Retreat to the Ivory Tower: MIT's closure of the Lowell Institute School

by Rob

The recent announcement by the administration of the impending closure
of the Lowell Institute School raises questions about MIT's priorities
for technology education, and the soundness of its decision-making
capabilities.
	The Lowell Institute was set up according to the will of local
philanthropist John Lowell, who died in 1836 leaving a quarter of a
million dollars to set up an institute which would provide free
lectures to the citizens of Boston. The school was founded in 1903 as
the Lowell Institute School for Industrial Foremen to provide an
opportunity for working people to get an education in the technology
that was then coming into the workplace. Today it still functions in
this capacity, keeping people who work in technology abreast of the
latest developments and providing an upgrade to the skills and thereby
the employability of technical workers. Where MIT as a university
focuses on the theory and design of technology, the Lowell Institute
School provides the necessary know-how to implement and utilize this
technology in the workplace. This combination has made MIT a somewhat
more holistic technological institute, addressing many aspects of
technology from culture, gender, policy, and design perspectives to
applications and everyday use.
	In addition, Lowell has catered to a somewhat diverse student
body, which includes recent college graduates, current MIT students
and staff, and residents of Massachusetts and surrounding states. Many
who enroll already work with technology, or were laid off and need to
upgrade their technical skills to compete for jobs. Some students have
PhDs, some are recent immigrants, and about 125 per year are employees
of MIT who are seeking skills that will be useful to them in their
jobs here. The mean age of Lowell Institute School students is 35.
	Over the years, the school has offered a wide variety of
courses including computing, signal processing, video technology,
glassblowing, electrical engineering, machine shop, drawing and
drafting, and Japanese. The availability of a course at any given time
depended on the availability of staff to teach the course and MIT
facilities in which to teach them.
	In a recent interview I conducted with Provost Marc Wrighton,
he argued that the use of MIT resources by the school placed pressure
on MIT that needed to be alleviated, especially during this period of
budget cuts. But what resources exactly does the school utilize, and
what are the benefits that validate this drain on resources? For a
start, MIT provides very little direct financial support to the
school. MIT currently pays the salary of the school's director, which
including benefits amounts to a total of about $95,000. The Lowell
Institute School has offered to absorb this cost entirely, thus
freeing MIT of any direct financial commitment.
	There are also many indirect costs associated with the
school's current operations. For example, the school occupies 1017
square feet in building E32. At current market rates for the Kendall
Square area, this property is worth $15,000-$20,000 per year. Dr Bruce
Wedlock, director of the Lowell Institute School, ventured that the
school could probably pay for this if MIT asked.
	The Lowell Institute School also uses MIT labs and has around
120 Athena accounts operating during any given term. Wedlock pointed
out that the school's use of MIT labs and computing facilities is
restricted to 5-7pm on weekdays and Saturday mornings, which are
off-times for MIT classes and student use. Regardless, Provost
Wrighton argued, MIT still incurs a cost. While this is undoubtedly
true, there has been no study to determine the actual level of the
costs involved. Wrighton also voiced concerns about the similarly
unstudied burden on MIT of Lowell Institute School students "walking
down the corridors and using the bathrooms" and so forth.
	In apposition to these costs, the nature and level of which
remain unknown, are the benefits to MIT and the broader community of
having the school remain. As mentioned above, over 100 of the school's
students in any one year are MIT employees for whom the school's
training enhances job performance and satisfaction. MIT currently pays
the tuition for employees to attend the school. If it were to be
closed down, Wrighton admits that these employees would enroll in
similar courses at other schools, such as the Harvard extension
program (which, incidentally, was also set up by the Lowell
Institute), Northeastern University or Wentworth Institute of
Technology. Comparable courses at these other schools cost at least
$500 more than Lowell Institute School courses, which represents an
additional cost to MIT of at least $50,000 per annum. Given that there
has been no study of the indirect costs to MIT of hosting the school,
it is impossible to say whether the savings or the expenditure is
greater.
	There are other important issues apart from the finances. For
example, there is a sense in which the Lowell Institute School serves
the Cambridge and Boston communities in a way which MIT's more
academic activities can not. The presence of such a school allows the
local communities to benefit from the technological advances that we
so proudly pursue. While it is true that these skills can be acquired
elsewhere in the community, for MIT to end direct community access to
its facilities makes a strong, and potentially undesirable, statement
about MIT's priorities for technical education. MIT has always had a
more down-to-earth feel to it than many other universities, largely
due to the inclusion of multidisciplinary and practical programs in
its activities. Provost Wrighton and President Charles Vest have
received many letters from Lowell Institute School students, past and
present, that make it clear that the image of MIT in the community and
the workplace is greatly enhanced by the existence of the school
within MIT.
	Academia, however, is not what it used to be. According to
Wrighton, Lowell courses are not taught by MIT faculty (although
Lowell Institute School staff do teach MIT courses, interestingly
enough). It seems that implementation and theory of technology are
increasingly diverging. Junior faculty are invariably involved in the
publish or perish roundabout that typifies academia today, and
therefore can not afford to spend time teaching practical courses that
won't advance their research and personal careers, useful though it
may be to the working community. By the time an academic has published
her or his way into a senior post, he or she has usually backed into a
very narrow theoretical corner and is unsuited to teaching current job
skills to workers. MIT must clearly decide whether it wants to be an
inclusive technical school, or an ivory (Lego?) tower uninvolved in
teaching technical skills to those who will use them.
	Provost Wrighton made reference to the "mission" of MIT, the
need to simplify and to concentrate efforts on what benefits students
and faculty, and to eliminate that which does not distinguish MIT from
other schools. Interestingly, he argues that the Real Estate center in
the school of Architecture and Urban Planning is appropriate even
though it neither teaches nor researches technology because its
students are degree candidates (not to mention the fact that it brings
in more than the odd dollar for MIT). As to the Lowell Institute
School, he conceded that no single thing of that magnitude would
interfere with MIT's mission, but that many things of that caliber
could.
	There are several inconsistencies in his argument. First,
according to page 11 of the official MIT Bulletin, the institute's
mission is "to provide the highest quality programs of education and
research in all areas of study and investigation where strength and
competence have been developed and to do so with a strong commitment
to public service and to a diversity of backgrounds, interests, among
faculty, students, and staff." The Lowell Institute seems to fit the
official mission better than a lot of other programs at MIT, though
Provost Wrighton finds a loophole: he interprets "students" to mean
degree candidates. That's interesting because MIT has many students
who aren't degree candidates; there's even a classification for them:
special students. And what does this say for the future of other
programs such as the Community Fellows Program which also do not, in
Wrighton's estimation, have any "students," but are excellent examples
of what MIT can do with its resources when it cares to use them to
benefit someone other than wealthy corporations?
	Second, with regard to eliminating things that don't
distinguish MIT from other schools, it could be argued that the Lowell
Institute School actually helps to distinguish MIT because the school
gives MIT a more comprehensive approach to education that is absent
elsewhere. The administration apparently doesn't think so, but has not
offered any explanation as to why or why not. Wrighton makes reference
to goals and strategies that are not in the open, not agreed on by the
institute, and therefore not valid.
	With no numbers to back the financial argument, and the
"mission" argument apparently based on some secret or incoherent
agenda, the closure of the Lowell Institute School remains
unjustified. Perhaps Wrighton's comment that the future growth area of
technical training is biotechnology rather than digital technology
might be relevant. Apparently MIT looked at the possibility of
providing biotechnology workplace training through the Lowell
Institute School, but the lab space was deemed to be unavailable and
administrators felt that it would be difficult to get teachers. The
move was scuttled as 'unrealistic.' It seems unreasonable, however, to
go from this to a justification of shutting down the school as it
currently exists, especially when there is still great demand for it
from students from all over the community. The administration should
articulate its real reasons for closing the Lowell Institute; until it
does, this will stand as another example of unjustified decision
making by the MIT untouchables.


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