Missing from the Institute-Wide Planning Task Force Report: Cuts to the Administration

On Sept. 21, I attended the second forum for the Planning Task Force. While I am not against everything in the Task Force Report, it is appalling that the report has sections on cutting down the very nature and purpose of the Institute — academics and research — without any clear and specific attempt at cutting down the costs of having a workforce larger than the student body. At the forum, I mentioned that the Task Force report did not include a section specifically reducing the administration and its overhead. However, it does have a section on reducing academic costs and another section on reducing research costs. In the research section, it even goes so far as to suggest cutting the graduate student population (in other words, the main researchers) by up to 1,000 students. I received no answer to my comments from any Task Force member or any other administrator at the Forum; only repeated information or attempts to “correct” my statement.

First, I’d like to remind everyone of MIT’s mission:

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.

I have no doubt that the Task Force Report concentrates on how to deal with revenue issues mostly by changing things that directly affect MIT’s mission, instead of trying to cut costs on things that do not directly affect our goals.

According to numbers from the Provost’s Office of Institutional Research (IR), in 2009 MIT has 1009 faculty, 4051 “other academic” staff, 1722 research staff, 113 medical personnel, 2096 administrative personnel, 1657 support staff, and 864 service staff. Of those, 3095 are Lincoln Laboratory staff (LL 2008 Annual Report), but it’s not clear how they’re distributed. For “other academic staff” I learned from the IR Office that the number “includes adjunct faculty, professors of the practice, senior researchers, instructors, lecturers, visitors, faculty and research affiliates, coaches, postdoctoral appointments, etc. A large number of these folks are not paid by MIT.”

Therefore, I can say, based on IR numbers, that MIT has over 2000 administrators, over 2400 “support & service,” a lot of people not paid by MIT, and less than 1750 researchers! These numbers simply do not seem efficient: there are about 4400 support, service and administrative staff for 10,000 students and 2750 faculty and researchers. The inefficiency is especially high considering MIT is primarily a research and teaching institution.

The second comment to my remarks came from a member of the faculty, who mentioned that the graduate student population has grown from about 4,000 to 6,000 in the past 20 years. No question there. However, questions remain. How much has the administration grown in the past 20 years? (According to the IR Office, total staff grew from 8,398 to 11,512 between 2000 and 2009 and administrative staff from 1,427 to 2,096: That’s 25 percent administrative growth.) How much has the increased graduate population added in terms of new research funds? How much has the added research contributed to MIT, to Cambridge, to the United States, and to the world? This last one is very hard to calculate, but the fact that MIT has added multiple research centers, without losing the majority of the research groups that formed the basis of the Institute 20 years ago, show that MIT had to increase its research workforce to achieve its objectives.

I have a very hard time looking at any one at MIT and telling them that their work is less important than mine or anyone else’s. I think everyone does — nobody wants to “rank” whose job is more important. But, in that case, can the administration then rank which research is more important, so that we can stop doing the less important research? Is that fair? Why can’t the administration tell staff their job is less important, but it can tell students and faculty their research is less important? That is completely against of the spirit and purpose of MIT.

I do “rank” who is most important at MIT: students. The last thing you want to do is reduce the student population in any way. MIT should be trying to grow, because its growth is a benefit to the United States and the world. I strongly believe that any person at MIT who thinks their job is more important than academics and research should not be at MIT. If you took a job at MIT, be you faculty, research staff, support staff, or as part of a union, you must have a strong desire to contribute to the academic and research aspects of the Institute. Every single staff member must be willing to sacrifice something for that. I know I do, and therefore I expect others to. I am willing to let go of benefits, in the name of teaching and research (I already pay plenty of expenses out of my own pocket). Others should too — especially the administration and its management team.

Based on the Task Force report, MIT students will let go of many things. I see a future with no more than a handful of Athena “clusters.” I see a future where there will be fewer choices in dining and the need to pay for summer classes if students want to do more during the regular term. But the administration has to also see itself paying something, which the current plan does not demonstrate. The administration has to be willing to have fewer offices, fewer committees, and less of a need to refurbish administrative buildings. They should have major plans to consolidate different offices, hardly any of which made it to the report. They should stop spreading and constantly moving offices throughout the Institute. If the administration expects students and research staff to let go of academics and researchers, the administration has to let go of administrators first.

I have had a long history with MIT. I am an alum, class of ’98, MEng ’00, PhD ‘05. I was manager of Pritchett Grill, working closely with dining staff for three years. I was in East Campus dorm government. I was in LSC Execomm and a Tech Model Railroad Club officer. More importantly, I have worked closely with the administration as ASA President and GSC Treasurer. I was in the Presidential Search Committee that recommended President Hockfield. I was awarded Stuart and Compton prizes (as a student), as well as an Infinite Mile Award (as a staff member). When I heard about the Task Force, I e-mailed the Chancellor asking to be part of the group, since I had previously worked with him. I never heard back.

I love MIT and I know all of its sides, be it student, alum, staff or administration. I have the background to feel confident in saying that the Task Force made a very big omission in its report, and that it must be fixed. We’re all waiting for a real answer from the Task Force and the opportunity to help.

Alvar Saenz-Otero is a member of the Class of 1998 and a research scientist in the MIT Space Systems Laboratory,