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Excessive Committees Devalue Governance

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

The system of governance at MIT is broken. This will hardly be taken as a controversial statement by anyone - student, faculty, or dean. Yet the question of how to fix it - that no wise members of MIT's elite would touch with a ten-foot pole. Taking a quick inventory of my own pole collection, I find there is nary a 10-footer among them. It appears I'll have to wade straight in.

Any veteran reformer knows you can't make things function at the grass roots if the top doesn't work. Reform should start at the top, and that means with the faculty, to whom the MIT Corporation has delegated responsibility for guiding students' education.

Unlike many universities, MIT educational policy is theoretically guided by the whole faculty, rather than by individual schools and departments. At first, when all the faculty could fit in a classroom, that was no problem. But by the beginning of this century, things were already getting out of hand. By the 1950s, people were already calling faculty meetings perfunctory and deriding their low attendance.

The 1949 Lewis Committee agreed. Its members complained, "The extensive development of the faculty-committee system of administration results almost inevitably in an excessive burden of meetings." The problem, it concluded wisely, was that there were too many committees and that the weirdly organized committees were being asked to do the wrong work. Reacting to these conclusions, the MIT faculty delegated a great many of their powers to the departments and schools. This system of delegation remains today.

The Lewis Committee also recommended that MIT's numerous faculty committees be combined. Too many committees, you see, produce too many meetings, too many reports, and too much confusion. The more tangled the web, the less likely we'll be able to manage it.

It didn't happen. In 1950, MIT had 10 faculty committees, including four committees for each undergraduate year. Now there are nearly 30-odd committees, and there's been no let-up in their proliferation. The Dean's Office has contributed a spate of working groups and advisory boards, as have dozens of other minor MIT offices. As if this weren't enough, the re-engineering effort felt the need to propagate its own bevy of steering groups, affinity teams, and advisory councils. I doubt any one person knows the names of all the committees, let alone what they all do.

Many, of course, do nothing at all. Among committees, it is considered great progress for a group to take a weighty topic into consideration at all. After a few months concerted deliberation, the committee may duly pass the buck to the next committee, proudly washing its hands of the whole issue.

A good example of committee sloth was the much-touted ROTC Working Group. First of all, where did anyone get off calling committees "working groups"? Doesn't this imply that other groups do no work? And what new term will they invent when someone notices working groups don't seem to do a whole lot either?

Anyway, the ROTC Working Group was appointed by the faculty in 1991 to investigate ROTC and recommend a course of action in five years. The working group spent five years doing exactly nothing, and, when the deadline drew near, they produced a hasty recommendation that the president appoint a task force to do the same thing. This done, the working group passed into history.

Another similar case involved the recent fast action by the Institute Committee on Student Affairs. Asked to review issues of dining and student life, they produced a report recommending the creation of - you guessed it - the food services working group to investigate the same issue. That's nice work.

The amazing thing is anything gets done at all. After five years of observation, I've noticed that one can expect two committees to even attempt a major action in a given year. The real trick is figuring out which two committees will take that leap. For all I can tell, it has no bearing on what committee's purpose or what task they have at hand. What matters is who sits on the committee and whether or not they've decided to damn the torpedoes.

And there are plenty of torpedoes to dodge. If you're a committee chair, you know full well that nobody expects you to do anything (with the possible exception of the faculty chair). Faculty and students know, as I do, that only two committees will do anything, and they've placed their chips on another committee. After all, if they thought it was going to be your committee throwing it into high gear, they'd have been sitting on it all along!

The impossibility of predicting who the players will be produces an inevitable conflict. When action always emanates from unexpected committees, it doesn't matter how hard you try to stay on top of all the issues that concern you. Indeed, you might as well do nothing.

The truly amazing thing is to hear people complain about how apathetic students are when they put out a survey or how nobody ever seems to attend a faculty meeting. Is this really any surprise? Yes, people are busy. But more than that, even those who want to be involved have no idea what's going on. The system is unproductive and overwhelming at the same time.

What's the solution? The faculty have to start by exercising discipline. So do the deans. So does the president. Eliminate some committees. Eliminate all of them and see what happens. Call a 10-year moratorium on working groups and task forces.

Eliminating the committees, of course, would not solve the problems of Institute governance. That involves questions of sharing power and consulting the right people. Questions I don't have an answer to, and neither does anyone else.

What I do know is we have too many committees. The current committee glut has thrown a fog of confusion over every issue, from curriculum to housing. How can the faculty, let alone the students they supposedly serve, direct MIT's affairs intelligently when so few people can even tell what's going on?