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Message from the Chair

An Institute of Shared Governance

Susan S. Silbey

"A university, like all other human institutions – like the church, like governments, like philanthropic organizations – is not outside, but inside the general social fabric of a given era," Abraham Flexner wrote in his classic 1930 text, Universities. Flexner continued, "It is … an expression of an age, as well as an influence operating upon both present and future." American universities developed in their present form – a unique synthesis of German and British predecessors – alongside the expansion and institutionalization of American democracy, simultaneously embedding both the openness and exclusions of the larger society. Over the last century, our universities have experienced a dramatic shift away from what during the nineteenth century had been the absolute power of presidents and trustees. We have moved toward what Jonathan Cole, sociologist and former provost of Columbia University, calls "a company of equals."

Of course, we are not all equal; notably, university presidents still command the greatest authority within the university and also garner much public notice, serving as intellectual and moral leaders for the nation. Thus, the company of equals does not describe an empirically quantifiable balance, nor even assert formally equivalent power.
The university is a company of equals through a model of shared governance in which, as MIT Corporation Chairman Bob Millard recently remarked, each of the participating authorities, working within distinct, entwined, and sometimes overlapping jurisdictions, can exercise a veto. Loosely coupled organizations, universities are also loosely governed organizations. How does this shared governance work?


A list of the meetings that your faculty officers attend, individually or as a group, is an obvious first observation about how this shared governance works: weekly meetings of the faculty officers, Academic Council, Dean's Group; bi-weekly meetings of the Faculty Policy Committee, Committee on the Undergraduate Program; a monthly meeting with the President, Provost, Chancellor, and Senior VP/Secretary of the Corporation to set the agenda for the monthly Institute faculty meeting (which few faculty – often a bare quorum of 30 – attend); and monthly  department heads' lunches, random faculty dinners, and meetings of the Committee on Graduate Programs, Committee on Race and Diversity, International Advisory Committee, MITx Faculty Advisory Committee, and Enrollment Management Group. In addition, there are bi-weekly or monthly one-on-one meetings with the Provost, the President, the Chancellor, the Vice President, and the Chairman of the Corporation; quarterly meetings of the MIT Corporation, and the Corporation Joint Advisory Committee on Institute-Wide Affairs; semi-annual meetings of all faculty committee chairs and staff, and the Academic Appointments Subgroup of Academic Council; and annual meetings for new faculty orientation and new Corporation members orientation. Of course, there are also one-off meetings scheduled in response to requests to talk or desires to gather information, such as our recently initiated visits with School councils. Clearly, it is not possible for every officer to attend every meeting, as there are many conflicts. We divide the labor.

A Communication Link

Going from one meeting to another every day over these last two months, I have learned one lesson thus far about how shared governance works: I am a channel of communication, a link carrying information among various nodes in the MIT network.

Like the transport of electronic excitation from one molecule to another that initiates chemical reactions, light harvesting or other energy transfer, I inject information from one node into another, perhaps with less predictability than the exciton, but nonetheless pushing conversations to consider alternative points of view and possible directions of action – at least in our presence; what happens afterward, I have not yet learned.

Of course, none of this is driven by the laws of physics, nor is it yet automated; it is coordinated by the wizardry of Tami Kaplan, the Faculty Governance Administrator, who is herself an extraordinary repository of institutional memory as well as wise judicious guidance that shepherds the process.

Discussion Topics

What goes on in these meetings? Discussion topics range from petty annoyances of one kind or another to significant challenges to the future of the American university, some raised by students, others by members of the faculty, and some by members of the administration. Less often, a query may come from a Corporation member. During the first two months of this semester, discussions addressed some of the following topics repeatedly and some less often: new faculty orientation, freshman adjustments, parking procedures in Stata, closing of Senior House, costs of graduate education, graduate housing, computational thinking, construction plans for Kendall Square as well as the Volpe site, students' emotional well-being, the academic calendar and the week between final grades and Commencement, consensual sexual relations among adults and sexual harassment training, freedom of expression on campus, federal challenges to the research overhead rate, competitiveness of graduate student stipends, inclusion of instructional staff as respected members of the Institute, expansion of kinds of degrees such as MicroMasters, MIT's historical relationship to slavery, the progress of the MIT Campaign for a Better World, revisions to Rules and Regulations of the Faculty to eliminate repeated amending and editing, COUHES procedures (the Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects), instituting dinners for women faculty, a year-end retreat to discuss curricular changes, overlapping jurisdictions among some committees, housing costs nearby MIT, improving external recognition and perception of SHASS, analysis of undergraduate majors, communications requirement, classroom renewal and innovative design, faculty benefits, curricular experiments and, finally, the particular as well as general aims of an MIT education.

The Limits of Shared Governance

Clearly, shared governance does not mean that everyone is involved in everything. In the division of labor, there are topics the faculty officers have not discussed and about which our advice is not normally sought, for example, the Institute budget. There are also issues in which faculty are generally happy not to be involved, for example routine housekeeping, maintenance of vehicles, perhaps negotiations with Cambridge. Just as clearly, there are matters about which the faculty are passionate and would not only expect to discuss but to demand active participation in making the decisions. For example, this Faculty Newsletter began 30 years ago, in March 1988, in response to an administrative decision to close an academic department without faculty deliberation. In comparison, 30 years earlier, the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences was formed through an extended period of committee deliberation (i.e., The Report of the Committee on Educational Survey [also known as the Lewis Commission], November 15, 1949). Around the time of the Lewis Commission and the founding of SHASS, Alfred P. Sloan made a gift to MIT to establish a business school – the Sloan School of Management – but this was done without extensive prior faculty consultation. Just recently, The Tech published faculty letters calling for a new School of Computing at MIT. This proposal apparently followed tumultuous Visiting Committee sessions in which some members of EECS wished to divide the department. The peaceful resolution appears to not have satisfied everyone. What role does the MIT faculty as a whole play in such deliberations and decisions? What are the roles of the administration and the Corporation? The students?

Too narrowly defined, shared governance ignores the division of interest and labor, insisting on collaboration of all stakeholders, at every stage of a decision. Too broadly understood, the term becomes meaningless, ranging from assertions that faculty govern and administrators implement – without any notion of who is exchanging what with whom – to the opposite extreme where the administration sends out notices informing faculty of plans, processes, and decisions discussed with no others.

At one end of a spectrum, the governance system might put a high premium on autonomy, with policies and programs designed and driven from the bottom up with the messiness and inconsistencies that come with that. At the other end of the spectrum, a governance system might value the formalism, constraint, and consistency that come with managerial initiatives, policies, and programs from the top. With its flat organizational structure and relative autonomy among the Schools, departments, labs, and centers, MIT seems to have chosen the more autonomous end of the spectrum. Yet, shared governance cannot be every boat on its own bottom, as some institutions practice. As Gary Olson wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education some years ago, ". . . it is a delicate balance between faculty and staff participation in planning and decision-making processes on the one hand, and administrative accountability on the other."

How does MIT's particular organizational structure and culture achieve this delicate balance? How do we steer through what can often seem disordered hyperactivity? Although shared governance begins with the legal authority vested in the Corporation, it embraces the faculty, administration, and students (who across generations become alumni and may have the opportunity to join the Corporation). This model ensures, Bob Millard described in conversation with me, that all members can exercise a form of ownership. This is not the usual kind of material property; rather, this is an intangible form of ownership where each group has a vested interest in the excellence of the Institution.  Thus, through shared governance, "It is run by the people who care about its long-term success, those who fund, identify, are invested in it for the long term, for long after any of us are here."

So, how does this work? Through talk, talk, and more talk. Alas, the talk rarely leads directly or immediately to decisions; the most common result of our conversations are more conversations where we speak with others to collect yet more information, to hear what the others know and can contribute to the conversation. This is what governance consists of; eventually, after lots of talk at many meetings, a decision may emerge. Emerge is the right word. We recognize emergent properties when actions, patterns, entities develop through interactions among participating entities but do not belong to any of the components alone. Of course, departments, groups, individuals – MIT components – come to faculty committees and administrative offices with proposals, such as the current discussion of a possible new GIR in computational thinking or a new School of Computing. These proposals are merely the impetus for myriad discussions, which will ultimately shape a decision and course of action (or inaction).

This tedious process is the source of many faculty members', students', and administrators' complaints that faculty governance is an obstacle to change and innovation. It is also, I would assert with Millard, the means of assuring long-term excellence, but not only because of a virtuous circle of mutual commitment, identity, and investment. Other institutions, such as museums, national trust properties, and archives, display similar features of shared governance. We share with those institutions trust in the plurality and diversity of the governing participants. However, museums, parks, etc. are not fundamentally knowledge-making organizations as we are.

The independence of universities as knowledge producing organizations is a major historical achievement, of which our governance processes are a piece. If history is a story of wresting control of knowledge-making, as well as public power, away from the monarchical and religious authorities who claimed a monopoly to understanding the great chain of being, it is because of the scientific as well as democratic revolutions of the past 400 years.

The specific kind of trust that characterizes shared governance at MIT derives from the interdependence between the openness of our intellectual life and what might be considered the conservatism of our methodological demands. We can discuss any idea, no matter how threatening or radical it might appear, how abhorrent and offensive, because we demand evidence for those ideas to be accepted, validated, and acted upon – empirically valid and sound evidence. We set a high bar for knowledge, and we do the same for our policy and program decisions. These practices may produce more inaction than change, perhaps accounting in part for the longevity of universities, as compared, for example, with businesses more dependent on fickle markets.  Our methods may feel unduly cumbersome and uncertain when there are so many calls for change, here and in the wider public arena, perhaps even threatening our ability to practice fully open debate. Nothing is more hazardous to the future of governance, no less to MIT itself.

The democratic and scientific revolutions brought universities to this current place of shared governance. No one ever said democracy was efficient, neat, orderly; indeed many have noted its inadequacies. As Winston Churchill famously remarked, ". . . democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. . . ." Contemplating the sluggishness of shared governance, our colleague Haynes Miller in Mathematics reminded me recently that Winston Churchill also remarked: "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." Here is one of the consistent pleasures of this work. Faculty governance is not only about communicating, but fundamentally about connecting with colleagues across the Institute, and in so doing sustaining enthusiasm.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXX No. 2, November/December 2017