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Prof. Patrick H. Winston’s questions to the Administration at Wednesday’s Faculty Meeting

Concerned by what I perceive to be a steady erosion of MIT culture and values, I resolved again to question the Administration, this time during the question and comment period at the end of the Faculty Meeting on 17 February 2010. I posed my questions extemporaneously and wrote them down from memory an hour or so later.

I have two questions, both of which I am reluctant to ask, for various reasons. However, I feel compelled to ask them, also for various reasons, one of which is the doctrine of implied consent.

Both questions are derived from my reading of the September/October 2009 issue of the Faculty Newsletter.

One article described the layoff of Dean Jackie Simonis. I do not know Dean Simonis personally, but I know she was at MIT for 23 years and that she was highly valued and respected by many MIT Faculty for her service as a counselor to students in need of help, many very seriously in need of help. I am told that she has sharp edges and is inclined toward being outspoken, but perhaps none of that is material.

What drew my attention was the description in the Faculty Newsletter of her layoff on 22 June 2009:

“[She] went to a scheduled meeting…Jackie was told that her position had been eliminated for financial reasons, that she was being laid off, and that her last day at work was that day. She was told that she was expected to be available to coordinate the transfer of her responsibilities while working from her home. She was not allowed to speak with her colleagues in private, nor to return to work in her office…”

My first reaction was, “Well, somebody is sure to be taken behind the woodshed and get a good thrashing for this.”

Then, I turned to the very next page of the Faculty Newsletter, and read the juxtaposed article by the Chancellor, presumably speaking for the Administration, who wrote:

“All of the layoffs in student life were the result of budget reductions…The layoffs, at all levels, were initiated and conducted according to Institute policies and procedures, in consultation with, and with the full participation by, MIT Human Resources. The process is consistent with MIT culture and values.”

This leads me to my first question: Exactly when and by whose direction were adjustments made so as to bring the treatment of Dean Simonis within the scope of our culture and values?

I anticipate that we will not hear a full answer to this question for legal reasons. This troubles me greatly. My father, who was himself a small-town lawyer, told me when I was a small boy, “Patrick, a good lawyer can keep you out of jail, but no lawyer can get you into heaven.”

By extension I suggest that a good lawyer can guide this Institution away from litigation, but no lawyer can guide us toward greatness. That comes from our better angels, not from law books.

In any case, you of the Administration have had nothing more to say on the matter since the Chancellor’s article appeared. There has been no apology, no statement of regret, and no indication of remorse.

The natural consequence is that hundreds of our best people at MIT are saying “If it could happen to Dean Simonis, it could happen to me.” They are asking themselves, “If I am too outspoken, will I find myself on the next list of people to be laid off for financial reasons?”

This brings me to my second question: What specifically have you done, or do you plan to do, if anything, to assuage the widespread fear among our people that they will be treated like Dean Simonis, in a manner that seems to me to be not at all in accord with MIT’s culture and values?