, moving away from MIT’s traditional culture of decentralized innovations towards a relatively centralized and somewhat corporate model of governance. This odd juxtaposition of success and alarm has been intriguing for me.

The record of MIT’s success should be well known, thanks to periodic and well-organized events, such the State of the Institute campus-wide presentation by the senior administrators. That is why I am surprised how often I have to recount all the “good things” that have happened either at MIT or to MIT when I hear complaints of the kinds I mentioned earlier.

For example, compared to the time not so long ago when MIT had to freeze the faculty salary for a year, or reduce administrative support through “re-engineering,” the Institute’s current financial situation is very strong. Our endowment has increased steadily, our budget deficits have turned into surplus, we continue to recruit top quality faculty which is not cheap, and our allocation for student financial aid has also increased steadily over the last few years. If we look at other indicators, such as number of applications for admission, faculty productivity in research, and institutional investments in new initiatives, those too look quite good.

In terms of physical infrastructure, the kind of boom we witnessed with the construction of the Stata Center or Simmons Hall has subsided somewhat; nevertheless, two or three projects are currently underway, including construction of a new dormitory for students, renovation of an old dormitory, and construction of two new buildings, one for the Sloan School and the other for the extension of the Media Lab. Funds are also being raised from private donors for additional projects.

MIT is also engaged in a mini-campaign, very soon after a major campaign, to raise funds for student fellowships and extra-curricular activities which enhance the quality of student life. Hence, overall, it seems to me that the basic indicators of the health of our institution all look quite good — in fact, better than what we experienced in the late 1990s or early 2000.

And, yet, there is still unease and discontent about the current state of MIT. In my meetings with faculty, I hear that MIT is changing from a place that celebrated decentralized innovations by unpretentious academics to one that is managed increasingly by a centralized group comprised primarily of non-academics. As the chair of the faculty, I do participate in one such centralized group, called the Academic Council. I am struck by the range and depth of issues discussed at the council meetings where I have the opportunity to present the faculty’s concerns at any time.

The December faculty meeting indicated yet another concern of the faculty — that MIT’s relationship to its own community members is being influenced more by current legal concerns than old norms. It is true that MIT now has a legal counsel, as many other top-ranking universities also do, because the legal climate which now affects the academic institution is very different than, say, 20 years ago.

Finally, some faculty are concerned that more attention seems to be paid to MIT’s international engagements than what happens at 02139 Cambridge, Mass. The good news is that MIT’s international reputation continues to flourish, and much effort is being devoted by a special task force, headed by Associate Provost Philip S. Khoury and Vice President for Research Claude R. Canizares, to address the kinds of issues which concern the faculty.

What explains the paradox then? That is the question that intrigues me, and I hope I can play a positive role in bridging the gap between institutional performance and faculty perceptions which is necessary for strengthening the learning environment at MIT.

Bish Sanyal is the chair of the MIT faculty and a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.