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Grad committee change proposed at faculty meeting

Open access to research, divestment from Sudan also discussed

Faculty chair Lorna J. Gibson presented a proposal at the March 15 faculty meeting to restructure the Committee on Graduate School Programs and rename it the Committee on Graduate Programs.

Currently made up of 40 members, the Committee on Graduate School Programs handles a variety of tasks, from recommending the adoption of new graduate degree programs to issuing formal complaints to underperforming graduate students.

The proposal would shrink the committee to six elected faculty members plus the associate chair of the faculty and two graduate student members. The dean for graduate students and the vice president for research would be ex officio members. The chair of the committee would be appointed by the chair of the faculty and faculty members would serve for three years (terms currently last one year) to allow for more continuity, said Gibson, who is the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

The proposal will be put to a vote at the April faculty meeting, but Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert said he "heartily approves" of the proposed changes. Currently, he said, "it's easier to tell who's not on the committee than who is on the committee. A body that large can't deal with the challenges graduate education is facing today at MIT and around the world."

Gibson said the hope is that a restructured committee will be able to "look at broader, Institute-wide graduate policies. With the shift to graduate education in interdisciplinary fields and the corresponding increase in ad hoc interdisciplinary doctoral thesis committees," more oversight is needed, she said.

She pointed out that more policies are governing international graduate students, and MIT is competing for grad students on a more global scale than in the past. A smaller committee may be able to accomplish more substantive work and improve the graduate student experience at MIT, she said.

Open access

Concerned that taxpayer-funded research is not accessible to the general public because of the tightly controlled, proprietary system enforced by some journal publishers, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is asking every NIH-funded scientist who publishes results in a peer-reviewed journal to deposit a digital copy of the article in PubMed Central (PMC), the online digital library maintained by the NIH. Not later than 12 months after the journal article appears, PMC will then provide free online access to the public.

Director of Libraries Anne J. Wolpert and Vice President for Research Alice Gast discussed with the faculty MIT's response to this issue, which has been to support NIH researchers in complying with the policy, and also to enable any MIT researcher to use a more author-friendly copyright agreement when submitting articles for publication.

"The overwhelming majority of work produced by you is licensed back to you, and you can't always use your own work in the way you want to use it," Wolpert told the faculty. Copyright exemptions that were carefully crafted to allow the academy to teach and do research are steadily being superseded by intellectual property regimes that were developed for the benefit of the entertainment industry. "What Disney wants, the academy gets, whether it suits your interests or not," Wolpert said.

Among the reasons for universities to support open access is the high cost associated with renting access to journals, which for MIT alone has grown in the past decade from $2.6 million to more than $6 million a year.

Gast said that a discussion group convened around the issue has revealed different cultures across the MIT campus; some disciplines routinely share their work on the Internet while others disseminate findings solely through peer-reviewed proprietary journals.

An amendment that can be attached to any publication's copyright agreement was disseminated to principal investigators in February. "We have to wait and see how this plays out and see what feedback we get from publishers," Gast said. The goal is for MIT as an institution to work out agreements with publishers rather than make individual researchers fight their own battles. More information, as well as the amendment, which would override the publisher's copyright agreement, is available online at and other MIT web sites.

"There is a distinct feeling among our counterparts at large private and public institutions that if MIT takes a reasonable and principled position on this issue, other institutions will be encouraged to do likewise," Wolpert said.

Divestment from Sudan

Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Brown Universities and Amherst College are among the private institutions of higher education that plan to disinvest in companies doing business with Sudan, to protest political violence there.

MIT President Susan Hockfield told the faculty that the Executive Committee decided in early March to reconvene MIT's Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, most recently active during the South African divestment movement, to examine MIT's investments in companies that may be doing business with Sudan. The committee, consisting of Corporation, faculty, administration, and student representatives, will "look at this issue seriously and take appropriate action," Hockfield said.

Increasing research funding

Hockfield also reported on her most recent monthly trip to Washington, D.C., her first with William B. Bonvillian, MIT's new director of federal relations. She and Bonvillian met with presidential advisor Alan Hubbard and Massachusetts Sens. John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy and found them supportive of increased funding for basic research to advance a shared agenda to support enhanced innovation.

However, Hockfield said that in light of the short congressional session and the election year, she is "not confident there is sufficient bipartisan enthusiasm for getting this passed this year."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 22, 2006 (download PDF).

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