The Academic Life: Not much of a Community

April 19, 2015

The Academic Life: Not much of a Community

I've been part of the same academic department for more than 40 years. For 12 of those years, I had management responsibility. All told, there have been 12 different heads of the Urban Studies and Planning Department since I arrived in 1969. I've seen six university presidents come and go.  I've also seen how six Deans of the School of Architecture have approached the increasingly difficult task of trying to make sense of our school with its Department of Architecture, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), The Media Lab, and Center for Real Estate that offer 20 different degrees.  Because I am on sabbatical, I have had a chance to reflect on the most significant changes in the way my Department was run in the past and the way it currently operates.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm quite happy where I am, or I would have left. And, the MIT administration (at a very centralized institution) has been quite generous with the Department.  But, the differences in what academic life used to be and what it is like now -- in the same department in the same university -- are worth noting.

The size of the tenured faculty has remained relatively stable for more than a decade (although we probably have the largest tenured faculty of any of the 70+ planning schools in North America).  We haven't switched to part-time, adjunct faculty the way many schools have.  We do have several Professors of Practice and full-time non-tenured faculty because we need advanced practitioners to help teach practice-skills, but mostly we have full time tenured or tenure-track faculty. We just hired four new faculty members this past year.  Our two-year professional master's of city planning degree has about 120 students. That's been stable for a long time.  There are still three or four applicants for each slot ever year.  There may be a slight uptick in the number of international students in our MCP and PHD programs over the past 20 years, but not much. The PHD Program mostly takes students with a prior master's degree who stick around for four to five additional years. There are 50 - 55 full time enrollees and 12 - 15 applicants for each of the 10 - 12 slots we fill each year.  They are an extremely eclectic group  with impressive scholarly credentials and a lot of practical experience in the public sector or in civil society.  It's a big department with lots of resources.  It's not so large by MIT standards, at least insofar as the engineering and science departments are concerned, but 30 tenured or tenure-track faculty is large by comparison with all other department of the same kind.  So, we have a lot of graduate students and a large faculty. (N.B. In the 1970's, when "urban problems" in America were on the front page every day, we had to cap the number of undergraduate majors in the department at 50.  Now there are fewer than 20 undergraduate majors, and they are more environmentally focused.)

Students and faculty in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning continued to be divided into program areas -- city design and development, environmental policy and planning, international development, and housing and community economic development along with cross-cutting areas like transportation planning and urban information systems. These divisions, however,  are a lot less useful than they used to be because students and faculty are engaged in research on issues like renewable energy, climate adaptation, housing development in China, and the impact of social media on public participation that don't fit neatly into the four long-standing categories. The list of more than 100 classes offered every year by our faculty would startle you.  And, a great many DUSP faculty teach and do research with faculty in other MIT departments or other universities, extending the geographic and topical scope of the research in the Department even further. It's hard to know which research funds are unique to our department, but I would estimate that our faculty are part of more than $5 million in sponsored research every year.  We just received one of the largest gifts ever made to MIT -- $118 million -- to support a new Real Estate Laboratory with a sustainable development orientation and an emphasis on China.  The scope and content of what we teach and the research we do changes to reflect what is happening the world at large.  That's not surprising.

What is surprising, though, is that the way we used to make decisions -- as a faculty -- and the full partnership role that students had,  are both gone. The faculty has occasional meetings to hear what has already been decided (by a small sub-committee or the Department Head),  but rarely invests in anything like the extensive debates we used to have about what our objectives or policies ought to be.  Students are asked their opinions, but they no longer serve as voting members on committees and, because of federal laws (and fear of lawsuits), they can no longer read letters of recommendation for student applicants or potential faculty hires.  Indeed, the entire relationship between graduate students and faculty has changed. Students do not feel free to speak their minds with their faculty advisors. They are too worried about how they will be judged (or who they might offend). Junior faculty do everything they can to avoid making statements that might be divisive.  They can't afford to alienate senior faculty who hold their futures in their hands. Most of the faculty and most of the graduate students have very little curiosity about what their peers (in the Department!) are doing.  They are too busy doing their own work. I doubt that very many faculty would say that their colleagues are among their closest friends (although that definitely used to be the case). While I'm sure that graduate students have close friends among other students in the Department, my sense is that the scope of those connections in the Department are quite limited.  Everyone is very busy, very scheduled.

Maybe that's the way it needs to be. But, I miss the freewheeling debate among the factions in the Department that could always be counted on to have strong feelings about current public policy questions. I miss the student-faculty interaction in which the students were as passionate, outspoken and uninhibited about their views as the faculty Everything seems more businesslike now.  Each person sticks to their own knitting. Even though I send copies of my new books to almost all of my colleagues, I doubt any of them has read them. Not one person in five years (and I published a new book almost every year or two) has come back to me and asked to talk about what I've written. Almost no one sends copies of the articles they publish to anyone other than the one or two faculty in exactly the same area of specialization.  When I travel out of the country with some of my colleagues and listen to them present to foreign audiences, I'm more likely to learn about what they are doing.

I don't know if my academic department is typical of others. But the loss of comradeship, the absence of spirited debate, curiosity about what colleagues are thinking and doing, and the lack of interest in collective governance (indeed, many faculty want to be left off committees and actively find ways of avoiding "administrative assignments") make day-to-day life in the university a lot less interesting than it used to be. The sense that graduate students "need to know their place," represents a loss for both the students (who are likely to treat their own students the same way in the future) and for the faculty who would otherwise be pushed harder to think about what they believe and why.

All told, even though my department is much richer in many respects, and the individuals involved are as smart and well-educated as they ever were, it doesn't feel like much of an intellectual community.  We had a series of large departmental meetings last year at which faculty were given 5 minutes to present a "lightening round" talk about their work. There were one or two questions asked by people who, in fact, were not familiar with the years of research summarized in each five minute talk (with jazzy power point slides, of course). I found it profoundly disappointing, but so typical of what passes for our "intellectual community" these days.