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Vest Appoints Committee To Review CMRAE Closure

By Jeremy Hylton
Chairman

This week, President Charles M. Vest will appoint a faculty committee to review the decision to close the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology.

Provost Mark S. Wrighton decided to close the center in June 1993. That decision prompted Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Heather N. Lechtman, the director of the center, to write a pamphlet sharply criticizing his decision.

Lechtman could not be reached because she is on leave this semester.

The committee will consist of three or four faculty members. "Basically, they will be asked to examine the process by which the decision was made, including the budgetary context and the various inputs considered," Vest said.

At Wednesday's faculty meeting, two professors proposed that the entire faculty discuss the way Wrighton reached his decision at the March meeting.

Faculty Chair Robert L. Jaffe hopes that the faculty committee will be ready to give a recommendation at that meeting and provide a framework for debate.

Jaffe and Vest both said that the controversy generated among the faculty warranted an investigation of the facts of the incident. "Within the mainstream of the faculty, those who have read the pamphlet are eager to find out what the facts are," Jaffe said.

Vest said, "Unfortunately, we will need to make more such decisions in the future as we bring the budget into balance. Given this need and the level of discussion in the community, I thought it was an opportune time to have a faculty group assess the process."

Jaffe agreed that a review of the current process is in order. "MIT is very bad at closing things down," he said. "We have to learn how to do that better."

Lechtman disputes decision

Lechtman charges that Wrighton decided at the outset of his CMRAE review that it should be closed, and that he rigged the decision-making process to support his decision.

In a letter to Wrighton, Lechtman wrote, "[Wrighton's] lack of candor and collegiality in this decision-making process corrupted the process, invalidated the outcome, and, to my mind, disabled the credibility of [his] office."

Much of the criticism Lechtman directs at Wrighton in her pamphlet, "An Institute in Ruins," focuses on a 7-member committee Wrighton established to review the center's work.

According to Lechtman, Wrighton "overbore the recommendations that were contrary to his predisposition." The committee had reported favorably on work done at the CMRAE and had recommended creating a small graduate program, Lechtman said.

In an interview last week, Wrighton defended the review process. "It wasn't a process that was secretive or only executed within the confines of this very handsome office. It was a process that involved a lot of input and a lot of informal input," he said.

Wrighton agreed that the review committee had reported favorably on the work done by Lechtman and her colleagues at seven other area institutions.

The review committee's findings "led me to conclude that such an activity is appropriate for MIT, that some good contributions had 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," Wrighton said.

Graduate program not feasible

The group that reviewed the CMRAE's work concluded that MIT could become one of the "top players" in archaeology if it established a graduate program, according to Wrighton. But "creating a graduate program is a serious economic and financial concern," he said.

To create a graduate program, Wrighton said he needed the support of the deans who would supervise the program. "In the aftermath, I consulted with the academic leadership in the potential schools. And they have to say, `We buy into this,' or `No, I don't,' " he said.

"I made the assessment of whether there was support for a new graduate program, and there was none," Wrighton said. To support the CRMAE would mean notdoing something else, he said.

The CMRAE's continued reliance on Institute general funds was also a problem, he explained. The center was founded in 1977, but has not established outside support for its research budget.

"Why can't the center have sustaining support from a foundation or from a federal agency?" Wrighton asked. "If there are a lot people that support [CMRAE], one of the questions I have to ask is ... `Where's the money?' "

MIT has relatively little unrestricted money in its budget, Wrighton said. Most research is funded by outside grants. Salaries and financial aid require a lot of money, and most endowment income is earmarked for particular programs, he said.

Academic renewal needed

Because there is so little unrestricted funding available, "we need regular reallocation for academic renewal," Wrighton said.

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.

"The review committee ... had in fact an important contribution to make, which suggested a fuller review of resource, effect, and support in the moral sense from other faculty that want to be involved," he said.

Despite Wrighton's contention that the committee's findings were essentially favorable, Lechtman said the review committee was slanted against her.

According to Lechtman, the committee's chair, Associate Professor of History Peter C. Perdue, was hostile towards her and wrote a final report that reflect his own views rather than the views of the committee members.

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.