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First faculty meeting sets optimistic tone

The faculty celebrated the achievements and personal example of President Charles M. Vest, heard updates on MIT's finances and on OpenCourseWare, and welcomed President-elect Susan Hockfield in the first meeting of the academic year, held on Wednesday, Sept. 15 in the Kirsch Auditorium in the Stata Center.

The meeting was upbeat and well attended, with Vest making several unplanned trips to the podium to acknowledge appreciative comments from the associate chair of the faculty, Paola Rizzoli, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, and three former faculty chairs, Lotte Bailyn, professor of management; Stephen Graves, professor of management; and Steven Lerman, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Both Vest and Hockfield spoke appreciatively of the faculty and administration. Vest noted he "stood on the shoulders of giants like former MIT President Paul Gray" during the 14 years he led the Institute. Hockfield declared she "aspired to follow in Vest's footsteps and would be relying on the faculty--the strength of the Institute--in the years ahead."

In her remarks at the end of the meeting, Hockfield noted that the most important academic appointment a president makes is that of provost and announced that Robert A. Brown will continue to serve as provost of MIT. "The provost is absolutely key. I could ask for no better guide or teacher," she said.

The faculty greeted this news with a standing ovation.

Budget for a bright future

Brown gave bottom-line substance to an optimistic overall tone. "MIT is financially healthy; its educational and research programs are vibrant and we're ready to begin the budgeting process for a bright future," he declared.

The rate of return from MIT's endowment during the last fiscal year was a healthy 18.1 percent and the endowment is valued at $6 billion, Brown said.

Describing MIT as "an institution in transition," Brown acknowledged the hardships and challenges the Institute community faced over the past year--the "painful loss of 270 positions, including many due to layoffs, all handled with sensitivity and care," the freezing of salaries over $55,000, and the closing of 11 open faculty positions.

Fiscal year 2006, planning for which is now under way, marks a "return to normal," Brown said. This means MIT is returning to traditional budgeting processes that include funding for growth in expenses and new programs, conservative estimates of endowment growth, and annual salary reviews and merit raises.

Brown described the upcoming months as a time to "take stock and think about what we want to do in five years. Each academic unit is being asked for a five-year strategic plan and for input into MIT's capital plan.

"Community-wide challenges we face in budget planning include the cost of graduate education, the competitive landscape in undergraduate financial aid and in compensation and benefits for faculty and staff, and costs of renovation and renewal of facilities," he said.

Building on strength

An interlude in the meeting served as a dialogue across generations of MIT leadership as Rizzoli and the former faculty chairs--Bailyn, Graves and Lerman--expressed their appreciation for Vest's leadership, and President-elect Hockfield took the podium.

In their comments, current and former faculty officers emphasized many of the Institute's initiatives that had benefited from Vest's leadership as well as his personal qualities, including honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to confront complex and sometimes tragic issues.

On a light note, the faculty presented Vest with his own copy of "The Rules and Regulations of the Faculty" and a navy blue T-shirt exhorting the Red Sox to victory.

Hockfield thanked the faculty for their enthusiastic welcome and offered her view of the near future.

"I believe in building on strength, and I look forward to maintaining and accelerating research and education in the culture of collaboration here. My plan is to learn," Hockfield said. In a teacherly gesture, she wrote her MIT e-mail address on the blackboard behind the podium. "I look forward to our conversations and to building further strengths with all of you," she said.

Archaeology and materials

At the same meeting, the faculty also voted to establish an S.B. degree in archaeology and materials. Following the vote, Heather Lechtman, professor of archaeology and ancient technology, thanked Vest for his "unwavering support for the new program and for the faculty."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 22, 2004 (download PDF).

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