Academic Council Changes Point to New ConcernsBy Reuven M. Lerner
More than a simple set of changes, last week's reorganization of the Academic Council was the latest and loudest signal sent by President Charles M. Vest and Provost Mark S. Wrighton to mark their agenda for the next few years.
The reorganization, which included the naming of Arthur C. Smith to the post of dean for undergraduate education and student affairs and Samuel J. Keyser as associate provost for Institute life, reinforces the image of Vest as someone who cares deeply about education, an image that he has tried to cultivate over the last year.
At the same time, Vest and Wrighton's appointments of Associate Provost Sheila E. Widnall '60 and Vice President and Dean of Research J. David Litster PhD '65, made it clear to government authorities that this administration will fight to keep MIT a top research university through the beginning of the next century, despite Pentagon audits of overhead expenses and MIT's failure to win a contract for the new National Magnet Laboratory.
In short, the changes that went into effect over the weekend are the administration's first attempt to distinguish itself from its predecessors while trying to keep MIT at the forefront of education and scientific research.
Education is a priority
Throughout the last year, Vest and Wrighton have consistently tried to push the idea of education. Events such as the "Teaching at a Research University" colloquium held in September, the establishment of a "faculty fellows" program for lecturers who are valuable teachers, and increased funding for and emphasis on the Course Evaluation Guide, have shown the current administration's commitment to spending time and money on student needs. Perhaps the greatest example of this commitment is the Institute-funded expansion of the student shuttle service, "A Safe Ride," over the last year.
Direct reporting significant
In naming Smith to a combined position of dean for undergraduate education and student affairs, the administration did more than simply merge two offices. Smith, who previously reported to Keyser, will now be reporting directly to Wrighton. While this will probably have very little impact on individuals -- the changes will be imperceptible to most students -- having the dean for student affairs report to the provost strengthens students' contributions to policy decisions and gives Smith additional power.
In many ways, this move reverses a years-old decision that forced the then-dean for student affairs, Shirley M. McBay, to report to Keyser, rather than to then-Provost John M. Deutch '61. Smith, in contrast with McBay, spends a great deal of his time listening to students' complaints about the Institute, trying to let the administration know what they are feeling. By moving Smith closer to the provost's office, the administration let students know that they are important, and at the same time made it easier to gauge student opinion.
Smith's combined portfolio also makes it clear just how difficult it would have been to find a successor to the late Dean for Undergraduate Education Margaret L. A. MacVicar '65. Rather than try to find someone who would try to duplicate the work of a universally praised leader in undergraduate education, the administration opted to let Smith, already well-known and well-liked among undergraduates, take on some additional responsibilities.
Widnall's appointment to the post of associate provost points to a number of other issues that the administration will have to deal with in the next few years. Many of these concerns -- which include academic integrity, federal relations, faculty retirement, promotion and tenure, and international education -- will figure prominently in Institute affairs for the next few years, and it is safe to assume that much of Widnall's job will be to predict and contain any problems MIT might encounter in these areas.
One currently relevant example is the controversy surrounding a number of Pentagon audits that claim MIT overcharged the government for a number of research contracts. While MIT can be expected to suffer less than Stanford University, which was audited and fined hundreds of millions of dollars last year, there is no doubt that research and billing procedures will have to change if the Institute wishes to compete for research contracts in the future. Indeed, Wrighton has already appointed a committee to look into MIT's system for billing indirect research costs, which is expected to present its recommendations within the next few months.
Widnall's work on academic integrity follows a unanimous declaration by the Committee on Discipline late last year that the Institute needs some sort of honor code for students, as well as a flurry of discussion about David Baltimore '61, former director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, who co-signed a paper containing data widely held to be falsified.
Just as the motion picture industry would rather police itself than be subject to government censorship, many scientists believe that it would be better to police fraud within the scientific community than to let the government interfere. Widnall's job appears to be to define MIT's role in stopping fraud in research while giving faculty the freedom to work on individual projects.
In many ways, Widnall was the perfect person for the job of associate provost: A former chair of the faculty, an MIT alumna, and a former member of a National Science Foundation panel on honesty and responsibility in science, Widnall combines a long background at the Institute with an understanding of Washington politics. It remains to be seen, however, whether her experience at the Institute and in the capital will help MIT in the long run.