Margaret MacVicar

photo of Margaret MacVicar

Professor Margaret MacVicar was an outstanding educator and scientist who served as Dean for Undergraduate Education from 1985 to 1990. The founder of MIT's acclaimed Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, she was nationally recognized for her leadership in shaping policies for undergraduate education and for science education in public schools.

MacVicar received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from MIT in 1964 and a Doctor of Science degree in Metallurgy and Materials Science in 1967. From then until 1969 she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Royal Society Mond section of Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, England. She returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to join the MIT Department of Physics as a faculty member in 1969, almost immediately becoming involved in educational matters in addition to her teaching and research. "There were educational and social issues I wanted to work on, and MIT wasn't a bad place to work on them," she recalled. In fact, she found herself at a crossroads where educational corners were being turned and she became involved in several innovative ventures such as an Experimental Study Group (ESG) that continues to exist today as a small academic community offering an individualized program in core subjects for freshmen and sophomores.

As a 26-year-old junior faculty member, Professor MacVicar contributed to one of the most substantive academic innovations in MIT history when she established the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in 1969. Acting on a suggestion from the famed inventor of instant photography, Dr. Edwin H. Land, then a visiting Institute Professor at MIT, and with encouragement from senior faculty and administrators, Professor MacVicar launched UROP, which links undergraduate students in collaborative research projects with faculty members in every school and department at the Institute.

The program, endowed initially with a $50,000 grant from Dr. Land and directed at its beginning by Professor MacVicar, has become an indispensable part of MIT's academic culture. It began with about 25 students and now 85% of all MIT undergraduate students participate. Before UROP, hands-on research experience was not a regular part of the undergraduate experience at MIT or elsewhere. The program is now much imitated worldwide, has been cited for national excellence by the US Secretary of Education, and is a model embraced by the National Science Foundation and private foundations. When the Charles A. Dana Foundation awarded Dr. MacVicar its 1986 Commendation in Higher Education Award for designing and implementing the UROP program, Foundation Chairman David Mahoney said, "I can scarcely imagine a development with greater promise for the quality of undergraduate higher education in this country."

Professor MacVicar's dual interests as scientist and educator were reflected in her faculty appointments. She was a professor of physical science and she also held an endowed chair as Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Education. As a scientist, Professor MacVicar worked both in physics, her undergraduate major, and materials science, in which she trained as a graduate student. Her principal research interest was in electronic materials, especially high-temperature metal and ceramic superconductors. She and her research group pursued both fundamental and applications-oriented studies, using single crystal and thin-film formats. The group pioneered a technique for detecting and investigating corrosion kinetics utilizing superconducting magnetometry. This new method for detecting and measuring electrochemical activity is seen as a way of saving some of the billions of dollars spent each year combatting the effects of corrosion. Industrial collaboration was begun to design a prototype instrument to optimize the technique for future investigation of practical materials. Additionally, a new electrochemical approach to fabricating ceramic superconductor precursors was developed, using thick coatings on three- dimensional geometries. Patents were received in both of these areas.

In recognition of her accomplishments in both science and education, Professor MacVicar in 1983 was appointed vice president of the Carnegie Institution. She remained with the Carnegie Institution on a part-time basis until 1987, developing research and education policies in the earth and astronomical sciences and designing a long-range plan for the institution's activities. She also served on national panels, including the National Center on Education and the Economy's Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. When the commission issued its report in 1990, Professor MacVicar commented that the current emphasis on improving average skills and competency levels would prove to be "a castle-in-the-clouds strategy if the workplace is not also changed to make use of those skills. We must have a workplace that pays well and values people and has prestige for all levels of jobs."

As Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE), MacVicar headed up the Institute's ongoing comprehensive review and restructuring of its undergraduate academic program. She told an interviewer that an MIT education ought to fit into the context of a student's life and to make students aware of their societal responsibilities. "It is not technicians that we seek to prepare, nor bench-tied engineers practicing narrow specialties and intent on deadlines and objectives devised elsewhere," she said, "Our purpose is to direct the best minds toward inquiries and enterprises concerned for the human condition." Among the changes she guided through faculty deliberations was a declaration of diversity--in terms of the numbers of women, minorities, and students with more varied interests and experiences--as an undergraduate admissions priority.

She was also instrumental in the revitalization of the humanities, arts, and social sciences requirement; a revision of the science distribution requirement; a requirement for the study of modern biology; and a refinement of the pass/no credit grading system for freshmen. Dr. Paul E. Gray, former Chairman of the MIT Corporation, and former MIT president, said of his longtime colleague: "Margaret MacVicar was an extraordinary innovator, leader and educator. She possessed a remarkable combination of ability, insight, judgment and energy which is rare in any generation and which made her a singular teacher of institutions as well as individuals."

At the time of her death, MIT President Charles M. Vest noted: "Margaret MacVicar was one of those rare individuals whose thoughts and actions transformed a great institution and influenced thousands of young men and women. Her development of UROP brought a potent combination of teaching and research to the education of MIT undergraduates. She engaged her profession and her life with an intensity and a courage that have inspired and touched us all."

Known for her teaching ability, she was the first recipient of the Class of 1922 Career Development Award, in 1973, endowed by class alumni to support young faculty members of exceptional promise and unusual devotion to teaching. In 1977, MacVicar received the Irwin Sizer Award for the most significant contribution to education at MIT. In 1979, she held the Chancellor's Distinguished Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Her leadership in projects outside the university are notable, as well. She was cochair of Phase I of Project 2061, a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's National Council on Science and Technology, and chair of the National Science Foundation's new Advisory Committee on Education and Human Resources. Professor MacVicar also served as a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Technology and a member of the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education.

Professor MacVicar's many awards included an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Clarkson University in 1985. She was Orator at the 1984 Literary Exercises of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard University; Cecil and Ida Green Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Texas in 1979; and Vollmer W. Fries Lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1976. She was a member of the Corporations of the Charles S. Draper Laboratory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a trustee of Radcliffe College and of the Boston Museum of Science, and a director of Exxon Corporation, the Harvard Cooperative Society and H. W. Brady Co. She was also a fellow of the American Physical Society.

Margaret MacVicar died on September 30, 1991.

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