Majority Vote on GIRs Isn’t Good Enough at Special Faculty Mtg.

The faculty defeated a motion to revise the General Institute Requirements on Wednesday. The vote, 81 to 69 in favor of the motion, lacked the three-fifths majority required to amend the rules and regulations of the faculty, which govern the current GIRs.

Due to an error in parliamentary procedure, faculty who voted on the motion were informed that it had carried by simple majority and therefore believed it had received the approval it needed to be enacted. Only immediately after the meeting, when physics professor Thomas J. Greytak ’63 raised the possibility of a procedural error, did Faculty Chair and Professor Bishwapriya Sanyal and the other faculty officers realize a three-fifths majority was needed.

Most of the opposition to the motion centered around changes with the science, math, and engineering core. The plan would have altered the SME core by allowing for the introduction of alternative varieties of subjects which would satisfy the physics, math, biology, and chemistry requirements, and by creating a new committee to govern the content of these classes.

It also would have simplified the HASS requirement by replacing the HASS-D system with a three-category distribution requirement, an idea that appeared to receive widespread support from faculty and students.

The motion also detailed the development of pilot versions of new classes in elements of design, along with several focused HASS courses targeted at freshmen. These experimental classes would have been evaluated for possible incorporation into the GIRs after a two-year trial period.

Faculty members were informed of the mistake in an e-mail sent early Thursday morning that was signed by President Susan J. Hockfield, Sanyal, Associate Chair of the Faculty Melissa Nobles, and Secretary of the Faculty Seth Teller. Professors Robert P. Redwine and Charles H. Stewart, who first brought forth the motion, “intend to consult with voices on both sides of [the] vote and with Institute leadership about the most appropriate next steps,” according to the message.

Redwine and Stewart, co-chairs of the Educational Commons Subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, the group that developed the GIR plan, will meet this morning with ECS to discuss how to move forward. At the moment, said Redwine, no further actions have been decided.

Many faculty expressed their support for the motion at the meeting, including Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80, citing the increased flexibility and possibility for innovation that the modifications to the SME core would provide. The change in governance would also facilitate the introduction of new flavors of the core subjects and allow for more interdisciplinary courses to be developed.

Lingering concerns

The ECS spent a year and a half formulating a plan that would incorporate the entire faculty’s opinions and would earn broad support when put to vote. But, from discussion that took place at the faculty meeting, it was clear that many professors’ concerns lingered.

Those voicing opposition to the GIRs fell mostly into two camps: those who believed that the changes proposed were not innovative or reformative enough to be worthwhile, and those who thought that the motion would change the GIRs too much, needlessly modifying a system that appears to be working already.

Objections were also raised regarding the committee-based governance system that would be introduced to support the development of new classes satisfying the science, math, and engineering GIRs.

Professor Arthur P. Mattuck, who attended the meeting, wrote in an e-mail that “what’s in the science core, who teaches it, and who decides these things [is at] the heart of the controversy.” He noted that many faculty were asking, “Is change being proposed just for the sake of change, or is something seriously wrong that needs fixing?”

Mattuck wrote that many in the School of Science were concerned that the proposal would move governing authority from the individual science departments, which have done a good job managing the current GIRs they teach, to committees with representatives from other departments.

Professor Keith A. Nelson echoed this sentiment in a statement at the faculty meeting: “I don’t see a compelling reason to change the governance of the [science core] courses.” He argued that “The current departments are able to innovate … The curriculum has evolved even though course titles have not,” and related his incorporation of a discussion about scanning tunneling microscopes, a technology invented 20 years ago, into 5.111 (Introduction to Chemistry).

Although the motion, if enacted, would not have created any additional requirements at this time, some professors, including bioengineering professor Linda G. Griffith, voiced concerns about the pilot design classes. She said that they could, in the future, add to the requirements students feel pressured to complete in their freshman year.

Additional requirements, according to Griffith, could disadvantage students who come to MIT with little Advanced Placement or other credit, restricting their opportunities to explore their interests in freshman year.

Next steps

While the ECS has yet to decide specific steps for moving forward, chairs Redwine and Stewart have begun to assess what issues need to be discussed. They plan to work with both faculty who supported the original motion as well as those who voiced a whole range of criticisms.

“We need to find another way to ensure the dynamism of the core,” said Stewart. “We need to put our thinking caps back on and see if there are better ideas out there.” He said they will continue to search for ideas that would earn broad support from the faculty.

“An option that is not available is doing nothing, because there is undoubtedly widespread support already for many elements of the proposal,” Stewart said.

Though the motion was originally intended to pass as a package, it has been proposed that parts of the plan, such as the widely-supported simplified HASS system, might be approved and enacted separately.

Reactions from other faculty members to the split vote vary. Some voiced concern that the Institute seemed to be struggling to move forward and innovate. Many recall an earlier committee, the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, that preceded the ECS and developed its own proposal to reform the GIRs that also failed to win approval from the faculty.

Yossi Sheffi, professor and director of the Engineering Systems Division, said he worried about how difficult it seemed for the faculty to come to any decisions. He warned that much more difficult decisions lay ahead in light of the current financial crisis.

Stewart chose to be more optimistic. “I think the positive way of seeing it is that we have made progress over the past couple of years,” he said. Overall, this proposal contained some more popular elements and gained more support than the Task Force’s proposal, he said. “Perhaps we haven’t gotten it quite right yet, but we are further along the road than we were two years ago.”