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Sparse attendance plagues faculty meetings

In a first for this semester, the November faculty meeting reached quorum on Wednesday when more than 30 faculty members showed up. MIT has about 1,000 faculty members.

A third of the way through the meeting in 32-123, as professors finished trickling in, President L. Rafael Reif asked professor Steven R. Hall ’80, the faculty chair, for a recount. Spotting 32 raised hands, Hall gave the green light for the gathered body to approve meeting minutes from May, September, and October.

At the meeting in October, Professor Susan S. Silbey, the faculty secretary, had given a presentation on various ideas for using electronic voting to improve participation.

“If this were my class, I would ask you to come closer,” Silbey told those seated farther back in the room at the beginning of her presentation.

Wednesday’s turnout did not allay worries that something was amiss with faculty governance. Professor Diana Henderson, a former faculty officer, said that the issues today were as important as those discussed in what she recalled as times of livelier faculty participation.

What drew in those who showed up on Wednesday, Henderson said, was a proposal to establish a new campus planning committee, which proponents said would give faculty a voice in campus planning projects. The proposal comes in the midst of the design phase of a major redevelopment of the eastern part of campus near the Kendall T stop.

After the presentation of that proposal, the faculty heard the preliminary findings of the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, charged with answering a sweeping set of questions about online learning, MIT’s financial model, and innovation in education.

The faculty at the meeting also unanimously approved a motion from September to allow people outside MIT to bring complaints of student misconduct to the Committee on Discipline.

Though important changes require a vote at a faculty meeting, Silbey said earlier this month that the issues MIT faces are really figured out in committees.

“Most of the governance takes place in the committees. That’s not unusual in a representative democracy,” Silbey said. “That’s why we have in each of our committees one from each of the five schools, why we have representation of students on the committees.”

Designing a government is no trivial task, she added. “You can’t have meetings of 1,000 people.”

Sympathizing with faculty who do not attend the meetings, Silbey said that if she were not a faculty officer, she would probably attend weekly seminars on economic sociology instead of the faculty meetings, though she also said she did not think she would necessarily attend more faculty meetings if the seminars were moved to Mondays.

“I got a lot of things to do,” Silbey said.

Still, she and others at the meeting agreed afterwards that struggling to achieve a three-percent turnout was nothing to be proud of. It was a state of affairs Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 called “a little embarrassing” in October.

“They’re afraid that the oligarchy has gotten too narrow,” Silbey said.

—Leon Lin