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Junior faculty discuss MIT's educational goals

The Task Force on Student Life and Learning, created by President Charles M. Vest last September to review MIT's educational mission, asked junior faculty to think broadly about the subject in a workshop held during IAP.

The Task Force, chaired by Professors John Hansman of aeronautics and astronautics and Robert Silbey of chemistry, up to now has concentrated on "issues identification," looking for input and insights into the strategic points and trends that will influence MIT's education mission over the next 20-30 years. President Vest invited about 250 junior faculty to the workshop, which was the Task Force's first formal contact with the teaching community.

"It is important that members of the Task Force hear from you--the generation of faculty who will shape the university of the next century," Dr. Vest wrote in the letter to assistant professors and untenured associate professors, asking them to participate in the session. "The workshop will provide you with an excellent opportunity to become involved with the process of defining MIT's future and will challenge you to think broadly about MIT's mission. At the same time, this is an opportunity for you to reflect on your career in a broader context and to meet your colleagues."

About 80 junior faculty representing a broad cross-section of backgrounds and interests attended the four-hour session.

After a general introduction by Jesus Del Alamo, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and a Task Force member, Professor Silbey reviewed the history and general goals of the Task Force and Professor Hansman outlined the workshop's ground rules. At that point, the group was divided into smaller units to brainstorm on the following topics and report back on their observations:

  • What establishes MIT's reputation in its various areas of activity? Where does MIT stand in comparison with other institutions in these different areas?
  • What are the personal goals of MIT faculty members and how do they relate to MIT's educational mission? How does MIT support these goals?
  • What are the forces for change likely to affect MIT over the next 20-30 years? What are the implications for MIT? Are there barriers to change?
  • What are the elements of the job description of an MIT faculty member? What percentage of a faculty member's effort is typically dedicated to each element? Which of these elements impact learning? How should this change to further MIT's educational mission?
  • What is the quality of the graduate and undergraduate student experience at MIT? What can be done to enhance the experience?
  • What will define a well-educated person in the 21st century? How should such an education be delivered?

"I was impressed with both the enthusiasm and the depth of the discussions," said Professor Hansman. "Clearly, the junior faculty have a strong commitment to both the students and teaching and have been thinking about these issues. In addition to some of the common issues such as pace and pressure, the role of educational pressure and educational technology, and MIT's social responsibility, the groups came up with some interesting new twists. One idea to support the need for lifelong learning is that MIT could offer an educational guarantee."

The Task Force plans to conduct a written survey of all faculty in the near future in an effort to further define the issues. In addition, subgroups have been formed, including a student advisory committee and one that will study residential life.

Besides the chairpersons and Professor Del Alamo, faculty members of the task force are Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams and Professors Sallie H. Chisholm of civil and environmental engineering, Herman A. Haus of EECS, June L. Matthews of physics, Mario Molina of earth, atmospheric and planetary science, Charles Stewart III of political science, Marcus A. Thompson of the music and theater arts section, and J. Kim Vandiver of ocean engineering. Two students are also on the Task Force: Ernest Cuni, a junior in management, and Luis Ortiz, a graduate student in materials science and engineering.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 12, 1997.

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