MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIII No. 1
September / October 2010
What Are We Willing to Pay for Clean Energy?
The Role of American Universities in
Large Disaster Management
Interview with New MIT Corporation
Chairman John Reed
The Year Ahead: Accelerating the
Pace of Innovation
MIT Ranked 7th in Latest U.S. News Poll
Pedagogic Scenarios: Where's the Metric?
Random Faculty Dinners
Approach 30th Anniversary
MIT150: Inventional Wisdom
MIT OpenCourseWare:
A Decade of Global Benefit
Institute Initiates Written Information
Security Program (WISP)
Michael S. Feld
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
U.S. News & World Report: Best College Rankings for National Universities, 2002-2011
Printable Version

MIT150: Inventional Wisdom

David A. Mindell

incremental cost over budget

William Barton Rogers, a Southerner, came north to pursue his dream of a new kind of technical education because he found warm reception in the culture of New England and because he fell in love with a Boston abolitionist woman, Emma Savage. Fulfilling Rogers’s dream, the governor of Massachusetts signed MIT’s charter on April 10, 1861, creating this unique and innovative educational institution. Those familiar with American history will recognize that week as the start of the American Civil War (the firing on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861). More than a coincidence, the proximity reflects how MIT’s history and that of the nation have intertwined from the beginning.

In the spring of 2011, MIT will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding. The celebration will last for 150 days (January 7 to June 5) and consist of numerous events and programs.

As chair of the MIT150 Steering Committee, I’d like to describe some of these events and explain some of the thinking behind the MIT150th. The steering committee, composed of faculty, students, senior administrative staff, and alumni has the broadest representation of the Institute of any committee on which I have served. The tagline of MIT150, “Inventional Wisdom,” aims to capture the blend of imagination and knowledge inspired by mens et manus, ideals of MIT from the beginning.

Two years ago, when the steering committee began its work, we sought to create some signature events that would mark the emotional and intellectual cores of the celebration. Then came the fall of 2008 and the global financial crisis, with its impact on MIT’s endowment and budgets. How could we celebrate at such a critical, defining moment? Of course, no one knew whether the spring of 2011 would bring depression or recovery, or something in between. Yet all agreed that MIT ought to celebrate its legacy and thank the numerous people who have helped make the place what it is. We resolved to do an excellent, appropriate celebration. The majority of the resources will be spent on campus supporting projects and programs initiated and executed by faculty, students, and staff.

The emotional center of the celebration will be the convocation, held on the actual anniversary, April 10. The convocation is inspired by earlier events such as the 1916 celebration of the move from Boston to Cambridge, the centennial celebration in 1961, and particularly the 1949 “Mid-Century Convocation,” when Winston Churchill addressed the MIT community in the Boston Garden and challenged it to attend to the moral and social implications of the science and technology it creates.

The convocation will be held in the Boston Convention and Events Center to accommodate the greatest number of students, alumni, staff, and faculty who wish to attend, on a Sunday afternoon, which allows groups to hold their own gatherings and celebrations earlier that weekend.

A formal event, in full academic regalia, the convocation will celebrate MIT’s highest intellectual and educational accomplishments. It comes at a time that calls for diligence and integrity to help the nation and the world escape downturns and face daunting problems. It will celebrate how serious, sustained study of the natural, technical, and social worlds develops a spirit of rigor, creativity, service, and wonder, exemplified by MIT’s researchers and students alike, a spirit with ramifications beyond science and engineering. Hence the convocation will celebrate MIT’s moral accomplishments as well as its intellectual ones.

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Where the convocation is the emotional core of the anniversary, the six MIT150 Symposia form its intellectual center. For the steering committee, the deepest, most meaningful celebration is to feature MIT’s strengths by bringing intellectual leaders together to discuss the great problems of the day, make significant progress on some of them, and inspire and educate the leaders of today and tomorrow. The MIT150 Symposia will show by example how MIT fosters innovation, reflecting on historical accomplishments and envisioning the future.

What are the major topics? This question could only be answered by the community itself. Hence we formed a subcommittee of faculty (from all five Schools), senior administrative staff, alumni, and students. It sent out a call for proposals last fall and received great response. From the submissions, the subcommittee selected six proposals as MIT150 Symposia. The committee did not choose topics but rather specific proposals and the faculty and staff who stepped forward to lead them. Each symposium focuses on large, synthetic questions, crosses multiple Schools and departments, and undertakes to be a significant, watershed moment in the intellectual history of its subject. The six symposia in no way cover the full range of research and activity on campus. Rather, as select examples, they epitomize MIT: economics and policy; integrative cancer research; women in science and engineering; the age of computation; exploration of earth, air, sea and space; and brains, minds, and machines. Stay tuned for much more on these exciting events, which promise to draw the attention of the world.

Another component of the celebration will be the MIT Open House on April 30, when the Institute opens its doors to the public. People will be able to come inside MIT’s educational and research facilities and see where the daily work of MIT gets done (reviving an old tradition at the Institute that fell into abeyance).

Departments, labs, and centers have critical roles to play in showing off their research and facilities with mini-lectures, tours, and hands-on activities to educate people about MIT’s work, mission, and culture. The Open House coincides with the Cambridge Science Festival, so many young people are expected to attend. Simultaneously, the Festival of Arts, Science, and Technology (FAST) will build on an old tradition at MIT of combining innovation in the arts with that in science and technology and will push the synthesis to new levels.

Numerous other events and projects will commemorate various aspects of the MIT community. Martin Luther King Day celebrations will pay special attention to the Institute’s historical and contemporary commitment to diversity. The Class of 1954 is sponsoring a student design competition to complete the original plans for topping the plinths in Lobby 7. The Global Challenge will connect students, faculty, and staff with alumni around the world to inspire innovative entrepreneurship as public service. The Infinite History project has logged more than 150 hours of oral history interviews with those who have shaped, or been shaped by, MIT (the videos will be made available on the Web). The MIT Archives is producing a detailed, interactive Web-based timeline; two new scholarly books on the history of MIT will appear next spring.

A major theme of MIT150 is community participation. Very little of it is centrally organized: the Steering Committee’s primary job is to coordinate efforts arising from the community. Therefore, we invite faculty, staff, students and departments, laboratories and centers to plan their own celebrations and to think about how you might participate in displaying MIT at the Open House in April. To become involved, please e-mail:

Working on MIT150 for the past two years, which has included developing and teaching a course on MIT’s history, has underscored for me the unique, consistent character of this place, stemming from Rogers’s original vision. Yet MIT150 is designed to celebrate and reflect on not one, but many MITs, each slightly different in our minds’ eyes, collectively comprising our past and our future.

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