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Faculty meeting discussion focuses on CMRAE review process

A resolution calling on the administration to set aside the decision to close the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology (CMRAE) until an ad hoc review committee reports to the faculty was approved on a voice vote at the March 16 meeting of the faculty.

The faculty rejected, 62-55, a motion that the makeup of the review committee be reexamined by the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC).

President Charles M. Vest, in consultation with Professor Robert L. Jaffe, chair of the faculty, earlier this month appointed the ad hoc committee to review the process leading to the decision to close the CMRAE. The committee is headed by Professor Peter A. Diamond.

The two motions on which the faculty voted were originally presented as one. During the discussion the initial motion was divided into two-one calling for a delay until the review committee reports, the other seeking FPC review of the makeup of the ad hoc group.

At the beginning of the meeting, Dr. Vest asked Professor Jaffe to preside while the CMRAE action was being discussed. He took that action, he said, because the motion "suggests setting up a parallel mechanism to that which I have already instituted as president."

Dr. Vest, speaking from the floor, said the Institute is facing "some rather significant and quite structural fiscal constraints" and a number of decisions have been made which have "significant budgetary and academic ramifications." The CMRAE closing is one of these, he said. "It is by no means the only one and it is certainly not the last one we are going to have to make. Therefore, when this particular decision gave rise to a considerable amount of angst and concern among the faculty, I decided to take a look at the process."

Dr. Vest said he named the committee in close consultation with Professor Jaffe and in the spirit of the Widnall Committee recommendations, which some years ago had reviewed the process leading to the closing of the Department of Applied Biological Sciences.

Dr. Vest said he was "entirely willing" to have the CMRAE ad hoc committee report both to himself and to the chair of the faculty.

At the meeting, Institute Professor Emeritus Herman Feshbach said the group of 39 faculty members who signed the original motion was concerned with "the manner in which the evaluation of the center was carried out, not the decision itself."

Professor Feshbach said it was vital that the evaluation process be impeccable and be perceived as being impeccable. He also said that while he did not question the integrity of the members of the Diamond committee, he believed the committee was "seriously flawed" in terms of outside perception of credibility because a committee member has close personal ties to some of the issues and because a non-tenured professor was a member. He said he was concerned "with how it looks to somebody from outside" when an administration decision-making process is reviewed by an administration-appointed committee, of which some members might be perceived as not being independent of the administration.

Professor Feshbach proposed three criteria for serving on such a committee: No personal ties to the principals, no involvement in the original decision, and no one whose continued appointment at the Institute could be affected by the principals. These guidelines, he said, would guarantee the perception of objectivity.

Institute Professor Emeritus Francis E. Low, a former provost, spoke against the motion to set aside the decision until the Diamond committee completes its review, saying it seemed to "draw a sharp line between faculty and administration which I think is harmful and not good for the governance of MIT." Professor Low agreed that there should be an investigation of the process, "but the administration is fully capable of evaluating what happened." He also said that the portion of the motion calling for a delay in closing the CMRAE had no effect because the already-established closing date is in July, which gives the existing committee more than three months to make its review and report.

Professor Evelyn Fox Keller said the request to set aside the closing decision until a report is received "had some cogency for the signers of the petition because of the uncertainty of the review." She proposed making two motions out of the one on the floor because the petition seeking supporters of the initial motion "was circulated before the constitution of committee was announced."

Professor Jonathan King spoke in support of the motion to divide, saying it was important to vote on the question of setting aside the decision until the process review is completed and reported to the faculty. He said all academics are familiar with the rigor that governs peer review committees appointed by government funding agencies. "If there is a violation of process, or if the chair forwards a report that does not represent the entire body, the decision is set aside, regardless of the feelings of the committee," he said. In this case allegations of irregularities cited in the critical pamphlet distributed by Professor Heather Lechtman, CMRAE director, are being dismissed by some as "no big thing," he added. Still, he said, those charges are out there.

The motion to divide the original motion passed on a voice vote. When discussion resumed, Dr. Vest said that he and Provost Mark S. Wrighton would support the first motion calling for the ad hoc committee to make its report before the CMRAE closes, and the motion was subsequently passed on a voice vote.

Speaking to the second motion, Professor Arthur Smith said that applying Professor Feshbach's criteria would "disenfranchise" junior faculty from any serious discussion.

Professor Peter Perdue, who headed the committee appointed by the provost several months ago to review CMRAE, also spoke against the second motion. He said the number of people willing to serve on such committees is small and it would be difficult to find potential members who do not have some personal or professional connection with the subject of a review, especially at MIT, where there are many close collegial relationships across disciplinary lines.

Professor Perdue said he regarded the motion as originally presented and the second part of the divided version "as a serious expression of distrust of the president and his good judgment in dealing with this issue." He also said he was "astonished" by Professor King's conclusion that since Professor Lechtman's allegations had not been denied that they were true, noting that he had not challenged the facts in her booklet because he felt bound by confidentiality not to reveal the deliberations of the committee. He said that the booklet "seriously misrepresents the review process. It is completely one sided and I am really quite surprised that some people have taken it at face value without ever trying to confirm its information."

The motion for an FPC review of the membership of the ad hoc committee was defeated, 62-55, on a standing vote.

The chair then called on Professor Diamond, who heads the ad hoc committee reviewing the process used in reaching the CMRAE decision. He told the faculty that the ad hoc committee had requested a change in its charge, which was granted. Under the revised charge, the committee will look not only at the process, but at how the decision was communicated.

The last item of business was the introduction of a motion by Professor Judith J. Thomson proposing that the faculty ask the Faculty Policy Committee to reassess the Institute's grievance procedures and report to the faculty on whether revisions are needed.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 27).

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