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September/October 2016

MIT Asked, We Answered: The 2016 Faculty Quality of Life Survey

Krishna Rajagopal, Leslie Kolodziejski, Christopher Capozzola

Welcome back from what we hope has been an invigorating summer, and all best wishes for the new academic year.

The three of us have spent time over the summer diving into the results from the 2016 Faculty Quality of Life Survey. The outcome of the survey provides a wealth of information and insights about the perspectives of the MIT Faculty on a wide variety of questions. Elsewhere in this issue of the Faculty Newsletter, Institutional Research (IR) has provided a synopsis of some of the highlights. These are only a small fraction of the data. Much more data, as well as data from earlier MIT surveys, can be found on the IR Website, including in particular highlights from the 2016 survey.

This survey is conducted every four years. In 2012, Chair of the Faculty Samuel Allen summarized the results by observing that members of the Faculty were "happy but stressed," noting that the "generally high measures of faculty satisfaction . . . are very encouraging" but that "at the same time, a significant number of faculty report feeling overwhelmed either often or very often," "find the workload either heavy or too heavy," and "find the integration of work with personal/family life to be a challenge" In all these respects, the message from the 2016 survey is very similar to that in 2012.

The overall level of satisfaction with being at MIT is even slightly higher than in 2012, and substantially higher than in 2008.

In 2016, as in the past, the sense of a Faculty that is stretched thin comes through in many ways. For example, we note that "lack of time to think and reflect" and "lack of time for friends and family" were two of the top three sources of stress in four of MIT's Schools, and the third and fourth sources of stress in the fifth School.

As Officers of the Faculty, we have access to the answers that members of the Faculty gave to the open-ended questions that were embedded within the survey, of course without knowing who authored any answer, as does the Provost. 544 faculty members answered one or more of these questions, and we have read every answer. Doing so was a privilege; the perspectives we have gained will be of great value, and we want to share some of what we have learned with you. The answers to two of the open-ended questions — where the Faculty were asked what we each wished we could spend (1) more time on and (2) less time on — have been coded and reported on by IR in their synopsis. We cannot summarize everything we have read, but we see it as our responsibility to share with you some of the themes that appeared frequently in the open-ended responses.

Aspects of the MIT environment that are uniquely attractive

One of the questions we were asked was: "We know that many faculty receive expressions of interest and offers to work elsewhere. What aspects of the MIT environment are uniquely attractive relative to other opportunities [we] may have?" 370 faculty members answered this question and, overwhelmingly, the most frequent replies cited the extremely high quality of the undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral associates that come to MIT. With similarly high frequency, faculty cite the quality of their colleagues — their outstanding scholarship and their genuine collegiality. Over half of the comments indicate that the people of MIT (students, faculty, staff, administration) are the reason why faculty remain here. Our culture is treasured by many faculty who describe MIT as a place of problem solving, a place that seeks to impact at the highest level important issues facing the world, a place with a culture of excellence and a culture of hardworking intellectuals without arrogance. The location of MIT in the heart of Cambridge — near Boston and as part of New England — is also highly valued. Faculty enjoy the opportunity to engage with surrounding industry and neighboring academic institutions. Faculty treasure the flexibility to choose their research directions, engage in interdisciplinary research, collaborate freely with colleagues throughout the Institute, and strive to innovate in the humanities, sciences and engineering, and in educational endeavors. Faculty appreciate excellence and find it at MIT. The following reply from one faculty colleague sums up why faculty stay at MIT: "1. The sense and spirit in my department — and more broadly across the Institute — of a shared and student-centered mission, for excellence in education and research, and for impact on society. 2. World-class colleagues and students. 3. The relative absence of politics in department affairs, and the willingness to experiment and improve. 4. Greater Boston and New England as great places to live."

Engaging with undergraduates and with graduate students

We were also asked how we like to engage with undergraduates and with graduate students. 304 and 307 respondents replied, respectively. The answers to the two questions were interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, different:

In general, the replies to the question about engagement with undergraduates can be categorized as involving interactions as part of one or more of the following: teaching; research; advising, mentoring, and providing career advice; and social engagements. Approximately one-third of the comments indicated that faculty obtain a high degree of satisfaction from their teaching, both in the classroom and with laboratory subjects. Associated with their teaching activity, members of the Faculty enjoy interacting with undergraduates in one-on-one meetings during office hours associated with a class or in open, or drop-in, office hours. Faculty also indicated great enjoyment in engaging with undergraduates as research collaborators, either in an official UROP context or by providing opportunities for research discussion. One-quarter of the comments centered around the opportunities for research collaboration with undergraduates. The other two manners of engagement with undergraduates — advising and mentoring, and social interaction — were also viewed as important by faculty, with each mentioned by approximately 20% of the respondents. In the replies centered around advising and mentoring, faculty indicated that they enjoy offering advice about career planning and applying to medical school or graduate school, as well as overall advice about navigating MIT and college in general. Participation by faculty in informal social events, and even planned Institute events, were viewed as valuable ways to engage with undergraduates in a meaningful way. More than 10% of the faculty who responded specifically suggested that lunches or dinners were great ways to build relationships with undergraduates.

As anticipated, engagement around research dominated replies to the question about graduate students, followed closely by interest in and activities that promote mentoring. Over 40% of the faculty responding indicated a strong desire to participate in research collaborations with graduate students, as well as enjoying meeting graduate students in typical contexts such as one-on-one meetings, lab meetings, formal group meetings, and thesis committee meetings.

Faculty frequently commented on the enjoyment and satisfaction derived from mentoring graduate students and meeting with them informally — almost a third of the replies. In contrast to ways that faculty engage with undergraduates, the activities affiliated with teaching, including contributions to graduate seminars, were cited less frequently — about one-sixth of the replies. Social activities, including departmental functions and parties, retreats, and Institute-organized events, as well as lunches and dinners, were also mentioned — again by about one-sixth of those who replied — as ways that faculty enjoy engaging with graduate students.

Ways to make MIT even better

Three of the open-ended questions focused on ways to make improvements to MIT.

The first of these followed up on one of the closed-ended questions on the survey: "Do you want to use more technology in your teaching?" 38% of respondents answered in the positive. Those respondents were then asked the open-ended question: "How can MIT most effectively support you doing so?" 145 faculty members answered this question, providing a wide range of thoughtful remarks. Perhaps because this was the most sharply focused open-ended question, its answers in sum are perhaps the most interesting. Three common themes emerged, in each case appearing in various ways in more than 40 answers.

The first, and by a small margin most numerous, theme was the need for improvements to our classrooms. Many simply stated this as a general goal. The most common explicit example given was the importance of making it easier to capture lectures on video, including greatly increasing the number of classrooms in which lectures can easily be recorded.

Faculty also wrote about the need for classrooms that can better integrate computer and chalkboard use, and suggested experimenting with replacing the familiar nine-panel array of chalkboards by a nine-panel array of pressure-sensitive digital blackboards such that at the end of a lecture, the content of the boards could be uploaded. Many stressed the need for classrooms designed for interactive teaching, for example including built-in real time polling software to make the effective use of clickers seamless.

The second theme was the need for enhanced support for the online components of our teaching. Here the most common suggestion was for greater opportunities and various types of support to develop MITx courses. Many other examples were also mentioned, including ensuring that online tools from the Office of Digital Learning are easily available, and various ideas for enhancing and supporting different digital supplements to our on-campus teaching. The need for continued advances in the possibilities for flipped classrooms, as well as the emphasis on making it easy to record lectures — as mentioned above — also featured in many answers.

The third theme was the need for a substantial increase in personnel with expertise in educational technology, including in particular online technology. What comes through clearly is that what is needed are people with whom faculty can work directly to develop online materials, including edX-style content: contextually savvy staff located nearby, designated to support each department, with a mission to source, disseminate, and support relevant tools and technological solutions within a department. In addition, many faculty suggested enhanced training for graduate TAs, teaching them how to use, and support the use of, educational technologies.

The overarching message that comes through loud and clear from the 145 faculty who answered this question is a sense of pent-up demand for the teaching spaces, technology, and people needed to catalyze and realize their visions for how best to teach MIT’s students.

Two final open-ended questions asked for key areas that MIT could improve to make its environment even better, and sought suggestions for specific strategies. 335 faculty members offered extensive comments on a wide range of issues. Nearly a third of respondents mentioned salary, often calling for comparisons to peer institutions. For many, salary issues overlap with housing costs and other quality-of-life issues related to living in Boston, including commuting time and the difficulty of finding satisfactory childcare. For many faculty — across Schools and ranks — managing work-life balance is a significant stressor and one they wish MIT would do more to address. For many, additional administrative support would smooth their Institute experience. Close to 20 faculty members urged greater recognition for humanities, arts, and social sciences and more seamless integration of SHASS into the Institute. Funding for research came up repeatedly, with more than 20 among these respondents specifically mentioning a desire for greater support for cross-disciplinary research or for mid-career exploration of a new field — undertakings hard to fund through traditional means. Cross-disciplinary exchange was also a goal sought by the numerous faculty members who advocated a greater sense of community and more interaction with colleagues, exchanges that they hoped would take place in an improved, and more sociable, campus environment. Finally, almost a tenth of respondents called for improvements to the campus climate for women and underrepresented minorities, and several asked specifically for more training opportunities to address gender and racial bias at the Institute.

Female and male faculty responses to specific closed-ended questions

We now return to the closed-ended questions that formed the bulk of the survey. On the IR Website, any faculty member can see the percentage of faculty across all of MIT who responded in a particular way to each of the many questions. Along with the Provost, the School Deans and Department Heads, and their designees, we as Officers of the Faculty are also able to slice the data in various ways, looking at the differences between how tenure-track and tenured faculty answered each question, or comparing answers from female and male faculty, or underrepresented minority (URM) and non-URM faculty. (However, none of us can see data for any cell containing fewer than five respondents.)

We decided to use these data to look at the ways in which the experiences of faculty at MIT, in particular the ways in which we each experience our environment and its climate, are similar or different for male and female faculty. We look forward to a day when differences by gender are negligible, but each of the three of us knows that we are not yet at such a day. So, we wanted to see what the data have to say. We have selected 12 questions that all survey respondents were asked that come at this in different ways, and we have sliced the data to look at how female and male faculty answered each of them. The results are available here. We also examined variation by URM and non-URM status, but our initial analysis did not yield statistically robust findings. We recommend the continued collection of quantitative and qualitative data around these issues.

There are some questions where the responses from male and female faculty are similar. However, in too many cases there are substantial differences and, in all such cases, the experience of female faculty is either more negative or less positive. While male and female respondents generally felt similar about having a voice in decision-making and their ability to navigate unwritten rules at the Institute, considerable discrepancies emerged around perceptions of bias and discrimination and the extent to which bias, discrimination, and abrasive behavior are sources of stress for male and female faculty. We think it is important for all of us to take a close look at these data, which indicate that MIT has more work to do, both in understanding these variations and responding to them. For 7 of the 12 questions, there were similar enough questions asked in 2008 and 2012 that we could look for changes over this time period. In most cases we found consistency across the three surveys; we did find changes over time in two cases, shown in the charts. We hope that in the 2020 survey we will see change — in the direction of fewer differences between the experience of female and male faculty at MIT, and fewer faculty reporting bias and/or discrimination as a source of stress.

In sum

Slicing the data, for example as we have done above, or so as to look at the experience of URM faculty members, or in other ways, is helpful in many instances and we can see a variety of ways in which Department Heads and Deans will be able to use the data to identify specific opportunities for improvement and ways to address them. The three of us will be meeting with the Deans' group, chaired by the Provost, to discuss the outcomes of the 2016 survey and, while maintaining confidentiality around individual responses, will share our perspectives on the text replies offered by MIT faculty. In this way — as well as in others — we will do our part to further advise leaders at MIT in ways that rely upon the insights we have gained by carefully examining the outcomes and faculty comments.

As faculty officers, we played a small role in the development of the 2016 Faculty Quality of Life Survey. We recognize that the survey was long, and we are very grateful for your time and thoughtful response to the questions. We welcome any additional thoughts you might have as you peruse the survey outcomes yourself. We look forward to further enhancing MIT with your guidance and participation.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXIX No. 1, September/October 2016