Lily Tsai, in collaboration with Rick Danheiser, Robert Jaffe, Thomas Kochan
Why MIT’s system of shared governance works
Engineers know about the strength of a triangle. It is a shape that is not easily distorted under pressure. Structures that use them last for centuries.
In the shared governance of MIT, the relationships between the Faculty, the Administration, and the Corporation are the three sides of a triangle. Each carries out different but complementary responsibilities. In this column, I focus on one side of that triangle – the relationship between the Faculty and the MIT Corporation. While members of the Administration need to spend an enormous proportion of their time running the Institute and solving the many management problems that arise every day, members of the Faculty and the Corporation are often preoccupied by the questions that matter over a 10-, 20-, even 50-year period:
“What are our fundamental values, and what principles should we uphold?”
“What should be the nature, the role and the value of an MIT education?”
“What is MIT’s place in the world? How do we earn that place and use our voice in decisions that matter?”
The long-time horizons shared by the Faculty and Corporation stem both from the nature of the work we do and because many individuals in both the Faculty and Corporation spend decades at MIT. The Corporation is primarily concerned with the long-term financial health and academic excellence of MIT as measured across decades. The essential job of the Corporation is to provide and plan for stable support, both financial and institutional, to ensure the future of the education and research provided by the Faculty. Planning for faculty research can span more than 30 years, as it has for the new electron-ion collider in Long Island that will become operational in 2030. In overseeing undergraduate education, the faculty conduct comprehensive reviews of the curriculum on roughly 10-year cycles; the next is slated to begin in the fall.
Despite the important roles of MIT’s Corporation and Administration, a student thinking of coming to MIT, or a funder reviewing a proposed program or project, is not scrutinizing the Corporation or Administration. They are looking at achievements in the teaching and research of the Faculty, and of the graduates who were educated by that Faculty.
The MIT Faculty is the foundation on which the reputation of the Institute rests, and faculty members are deeply conscious of the great responsibility that entails. Many faculty have devoted their entire careers to MIT and have become identified with the Institute in the eyes of the public and the members of their profession. This is why it is inappropriate to map MIT’s governance structure onto a corporate template with owners (the Corporation), managers (the Administration), and employees (the Faculty).
A better analogy would be a law or architecture firm where the Faculty map to senior partners who share a career-long equity stake in the health and growth of the organization. Tenured faculty cannot easily be fired. However, they can leave for places that provide them better institutional and financial support – the kind of support, such as support for graduate students, community well-being, and institutions for research administration, that effective collaboration between faculty, administration, and trustees provides.
The point is not that the Faculty are more central to the successful functioning of a great university than the Administration or Trustees – but rather that the Faculty, Administration, and Corporation are equal and complementary partners in a shared triangle of governance. The Corporation has a fiduciary responsibility, the Administration has a management responsibility delegated to it by the Trustees and the Faculty, and the Faculty has an intellectual and ethical responsibility for the university’s future. When all three relationships – Faculty-Administration, Administration-Corporation, and Corporation-Faculty – are strong and supporting one another, that is when MIT is best able to push forward ambitious new visions and respond to challenges in a united way.
Over the last couple of years, however, we have heard with increasing intensity from both Faculty and Corporation members that the Corporation-Faculty side of the triangle has been weakened in recent years, particularly during the pandemic, and that it will be important to build it back in an intentional and proactive way.
We are pleased to report that we now have a number of different mechanisms for doing so over the coming months.
Shared governance at the unit level
The Visiting Committees are, of course, an essential mechanism for communication between faculty and Corporation members, particularly at the departmental level. At a recent Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) meeting, members reflected on how cut off the MIT community has felt from the Corporation during the pandemic and how difficult it has been for faculty to give Corporation members an accurate sense of how things look on the ground. Corporation members, on the other hand, have noted to me that so much of the valuable information exchange through Visiting Committees is not in the presentations and briefings, but in the informal, unscripted conversations happening along the sidelines, particularly with rank-and-file faculty. Such richer forms of information exchange were absent for 20 months while in-person Visiting Committees were suspended from April 2020 to November 2021.
Visiting Committees illustrate how the triangle of shared governance can work to the benefit of each DLC. The faculty work with the DLC head, the Visiting Committee works with faculty during its visit, and then the DLC Head, Dean, and Administration collaborate with the Visiting Committee to move the department forward. When each side of the triangle is strong, the department is fully supported to operate smoothly, build on its strengths, and expand its horizons.
In addition to these “local” triangles at the unit departmental level, MIT’s system of shared governance calls for a similar structure at the Institute level to enable Faculty, Administration, and Corporation to reflect on and respond to Institute-wide questions and challenges together. This macro-level triangle does not assemble itself out of the smaller triangles; it must be deliberately constructed and maintained.
More than the sum of the parts: Shared governance at the Institute level
To strengthen the Corporation-Faculty side of this triangle at the Institute level, the Corporation approved three new mechanisms at its December meeting that will be piloted over the next two years. These mechanisms respond to calls from the Faculty for rebalancing the role of the MIT Faculty in the shared governance of the Institute after the revelations concerning Jeffrey Epstein’s interactions with MIT.
In March 2021, at the request of my predecessor, then Chair of the Faculty Rick Danheiser, the MIT Corporation charged an ad hoc committee of Faculty and Corporation members1 with reviewing existing mechanisms of engagement between the Faculty and Corporation and evaluating whether other mechanisms were desirable. After a discussion of the committee’s findings at the October 2021 Corporation Meeting, the committee’s recommendations were further refined and presented at the December 2021 Corporation Meeting where they were approved by the Corporation.
During the next two years, the Faculty and Corporation will pilot the following:
- Random Faculty and Corporation Dinners (or Zooms) scheduled around quarterly Corporation meetings. This mechanism enables open-ended and in-depth conversations between Faculty and Corporation members to increase understanding and to build relationships that bridge across their differing cultures.
- Invitation of the Chair of the Faculty to discussions of the Executive Committee of the Corporation regarding matters of significance to the faculty. When the Executive Committee wishes to hear from faculty about matters of significance to the Faculty, the Corporation Chair and the MIT President will invite the Faculty Chair to attend all or a portion of the discussion of such matters. If the Faculty Chair wishes to speak with the Executive Committee about matters of significance to the Faculty, they can describe the topic and request an agenda slot from the Chair and the President.
- A speaking and discussion slot for the Chair of the Faculty at each Corporation meeting upon the Chair of the Faculty’s request. The Chair of the Faculty will notify the Chair of the Corporation, President, and Provost of the topic they would like to speak on when requesting a slot from the Chair of the Corporation. This slot provides an opportunity for the Corporation to talk with the Faculty Chair about faculty priorities and question the Faculty Chair interactively to understand better the logic undergirding these priorities.
Over the last few years, it has become clear that the Corporation-Faculty leg of MIT’s shared governance at the Institute level has atrophied, with no mechanisms for ensuring that the perspectives and priorities of the Faculty can be directly communicated to the Corporation.
Instead, faculty priorities have been mainly conveyed to the Corporation via the Administration. Rather than a triangle of shared governance, governance has looked more like a single line running between the Faculty to the Administration to the Corporation.
Why might it be desirable to have mechanisms for the Faculty to communicate directly with the Corporation? During the ad hoc committee’s deliberations, several key answers to this question emerged. The first was this need to build up the Corporation-Faculty leg so that shared governance could operate robustly at the Institute level. The current system of Visiting Committees enables Corporation members to talk with faculty, but these conversations typically focus on local issues of interest to a particular department. Participants and presenters do not have the opportunity to reflect on Institute-wide priorities and challenges, which only arise on an ad hoc basis, if at all.
Another finding from the committee was that more two-way dialogue between the Corporation and the Faculty would be beneficial. Real-time exchange, with ample opportunity to ask and answer questions as they arise in conversation, is essential for participants to understand each other’s points of view as well as the reasons behind them. This builds mutual trust through “thick,” more nuanced interactions, rather than “thin” information exchange through written summaries or brief presentations, and it enables different views and actions to be harmonized.
The increasing significance of shared governance
At MIT and in the world, we are facing new challenges, and we need more than ever to build shared understandings and support for Institute-level initiatives and decisions to make the most of the potential impact MIT can have in the world.
Our modes of producing and organizing research are becoming more complex. Departments vary greatly in the challenges they face in doing their research – under-recovery, graduate funding, research administration, etc. are important issues for many, while manifesting differently for different fields. Shared governance helps us come to solutions that can work for the short- and long-term, and that have a claim to legitimacy across the Institute.
MIT is experiencing rapid institutional changes in multiple areas – the College of Computing, research administration services, research and computing, DEI, online and professional education, and the call for institutional response to societal challenges such as climate change. Discussions about how to implement recommendations from Task Force 2021 and Beyond are also underway. The unusual returns on the endowment have released some additional resources, but we will need to prioritize carefully how we use them. Thus far, there has been no clear process for widespread engagement of the Faculty on the setting of new budget priorities or for strategic planning on changes in the institutional and administrative structures. So far, it has been a process of “governance by patching.” To rationalize this process and respond with a productive and coherent strategic plan, and to garner broad support for the initiatives that emerge, all three legs of MIT’s shared governance will need to support and collaborate with one another.
Not surprisingly, other universities have also been strengthening the relationship between faculty and trustees. The participation of faculty on university boards and their committees has been a topic of active discussion around the country in recent years and has been implemented at a number of universities. In 2016, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges surveyed its members and reported that approximately 31 percent of private universities have either voting or non-voting faculty representation on their boards.2 A 2012 survey conducted by Ronald Ehrenberg, an economist at Cornell and Director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, found that there was a faculty member on the Executive Committee in 26 percent of those universities that have an Executive Committee.3
Since December when the new mechanisms for engagement were approved, there has been immediate interest on both the part of the Corporation and the Faculty in utilizing these mechanisms at the next possible opportunity. Lasting impact may take time, but this has been a moment when members of the Corporation seem particularly interested in the views of the Faculty. As Chair of the Faculty, I have already had more speaking and discussion slots with the Corporation and the Executive Committee in the last six months than any of my recent predecessors.
Many faculty may wonder how engaging with the Corporation makes a difference, as they have little firsthand knowledge of the Corporation’s internal structure or routine activities. One of the Corporation’s key responsibilities, for example, is reviewing and approving the operating budget of the Institute every year.
Like many responsibilities, this authority is generally delegated to the Executive Committee of the Corporation, which is chaired by the Chair of the Corporation and consists of the Chair, the MIT President, the EVPT, the Chair of the MIT Investment Management Company, the Chair of the Risk and Audit Committee, and between seven and 10 other members who are nominated by the Governance and Nominations Committee from members of the Corporation and elected by the Corporation.
In response to this year’s increase in endowment payout, members of the Administration presented proposals for how to allocate these additional funds to the Executive Committee including new recurring as well as one-time expenditures. Members of the Executive Committee had the opportunity to ask questions, probe the logic behind the proposed allocations, and to request additional information when necessary. Faculty input into these processes, as described in the three initiatives described above, would enrich these discussions and put the resulting initiatives on a stronger foundation.
Processes like these enable the Corporation to carry out its responsibilities for overseeing the administration of the Institute’s educational and research programs, the performance of the Institute’s administration, and the organizational structure of the Institute to ensure they are consistent with the Institute’s mission, policies, and practices.
Looking ahead to the presidential search
The upcoming presidential search will be an important opportunity for the Corporation members on the search committee to listen to faculty and community members across MIT, to demonstrate how much the Corporation values the views of the Institute’s many stakeholders, and to get back in touch with the grassroots. It will also be a chance to encourage everyone in the MIT community not only to think about their own particular concerns or local challenges, but to go beyond group-specific interests and focus instead on the collective good. How do we come together to define the long-term challenges and priorities for the Institute as a whole for the next 10, 20, 50 years? How can MIT live up to its responsibilities to be a role model of the world? What is a vision for the MIT of the future that makes us want to come together and contribute to building?
Author’s Note: The above article was written in collaboration with Professors Rick Danheiser, Robert Jaffe, and Thomas Kochan.
1 The Corporation members of the committee were Drew Faust, Diane Greene, Kenneth Wang, Colin Webb, and Song Yee Yoon. The Faculty members of the committee were Rick Danheiser, Daniel Hastings, Thomas Kochan, and Lily Tsai. After the first several meetings, the committee invited Cynthia Barnhart to join as a representative of the Administration. Our committee met five times, including one meeting with the President and Provost.
2 Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. (2016). “Shared governance: Is OK good enough?” https://portfolio.du.edu/downloadItem/366497. Data from a 2020 survey are not yet publicly available.
3 Ehrenberg et.al., Table 2.