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September/October 2015

The Year Ahead

Krishna Rajagopal

I am grateful to the editors of the Faculty Newsletter for offering the Chair of the Faculty the opportunity to write a regular column. Together with the new Associate Chair of the Faculty, Prof. Leslie Kolodziejski from Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the new Secretary of the Faculty, Prof. Chris Capozzola from History, I am looking forward to the coming academic year with anticipation. I hope that your summers have been as invigorating as mine. Leslie, Chris, and I are honored to serve as your Faculty Officers for the coming two years.

Looking ahead, this year – as in any year – MIT faces a variety of challenging questions that, in different ways, go to the core of who we are, what we value, and what we contribute to the world. I will list a few, no doubt missing as many as I list:

  • How will MIT, and in particular the MIT faculty, rise to the challenges put to us by the recent reports from the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education and from the MIT Climate Change Conversation Committee? What are the most effective ways via which MIT can harness the energies of its students, staff, and faculty toward finding solutions to the climate challenge? How can we best catalyze transformations in pedagogy and extensions to MIT’s educational impact, including those envisioned by the Task Force?
  • What new opportunities are there for MIT to lead in the development of residential education experiences that are intensely rigorous, inclusive, healthy, and welcoming? How should MIT best employ the many ways in which we, all of us in different ways and at different times, support students in our community? How can we strengthen the health and wellness of all our students, and of all of us? How can we most effectively weave the strong fibres that thread through our community into a resilient safety net?
  • How will MIT remain a beacon of discovery and innovation when federal support for basic research is under stress? How do we envision the MIT campus evolving over the coming decade or two, as student life and faculty life evolves? How will the changing campus landscape (dorms, maker spaces, classrooms, offices, research facilities . . .) improve our quality of life and empower us to achieve our ambitions?

Together with my fellow Faculty Officers, as the Chair of the Faculty I have the challenge of articulating the perspectives of the faculty in many conversations, including at the highest levels of the administration, as MIT finds its way toward answering these and other central questions, in so doing shaping its future. But, what are the perspectives of the faculty? Conversations among us, in many different circles, about these kinds of questions are vital. I expect that in future columns I will share thoughts about some of these questions, informed by my continuing conversations and with the goal of prompting them further.

Through the Faculty Policy Committee, on which all three of us serve, the Faculty Officers are also stewards of MIT’s shared faculty governance.

The coming academic year will see the faculty, first through its committees and then as a whole, considering an unusually large suite of curricular innovations, likely including a PhD program centered in our new Institute for Data, Systems and Society, new undergraduate majors, and a new Masters program developed by the Sloan School, as well as several other new majors and minors.

In addition, many faculty and departments are building and trying out new online tools to improve how we teach on campus and to reach out to the world, and are exploring new forms of flexibility and modularity, among many pedagogical innovations.

How can we all benefit from our colleagues’ experience as we develop our own next innovation? What are the implications for student learning and the student experience, including the flexibility to tailor unique learning experiences as well as potential impacts on pace, pressure and stress, of our evolving mix of half-term and full-term subjects? Here the faculty committees play a key role, ensuring that new programs, new proposals, new innovations are all strengthened via synthesizing the insights and experience of faculty and departments across the Institute. So too do the web of collegial ties via which each of us interacts with colleagues outside our own departments, labs, and centers.

As I reread what I have written above, what jumps out in my own mind as I think about how to serve effectively as your Chair in a year with such a variegated suite of challenges, is how critically important it is for me to talk with as many of you as I possibly can, and to hear from as many more of you as I can at one degree of separation through Leslie, Chris, and the members of the Faculty Policy Committee. Please find me; please find us. How? I’ll close with two specific suggestions, but please find me any way that you like.

First, please come to MIT faculty meetings; to the meetings themselves, and to the reception afterwards.

Second, I much look forward to seeing you when you are one of the faculty members invited to one of the random faculty dinners. For me, these dinners that were started by Jay Keyser about three decades ago, have long been among my favorite features of faculty life. The opportunity they provide to make and renew connections with colleagues from across the Institute over wine and dinner play a valuable role in knitting our community together; certainly for me over the years they have built cross-links that later came to be of value in unpredictable ways. For the next two years, Leslie, Chris, and I will endeavor to be at all of them. One of the challenges I look forward to is trying to emulate Jay’s light but reassuring touch in guiding the open discussion that we have over dessert and coffee at the conclusion of each dinner. There is never an agenda, but time is allotted for any of you to raise current issues on your mind.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXVIII No. 1, September/October 2015