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May/June 2017

Some Developments, Advances, and Discussions from the Past Year

Krishna Rajagopal

As the academic year draws to a close, I will look back in this column on some of the many ways in which the Standing Committees of the Faculty have played their roles in the shared governance of MIT this year. Doing so will allow me to touch upon many important developments, advances, and discussions from the past year.

The Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) implemented new policies regarding the return of students who have been on leave, following a major review last year. For the Committee on Discipline, this was the second year (and the first full year) during which they have exercised MIT’s new policies regarding incidents of alleged sexual misconduct; they have begun preparing for a major review of these policies next year. The Committee on the Library System is engaging with the Libraries as they respond to the report of the Task Force on the Future of Libraries. As we heard at the April Institute Faculty Meeting, the Committee on Campus Planning, our newest standing committee, has found its feet and is now playing its anticipated role as our eyes, ears, and voice as MIT develops Kendall Square and West Campus. The Committee on Student Life serves as a venue for constructive dialogue among its faculty and student members and the new leadership of the Division of Student Life, to whom it provides advice on various policies. A major topic this year has been consideration of the policy that allows smoking in some MIT dorms, consideration that has included respectful and thoughtful conversation with student leadership. The Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid played an effective advisory role as, for the second year in a row, MIT introduced substantial enhancements to undergraduate financial aid.

Over the course of the academic year, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) and its Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement (SOCR), the Committee on Curricula (CoC), the Committee on Graduate Programs (CGP), and the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) have reviewed, suggested improvements to, and approved two new undergraduate majors, two new undergraduate minors, and two new master’s programs – resulting in the second-most active year for the development of innovative curricula for MIT’s students by its faculty and departments in several decades, second only to last year.

Interestingly, each of this year's new majors is being developed jointly by two departments and both of the new minors are interdisciplinary, continuing an ongoing trend of developing new educational pathways for our students that cross traditional departmental boundaries.

It is also worth noting that in all these cases early engagement between the groups of colleagues developing new curricula and the relevant faculty committees was important, as it resulted in improvements to the new programs that are now being launched. The committees, each of which includes faculty from all five Schools as well as students, serve to accumulate and share perspectives and best practices over time.

The new Chemistry and Biology major (5-7) is a combination of the existing chemistry and biology programs at MIT aimed at students who are interested in working at their interface, which is itself a well-established field of study both in basic research and in applications such as pharmaceutical chemistry and biotechnology. The introduction of this new major was facilitated by a change to the rules defining our Laboratory Requirement that was introduced during Spring 2017 following an analysis by, and recommendation from, the CUP. Students now have the flexibility to satisfy this requirement by combining designated modules. The design of the 5-7 major takes advantage of this flexibility.

The new major in Computer Science, Economics, and Data Science (6-14) is, as far as we know, the first of its type at any major research university. Contemporary electronically-mediated platforms for market-level and individual exchange combine complex human decisions with intensive computation and data processing, all operating within engineered economic environments. Examples include: online markets, crowdsourcing platforms, spectrum auctions, financial platforms, crypto-currencies, and large-scale matching/allocation systems such as kidney exchange and school choice systems. Some forms of exchange that were infeasible to coordinate (vehicle sharing, for example) are suddenly available and important. Other market activities that were previously thought to require centralization and oversight can now be decentralized and self-regulated (crypto-currency being the leading example), and the technology beneath that decentralization (so-called blockchain), will have many further applications. MIT is in a position to offer an innovative major that will provide students with foundational knowledge and hands-on experience relating to this emerging sphere of technological and economic activity because we have a considerable constellation of researchers working at the intersection of Economics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) as well as, according to surveys, considerable student interest.

The new Environment and Sustainability Minor is designed to address both people and the planet in an integrated manner, drawing upon content in four areas: earth systems and climate science; environmental governance; environmental histories and cultures; and engineering for sustainability. The minor combines a wide range of fields of inquiry to directly engage environmental and climate challenges facing ecosystems and populations around the globe. The minor has been developed by a large group of faculty from many departments working with MIT’s new Environmental Solutions Initiative. The new Polymers and Soft Matter Minor will provide MIT undergraduates with a foundation in the science and engineering aspects of polymeric materials and soft matter. By virtue of its diverse applications, polymer science is interdisciplinary, requiring knowledge from chemistry, physics, and engineering. The new minor will allow undergraduates to engage with this field, and in particular with the community of faculty and graduate students cutting across several departments that constitutes MIT’s long-established interdisciplinary doctoral Program in Polymers and Soft Matter.

Both new majors and both new minors will be available to students in September 2017.

The two new master’s programs approved by the Faculty this year are the first two instances of MIT’s new Master of Applied Science (MASc) degree, an umbrella degree type introduced in Fall 2016 for one-year professional master’s degrees that include a capstone project, not a thesis. Some students will complete both semesters of the MASc in Supply Chain Management (SCM) on campus. Others will begin by completing online courses and proctored exams that will earn them an MITx MicroMasters Credential in SCM. Some of these students whose performance is the strongest will be encouraged to apply for admission to MIT. Those who are selected and who enroll will receive Advanced Standing credit for one semester of their MASc subjects based upon their MicroMasters coursework; they will then proceed to do the second semester of their MASc and their capstone project on campus. The first MASc students selected in this new way will arrive on campus in January 2018; the comprehensive proctored exams that will conclude their MicroMasters are underway.

The MASc in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP) is being offered by the Economics Department with substantial support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Laboratory (a center within the department). MIT faculty have pioneered a shift in development economics toward more empirical research and impact evaluation methods that are controlled and quantitative, while at the same time the broader international development community has come to emphasize policies and development grounded in such analysis. The MASc in DEDP is aimed at development practitioners and policy-makers in governments, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies around the world looking for opportunities to retool, to become fluent in modern techniques and skills. A few thousand students around the world have already completed some of the online courses toward the MITx MicroMasters Credential in DEDP, and the first proctored exams are happening within weeks. Twenty students selected from among the MicroMasters recipients for admission to the MASc program will arrive on campus in January 2019.

The FPC Subcommittee on Sub-term Subjects, chaired by Professor John Fernández (Architecture), released its report during Fall 2016. Prompted by an increase in the number of sub-term subjects, the FPC had asked this group to analyze and assess the current status and to make recommendations. Their recommendations include many that faculty and departments should already be heeding, such as clear and early communication of expectations by instructors in sub-term subjects, as well as a series of recommendations for departments and faculty regarding ongoing development of new sub-term subjects and assessment of those that are running. For the particular case of half-term subjects, the subcommittee also recommended changes to Rules and Regulations of the Faculty regarding start and end dates, add and drop dates, and end-of-half-term procedures, noting that lack of consistency in these regards among different half-term subjects was causing stress for both faculty and students. (The large majority of sub-term subjects are half-term in length. The subcommittee noted examples of pedagogically well-motivated sub-term subjects with other lengths, but recommended that the changes to Rules and Regulations should focus on the most common, namely half-term, case, which was where inconsistency in expectations was resulting in stress.) Over the course of Fall 2016 and IAP, the FPC worked together with the CAP, CoC, CGP, and CUP to arrive at proposed changes that would set consistent standards. Standardizing expectations for start/end and add/drop dates for half-term subjects will benefit all students and faculty, including those teaching/taking full-term subjects. The modifications to Rules and Regulations were approved by the Faculty in March and are now in effect.

Significant trends and changes in undergraduate major selection and enrollments have been observed by many of us. For example, these trends have come up many times in Random Faculty Dinner conversations. MIT's departments and Schools are feeling corresponding stresses and strains, and also opportunities, both in departments experiencing high enrollment and in those with significantly reduced enrollment.

Earlier this semester, the CUP launched the Study Group on Undergraduate Majors Selection. The Study Group is charged with pursuing a process of discovery, analysis, and community discussion of data on trends in undergraduate major selection and enrollments at MIT; factors (both internal to MIT and external) contributing to these trends; effects and implications of these trends for students, faculty, and MIT; and responses by departments, Schools, programs, and offices at MIT, including existing best practices and initiatives underway as well as additional possible future responses.

The group consists of seven faculty members from MIT’s five Schools and two undergraduates, and is led by Professor Jeffrey Grossman (Materials Science and Engineering). The group would like to receive your input, and will be engaging broadly in the coming months. Input can be sent to at any time. The study group plans to update the CUP on preliminary analyses of trends, factors, effects, and responses in Fall 2017, as well as to update the community on plans to gather additional data and share observations and best practices.

In the previous issue of the Faculty Newsletter, I described the report of the Working Group on Computational Thinking and Algorithmic Reasoning for MIT Undergraduates at length. As I mentioned there, proposals for course development are now in the hands of Dean Dennis Freeman, and the CUP has begun the analyses called for in the report. This important conversation is well set up for further progress next academic year. In that column, I also described many ways in which faculty members are responding to the impacts of the current U.S. administration on MIT, grouping them into listening, learning and teaching, and outreach. These important conversations will also surely flow into the next academic year.  

Let me also mention here that there are two Working Groups charged by the Provost that are engaging with important issues and that are both aiming to release draft reports before Fall 2017. One, led by Professor Steven Hall (AeroAstro), has been asked to provide an academic perspective to the planning process for the Volpe site, helping to identify opportunities to create a vibrant development that complements and strengthens the Kendall Square innovation ecosystem. The other, led by Professor Anantha Chandrakasan (EECS), has been asked to recommend policies and procedures related to The Engine; it includes subgroups focusing on facilities access, technology licensing, conflicts of interests, visas for MIT entrepreneurs, and MIT’s innovation ecosystem. We can all appreciate the efforts of the many colleagues contributing to these Working Groups over the past semester. Their reports will surely provide key input to important ongoing MIT-wide conversations during next academic year and beyond. So too will Associate Provost Richard Lester’s report, A Global Strategy for MIT, in which he lays out goals and principles for global engagement and recommends how we can both bring MIT to the world and bring the world to MIT. The report was recently released for comment and discussed at the May Institute Faculty Meeting.

It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as the Chair of the Faculty for the past two years. I want to close this column with several thank yous.

First, to all the many colleagues, including faculty, students, and staff, who serve on the Standing Committees of the Faculty. I have given some examples above of the activities of these committees from the past year. I have worked closely with the chairs of all of the committees at different times. It is through their efforts and the efforts of all the more than one hundred committee members that the Faculty plays its many important roles in the governance of MIT.

Next, I want to thank the many hundreds of faculty who have come to the Random Faculty Dinners over the past two years. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of being the Chair of the Faculty has been attending these dinners once per month, including convening the after-dinner discussion. As Professor Jay Keyser did for almost 30 years, I began each after-dinner discussion simply by asking “What is on your mind?”

The discussions that followed were varied and wide-ranging, always thoughtful, and exceptionally valuable for me and my fellow Faculty Officers as we have discharged our informal responsibility to represent the Faculty in many fora.

Next, Associate Chair of the Faculty Leslie Kolodziejski and Secretary of the Faculty Chris Capozzola. For two years we have been a team-of-three. We have met in one context or another multiple times per week, and in so many ways we have seen paths forward together that no one of us could have found alone. I cannot imagine how I could have done anything at all without their advice, counsel, and support. Heartfelt thanks. The three of us have valued the respectful, productive, and positive relationships that we have had with President Reif, Provost Schmidt, Chancellor Barnhart, and the administration over the past two years. We are fortunate that MIT’s shared governance works as well as it does; not all universities are so lucky. Last and the opposite of least, our Faculty Governance Administrator, Tami Kaplan. She makes everything we the officers of the Faculty do happen, and furthermore provides both perspective and anticipation, as she is so often at least one step ahead.

Let me close by wishing the next officers of the Faculty – Professor Susan Silbey (Anthropology), Professor Rick Danheiser (Chemistry), and Professor Craig Carter (Materials Science and Engineering) – two years that are as productive, rich, full, and interesting as the past two have been. And, to all, a restorative and invigorating summer.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXIX No. 5, May/June 2017