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Provost's decision to close CMRAE sparks controversy

By Jeremy Hylton

The Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology (CMRAE) and its director Professor Heather N. Lechtman have had an illustrious history: a three-year grant from the J. Paul Getty Grant Trust, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for Lechtman, and a 16-year collaboration with eight other area institutions.

During the 1992-93 academic year, a formal review of the center concluded that "with relatively little difficulty, MIT could establish itself as having the strongest academic program in archaeological science in the world," Lechtman wrote.

But after 16 years, the center had not received enough outside sponsorship to become self-sufficient. Instead it relied on small but steady support from the Institute's unrestricted funds.

In June 1993, as the Institute was looking to close a $10.1 million budget gap, Provost Mark S. Wrighton decided to end MIT support of the CMRAE and "close" the center. Because there is so little unrestricted money available, the Institute must regularly deny funding to worthy programs in order to allow for academic renewal, Wrighton said.

Wrighton's decision outraged Lechtman, particularly because it came after the review committee had reported so favorably on the center. Lechtman wrote a pamphlet, titled "An Institute in Ruins," charging that Wrighton had decided at the outset to close the center and had rigged the decision-making process to support that decision.

Wrighton, however, said that none of the academic deans expressed any interest in supporting the program or expanding it - and without the support of the deans, he could not justify continued funding.

Bad at closing things'

While the closing of a lab or center is part of the academic life cycle of the Institute, it is an issue that has often generated controversy, as it did in 1988 when the Department of Applied Biological Sciences was shut down. "MIT is very bad at closing things down," said Professor of Physics Robert L. Jaffe, chair of the faculty. "We have to learn how to do that better."

Lechtman's pamphlet drew wide faculty attention to the decision, and sparked several months of debate at faculty meetings, starting in February. Many faculty were concerned by the decision-making process Lechtman described. Some were concerned by the lack of faculty involvement in decisions about which programs deserve continued support and which do not.

Speaking in mid-February, Jaffe said that above all, the faculty "are eager to find out what the facts are."

At the May faculty meeting, a five-member faculty committee, appointed by President Charles M. Vest and headed by Professor of Economics Peter A. Diamond PhD '63, reported that "in some important aspects" the decision-making process was "seriously flawed."

Afterwards, a contrite Wrighton acknowledged the shortcomings of the review process and the decision to close the center. Wrighton said the committee report provided guidance that would be useful in the future.

At an earlier meeting, the faculty had voted to set aside the decision to close CMRAE until the committee issued its report - and after the report was issued, Wrighton and Vest said they had not established how to proceed. The two would talk with Lechtman and others "to see where we go from here," Vest said.

Wrighton also clarified what it would mean if the decision to close the CMRAE was upheld. "For MIT there would be certain practical consequences, most important the termination of general Institute funds for use by CMRAE," Wrighton said. "However, space for the scholarly interests of Professor Lechtman remains available and equipment used in the research remains for her use and the use of others here at MIT, and for her collaborators," he said.

The May meeting closed on a conciliatory note: Institute Professor Emeritus Hermann Feshbach PhD '42, who helped instigate the faculty investigation of the decision, and Vest both expressed their hope that future relations would be more collegial.

"I pledge to you, and I'm sure Mark [Wrighton] joins me in this: It is our full intent to pursue our duties as we see appropriate, but certainly with a full understanding that the Institution is its faculty, and we certainly will continue to work in as collegial and consultative a way as I think is possible," Vest said.

Original review criticized

The review of CMRAE that concluded MIT could create a world-class archaeological science program was the source of a great deal of the initial controversy. The review committee, appointed by Wrighton and headed by Professor of History Peter C. Perdue, received sharp criticism in Lechtman's pamphlet.

Lechtman claimed that Perdue was biased against her, and that the final report reflected Perdue's bias and not the enthusiasm of the other members of the review committee.

Lechtman also criticized Wrighton for failing to fully explain his decisions and make her aware of the decision-making process. "In the case at hand, the provost recognized no obligation to discuss with me the reasons for his decision; to give me an opportunity to inform his decision; or to share with me the information he received from the review committee," Lechtman wrote in her pamphlet.

However, the Diamond committee concluded that the provost was aware of the diversity of views held by members of the original review committee. In February, Wrighton said that the review committee's findings "led me to conclude that such an activity is appropriate for MIT, that some good contributions have been made in the past, but that future excellence would hinge on being more than subcritical in terms of size; and that a graduate program was essential to realizing excellence."

Because creating a graduate program is a serious economic and financial concern, Wrighton wanted the support of the academic deans who would supervise the program. After consulting the deans, Wrighton "made the assessment of whether there was support for a new graduate program, and there was none," he said.

The CMRAE works with both the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where Lechtman is a professor, and the program in anthropology and archaeology within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. But neither Dean of Engineering Joel Moses PhD '67 nor HASS Dean Philip S. Khoury offered to support a graduate program.

To decide which programs merit support, Wrighton said he first determines if they achieve the level of excellence expected of MIT programs. After a program's excellence is considered, the resources required by the program are considered.

Wrighton concluded that the CMRAE met the excellence requirement, but that newer programs were more deserving of unrestricted funds.

The Diamond committee noted that closing the CMRAE had been proposed in 1984 and 1985 by the provosts, but then-President Paul E. Gray '54 had put off the closure.

It also noted that the CMRAE had been involved in a bitter dispute with members of the anthropology and archaeology section until it was transferred to the provost's office for administrative control in 1992. "Part of the resolution of this dispute was an agreement that the CMRAE would be reviewed," the Diamond committee reported.

Faculty asks for review

At the February faculty meeting, Feshbach and Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Stephen L. Chorover rose to object to the review process as it was described by Lechtman and asked that a faculty committee review the decision.

At the same meeting, Vest said he would appoint a committee of faculty members to review the decision. But his offer was criticized by several faculty members.

Feshbach said that the committee should be appointed by the chair of the faculty, because it would review an administrative decision. "Not only must the process be impeccable, but it must be perceived as impeccable," Feshbach said.

In the end, Vest appointed the Diamond committee after consulting with faculty chair Jaffe. The committee's other members were: Institute Professor Jerome I. Friedman, Associate Professor of Physics Jacqueline N. Hewitt PhD '86, Professor of History Pauline R. Maier, and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Earll M. Murman, head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

At its meeting the next month, the faculty debated two motions about the decision to close CMRAE and about the Diamond committee. Many faculty members spoke at the meeting, which drew several senior faculty members including Feshbach, Institute Professor Emeritus and former Provost Francis E. Low, and Professor Emeritus of Biology Jerome Y. Lettvin '47.

The first motion asked that the Faculty Policy Committee re-examine the membership of the Diamond committee and the second asked the administration to set aside the decision to close the CMRAE until the decision was reviewed by the faculty.

The first motion failed by a 5562 vote, and the second passed easily after Vest and Wrighton announced that they intended to vote in favor of the motion."As members of the faculty, we will support the motion. If this advice is given to us, we intend to follow it," Vest said.