A Frog in Water
Part II: The Long-Term Consequences
of Imperceptible Change
The parable of frogs in water suggests that a frog immediately placed in very hot water will jump out and free itself; while a frog placed in cool water will remain as the water is slowly heated until the frog expires. A rapid change of environment causes a rapid response, but gradual changes provoke no response and can lead to death. So it is with our MIT environment.
In a prior article I described some of the changes I have witnessed over nearly a half century at MIT, most notably in the nature of research and the pressure to obtain research funding. As a new assistant professor in my first meeting with my Department Head, Professor Walter Owen told me “No matter what anyone tells you, it really is ‘Publish or Perish’!” Having been a student here, I knew that the way to get publications is to have students and the way to get students is to have research funding. In that sense, research money was the almighty metric of success, short of actually having some creative ideas; but without money to pursue your ideas, even the best ideas would lie fallow.
Given the quality of the MIT students, both undergraduate and graduate, I also knew that the students (on average) could be creative as long as they were given a significant problem to address and the resources and freedom to pursue their ideas. As a new assistant professor, I started writing proposals and doing my teaching. Within four years, I had more research money than any other single faculty member in my department. In another four years I had tenure, and as long as I was willing to work hard, I could continue to be “successful” as measured by the “system.”
Twenty years after my meeting with Walter Owen, I had become the Department Head, when I learned that I had an illness that could prove fatal within a year. As might be expected, this news caused considerable reflection. My one regret in both my personal life and my professional life, was that I had never written a book in my field of expertise. I knew that my perspective (in welding and joining technology) was unique and that it would be lost unless I archived what I had learned over the previous two decades. Today, nearly two decades later, I have overcome the illness but I still have not written the book. It is not that I have not bitten around the edges of the task, but it never gets done. Friends of mine, who are faculty in Schools other than Science or Engineering, have written several books over that time. I know that I work as many hours as they; why can I not get my book written?
The answer came this spring when one of my former students downloaded from the MIT Libraries a list of the 157 MIT theses I have supervised. Having never stopped to count these theses before, I looked over on my bookshelf and saw four volumes of my first 200 publications. There on my shelf were my “books.” Although these constituted a coherent “whole” to me, they were not in a form that anyone else could appreciate.
It was then that I started to analyze the parable of the frog in water in my own career. The constant drafting of proposals, meetings with a dozen research students, editing their theses and drafts of papers (requiring 20 minutes per page for some non-native English-speaking students), as well as teaching had consumed my time. I was continually busy trying to work on proposals, teaching and working with students as I had done in my youth, but each task was consuming larger fractions of my time, and there is room for little else.
When he became Dean of Engineering, Bob Brown told me that the faculty and students work hard because they are insecure. While this may be true for many of the students, I do not believe it is the motivation for most of the faculty. Most faculty work hard because it is what they learned to do to get tenure and they have learned that running on a treadmill is what is expected and is necessary to excel. Bob Brown misanalysed our situation; striving for excellence is not the same as being insecure.
There is no single measure of success for faculty both young and old. I have seen virtually no career counseling for faculty beyond the tenure gate. It is generally expected that faculty in their 60s and 70s will do the same things as faculty in their 30s and 40s. Some faculty transition out of teaching and research into administration; but the metrics for faculty who do not go into administration remain the same, no matter what their age or years of service.
There is little planning for the future. As Department Head, I remember meeting with an 80-year-old faculty member who was submitting a proposal for research that would involve both a graduate student and a postdoc. I told my colleague, who was 35 years my senior, that the Department was pleased to endorse his continued research, but that I thought it best that he collaborate with a younger colleague, at least in supervision of the graduate thesis. My colleague was perplexed and was angered by my suggestion that he would not be hale and hearty forever.
The real failure is MIT’s inability or unwillingness to assist the faculty transition to new roles as they age. Our more senior faculty should be encouraged and honored for assuming greater roles in mentoring of both younger faculty and students.
As the environment for research funding has evolved over the past half century, MIT has not kept pace with the roles of the faculty both young and old. MIT has doubled both the administrative staff and the teaching staff to give the faculty more time to seek out research funding, or to meet the new regulations; but the Institute has not reviewed the temperature of the water in our environment. The Institute grows bigger, our output increases and the media gives us ever more attention, but the pressures increase, the teaching suffers, and collegiality suffers as we all hurry in various directions. The environment has changed and because the changes have been gradual, we do not notice the trends. One might ask whether we are still in control of our environment or whether the environment has become our master.
Walter Owen’s admonition that it is “Publish or Perish” remains true, but there are multiple forms of publication. Some of the most influential publications are the textbooks written by faculty who define or redefine their field. If we want to differentiate ourselves from the other 300 research universities that surround us, we should find more effective ways for a fraction of the faculty to write the seminal texts in their field. After a career of writing hundreds of journal articles, a few more papers will have little impact; but a text that codifies what we have learned over 30 years would be a rich legacy for all who follow. MIT should establish a mechanism to pull a few faculty out of the steaming water to a cooler environment, where the faculty can preserve their life’s work for future generations.