Engineering Excellence in Challenging Times
Like so many of our peer institutions, MIT is in the process of adjusting to a new economic reality. The Institute has experienced a significant decline in its Endowment and we must adjust. Some reductions are no doubt necessary, but we must make cuts and concessions with a renewed commitment to our core values and principles and in ways that preserve the priorities of the School of Engineering and the Institute we have all worked so hard to build and sustain.
MIT’s bloodline of excellence is its faculty members who, in turn, attract and educate excellent students. Keeping the School of Engineering a world leader in research and education means supporting our current faculty – and it means attracting the very best and brightest young faculty to the Institute this year and in the years ahead. Being at the top of our field also means offering competitive support to our graduate and undergraduate students at a time when their need may be at its greatest.
During the last 12 months the School of Engineering has added 20 new faculty members. Currently, 14 search committees are in the midst of evaluating and short-listing finalists from several thousand applications for faculty positions in the School. With these recruitment activities, we are poised to add up to 36 new faculty members to the School of Engineering in a span about 20 months – nearly a 10 percent renewal of the School’s entire faculty.
Such a hiring pace is brisk, even by the standards we set for ourselves under rosier economic circumstances, and reflects our unwavering commitment to excellence and intellectual renewal.
Our plans for this hiring process were made collectively, with input from department leadership and from faculty across the School. There was careful consideration of the accumulated need for faculty recruitment over the past few years, the current financial climate, future budget estimates (including those with highly pessimistic projections), as well as timely, unique, and strategic opportunities to add capacity and intellectual range to our faculty.
This renewal of the faculty represents one of a number of choices we are making, and illustrates why the global financial crisis also provides unique opportunities for some contrarian strategies to further enhance the School’s stature. Despite the economic climate, MIT must explore and implement bold new ideas that are innovative and transformational; we need not only to do what we have always done, we also need to do things differently. To make ourselves sufficiently flexible and nimble in the current financial climate (as well as for the years beyond it) my own office has taken a several-fold deeper cut in its operating budget, on a percentage basis, for next year than that of any unit within the School.
All the units in the School have been strongly encouraged to prepare for the worst-case budget scenario, which hopefully will not materialize, by implementing greater efficiency and value in all of our activities. At the same time, new ideas for more efficient means of maintaining and achieving excellence are emerging from the faculty-driven efforts that have been set up to address these issues, from department-, School-, and Institute-wide perspectives.
The impulse to redefine and reshape the work we do, and to improve the place where we are doing it, is one of the defining features of the School. We are engineers – inveterate thinkers, creators, and problem solvers – and it is precisely these qualities that can provide us with the best solutions.
In the current academic year, the School of Engineering has launched three initiatives – all of which originated from the School’s faculty-led planning process. First, in the fall we announced the formation of the Center for Computational Engineering, which aims to expand educational and research opportunities for faculty and students who would benefit from the application of computational methodologies to their work in engineering and beyond. This effort, supported with gifts and endowment providing two graduate fellowships, has already brought together nearly 40 faculty members from across the Institute. In the six months since the Center’s inception, faculty from across the spectrum of engineering and science disciplines have put together several major proposals, and the Center has created new opportunities for interaction and collaboration in education and research for a number of faculty members for the first time.
Second, this year the School launched four faculty searches that will benefit from the widest range of faculty input.
These “School-wide” searches are in broad areas – transportation, energy, green technologies, and computational engineering – and the faculty collaborating on the searches come from every academic department in the School. Freed of the departmental structures that, while traditional and efficient, can be somewhat restrictive, these searches have helped us discover new areas to debate, new ways to converse, and, ultimately, new ways to agree (or engage in constructive disagreement).
Successful candidates for the School-wide searches will be selected based on the quality of their work and their vision, without a priori consideration of their departmental affiliation. I look forward to the outcome of all these searches in the coming months.
Last, in early March – and in collaboration with MIT-Sloan and the School of Architecture and Planning – we announced the new Transportation@MIT initiative. This initiative will draw on faculty from all three Schools and give the faculty new methods and means for collaborating on issues of common interest. A 2008 survey of 1,300 MIT faculty and senior researchers revealed that 338, or 26% of those surveyed, are doing work related to or applicable to transportation. A look at our existing sponsored research revealed that the School of Engineering alone attracts over $20 million in transportation-related grant funding every year. Like the Center for Computational Engineering, this initiative has already provided a focal point for new collaborations among faculty members from different corners of the Institute. Through Transportation@MIT, we have laid the foundation to create new and unique opportunities for faculty with common interests to work on transportation technologies and solutions that will have the largest, most immediate, and most direct benefits for the environment and for sustainable mobility. You will be hearing more about this in the coming months.
The Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program saw its successful launch this academic year. We are most grateful to the faculty colleagues who helped define and shape the various elements of this program aimed at providing improved context-based and project-based learning and hands-on design and leadership experience to our undergraduate students. The inaugural cohort of Bernard Gordon Fellows was selected this year from a highly competitive pool of undergraduate student applicants. [Click here for a related article in this Newsletter.]
Faculty members from the School of Engineering continue to play prominent roles in defining and shaping major institutional initiatives.
MIT faculty and students working at the intersections of engineering, life sciences, and medicine have benefited from the Institute’s significant investments in physical infrastructure over the past decade. While much work lies ahead for further strengthening these activities (through, for example, the creation of centralized laboratory facilities accessible to researchers from across the campus), the Schools of Science and Engineering are developing a unified vision and have embarked on a coordinated planning process to meet their goals. However, the development of new, state-of-the-art central laboratory facilities in the physical sciences/engineering areas has lagged at MIT. We remain behind as similar efforts at several of our peer institutions proceed. To rectify this problem, a faculty-led team is currently hard at work to crystallize our vision for achieving an even greater impact on the disciplines of engineering and the physical sciences that rely on large experimental facilities. Our goal is to help create unique and centrally supported experimental capabilities that will enable large numbers of faculty members and students to pioneer the next wave of innovations for the coming decades. As a start to our efforts to address this issue, in the coming months we will see creation of shared experimental facilities along one or more prominent corridors in the main group, thanks to the generosity of alumni donors.
The financial crisis, famously described as “a terrible thing to waste,” has focused the attention of people across the Institute and helped them ask new questions, among them: “Are there greater scales of efficiency in combining centers and cross-disciplinary research units?” Faculty members in different centers are identifying ways to rejuvenate and broaden their research portfolios through enhanced synergies and mergers.
While the stagnant government funding of the past decade gave rise to strong concerns about sustaining adequate support for research, we have seen a noticeable increase in research volume so far this year. This increase in faculty research expenditures was evident even before Congress passed the stimulus package, the bulk of which is expected to be a temporary spike in research support in targeted areas.
The country is now in the process of re-examining and re-formulating its own plan for our collective future – one, we have been told, that will pay special attention to the cultivation and support of current and future engineers and scientists; and therein lies our real challenge. Can the values that drive us provide the tools needed to solve today’s most complex and vexing problems? In a word: yes.