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Faculty meeting now features open forum

The first faculty meeting of the academic year included an open forum for questions and comments, a new feature -- suggested by the officers of the faculty -- that will become a regular agenda item.

There was a new venue too. The meeting was held in Classroom 141 in the Stata Center, and almost every seat was filled. Provost L. Rafael Reif said it was the first standing-room-only faculty meeting he had ever seen.

MIT President Susan Hockfield and Reif gave overviews of the new academic year.

Hockfield lauded the 990 members of the incoming freshman class, saying, "They have higher SAT scores than any previous class, and close to 40 percent graduated first from their high schools… They entered with an enthusiasm and excitement about being at MIT that is absolutely infectious."

She said she is concerned about the poor outlook for federal research funding, which has been decreasing steadily relative to gross domestic product. Hockfield said she travels to Washington, D.C., at least once a month to meet with leaders of Congress and various agencies that fund research, and has found that "while there is tremendous interest in and understanding of the role that research, and federal funding of research plays in maintaining America's innovation economy, there is not much optimism that things are going to get better anytime soon." However, she said MIT "will do better than most in an era of narrowed research funding."

Commenting that "communication is a little bit more difficult here" than it could be, Hockfield said she wants to find ways to make it "easier for people around the community to know what is going on." The new session at the end of the faculty meeting in which Hockfield, Reif and Chancellor Phillip L. Clay respond to questions and comments is one way Hockfield said she hopes to hear what is on people's minds.

Chair of the Faculty Lorna Gibson, Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, said improving communication between the administration and faculty also is a goal of the Faculty Policy Committee.

Reif, in his first address to the faculty as provost, said he has been thinking about "where MIT is going as an academic institution" in part because "the world watches what MIT does."

Some major themes he brought up were the convergence of life sciences and engineering; incorporating international experiences more fully to "enrich student life"; and working for more progress in hiring faculty "from a broader spectrum of society."

In the new discussion session at the end of the meeting, faculty brought up a variety of issues, including whether MIT should reconsider its restriction on seeking earmarked federal funding for research; how to get more kids interested in and excited about science at the K-12 level; how to make MIT students "ambassadors" who spread the word about the value and integrity of the scientific method outside the Institute; ways that MIT can "push back" on federal policies that restrict non-U.S. graduate students' access to information and technology in the name of national security; and MIT's obligation, and opportunity, to help address the national problem of disintegrating infrastructure made apparent by Hurricane Katrina.

Energy Research Council

The meeting included an update on the Energy Research Council (ERC), announced by Hockfield in the spring. Co-chair Ernest J. Moniz reported the council is on a fast track toward fulfilling its mission -- recommending by February 2006 how MIT can change its image "from brown to green" and have a significant local and global impact on energy and the environment.

Through meetings with 90 faculty members and groups of students, the council is developing a picture of MIT energy-related research and expertise. "There's a lot going on," said Moniz, co-director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. "We are developing a list of promising science and engineering research areas that match global needs and MIT capabilities."

The council is planning to get industry input through an Industrial Liaison Program-organized workshop on Dec. 6 chaired by software executive and MIT benefactor Kenan Sahin. A series of seminars and colloquia are also planned (the first colloquium took place Sept. 22 to an overflow audience).

Singapore-MIT Alliance

Professor Anthony A. Patera, co-director of the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA) gave the faculty an update on the newest incarnation of the program, "SMA-2." The National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (NTU) and MIT have been working together since 1998 to achieve seamless instruction across 12 time zones.

In SMA-2, launched this academic year, master's students apply separately to both MIT and to one of the two Singaporean partner universities; if independently admitted to both MIT and NUS/NTU, they are then eligible for an SMA fellowship that covers their tuition at both universities as well as travel costs and stipend.

Upon completing the regular degree requirements at both universities -- including at least one semester in residence at MIT and an additional semester taking MIT courses delivered by interactive videoconferencing -- these students earn two master's degrees, one from MIT and one from NUS or NTU.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 28, 2005 (download PDF).

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