President Charles M. Vest's annual report to the MIT community, October 1993.
Still follow sense, of ev'ry art the soul,
Parts answering parts shall slide into a whole.
Alexander Pope, Epistles to Several Persons
These are times of change that call for a rethinking of how American higher education can best serve the nation and the world. As our universities and colleges evolve to meet the new intellectual and social challenges before us, we must find ways to deal with the fragmentation, both intellectual and social, that has accompanied change. It is time to seek a new balance within our intellectual and organizational constructs. Our fundamental values will help us stay on course, but we need a vision that embraces the complexities of our times while helping us to move toward greater coherence around common goals. The American dream has become more complex, and the people who dream it are more diverse, but our higher educational system remains the most important vehicle for reaching that dream. At one level, the American dream and the goals of higher education remain congruent and unchanged. Simply put, they are to provide the opportunity and the means for each person to meet his or her needs and aspirations and to contribute to the well being of our society with understanding, skill, responsibility and, one would hope, with compassion. These goals are fostered by a set of fundamental values that are held in common by essentially all institutions of higher learning. We believe in the importance of education, of rationality and objectivity, and of discovering and transmitting knowledge. We respect varying views, value the role of our institutions as critics of society, and believe in an elitism that is based solely on talent and accomplishment, rather than wealth or social status. As a corollary to this last point, we believe that in a democratic society, our institutions of higher education must be both excellent and accessible for the sake of the individual and for the sake of society. These values give continuity of purpose to our colleges and universities. At the same time, they ensure that we will encounter continual change in the students we educate, in the faculty who teach them, and in the expectations of both. So, too, we will continually generate change in what we teach, in how we teach, and in the fields we invent and discover.
Sometimes intellectual, social and organizational changes are precipitated by sudden, dramatic, events or insights followed by a long period of diffusion and adjustment throughout an institution. More often, they come slowly and painfully, as a result of adjusting to the tensions that arise from conflicting forces, goals and realities.
American campuses, like society as a whole, change at an awkward pace. On an historical time scale, they change very quickly. On the time scale of a faculty member's career, they change slowly enough to be missed in day-to-day perception, but rapidly enough to create confusion of goals over time. On the time scale of an undergraduate's education, they seem to change not at all.
The student body of MIT has changed remarkably since the time of the Institute's founding, when a group of 15 young men gathered in Boston at the end of the Civil War to study the practical arts and sciences that would serve the needs of a rapidly industrializing society. Today, MIT's students are a remarkably heterogeneous group of nearly 10,000 men and women who come to our Cambridge campus from all over the world to study in fields ranging from molecular biology to music composition, from computer science to economics. One-third of the graduate students now come from other countries, as do nine percent of the undergraduates. The undergraduates, one-third of whom are women, are a particularly diverse group. Of those who are US citizens or permanent residents, 56 percent come from the majority white population, approximately 28 percent are Asian Americans, 9 percent are Hispanic Americans, 6 percent are African Americans, and one percent are Native Americans.
By contrast, when I began my teaching career in the mid 1960s, engineering was widely regarded as a man's world and it was rare to have more than one or two women in an engineering class. Most of my students were born in this country, and most were white. For the most part, students, especially in science and engineering, shared rather common personal goals, aspirations, and world views. At that time, federal funding was creating rapidly growing research programs, mostly at a handful of leading institutions. The structure of DNA had only recently been discovered, computing was done by batch processing of programs entered on punched cards, and the engineering science revolution was propagating from MIT to the rest of the country.
A faculty member looking back over three decades, sees social and intellectual changes that have been significant, even dramatic, but consider how things must look to a graduating senior reviewing his or her four years at MIT. Since the Class of 1993 entered in 1989, the General Institute Requirements have changed only by one subject, molecular biology. The organizational structure remains pretty much the same, although the deans of every School are new and two departments have changed their names to reflect new emphases. The campus looks about the same, with the very notable exception of the Biology Building rising on Ames Street.
To put it simplistically, students think nothing changes. Many faculty and administrators view the world through eyes that grew accustomed to the academic light twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. And William Barton Rogers would be hard put to discern any connection between today's MIT and the Institute he founded.
Intellectually, we have sometimes advanced in sudden bursts, as when an entirely new approach to technological development and applied research was created in the World War II Radiation Laboratory, or when Noam Chomsky reconceptualized linguistics, or when Edward Lorenz developed the basic ideas of chaos theory. More often, we have slowly and collectively evolved ideas, approaches and academic disciplines by a combination of incremental insights, external forces, and growing infrastructure.
Organizationally, we adjust to changing circumstances. Traditionally, the pattern has been the following. Research leads to the establishment of laboratories and the creation of graduate subjects. Graduate subjects are combined to form graduate programs, and as the intellectual mass develops and as demand for graduates and applications accumulates, departments are formed. Faculty entrepreneurism, both intellectual and in terms of developing funding for research and education, have been and remain essential elements of change. The administration and support services of the Institute have developed to meet growing faculty and student needs and to deal with the ever-increasing administrative requirements of government funding and regulation. Thus, we now have major institutional organizations to provide our scholars with information technology resources, to attract financial support from individuals, foundations and corporations, and to provide housing, food, advising, and medical services to our students.
Socially, we also adjust to evolving circumstances, but often only with difficulty. MIT is a collection of extraordinary individuals who, time and again, have redefined intellectual fields and have risen to the challenges presented by the larger society. And now these challenges include incorporating more rapid cultural and demographic change into our life as an academic community. In the past four years, the number of underrepresented minority students has increased by nine percent, while the number of minority students overall (that is, including Asian American students) has increased by 26 percent. At the faculty level, the number of women in the professorial ranks, while still small, has increased by 15 percent (from 95 to 109). The number of underrepresented minority faculty has increased by 15 percent as well, but remains distressingly low, at 31.
Many of the changes that we face today some with relish, and some with anxiety seem to me to have in common tensions between fragmentation and coalescence. Furthermore, they cannot be classified neatly as intellectual, organizational, or social, but involve all three aspects simultaneously. As I contemplate these changes, I have come to believe that there is a growing imperative to de-emphasize fragmentation and to reemphasize coalescence. We must seek greater commonality of vision in the many dimensions of our life at MIT.
As noted, the gender, race, and ethnic composition of MIT is far different than it was three decades ago, and is characterized by remarkable heterogeneity, especially among the students. Even though MIT is a more focused institution than most, we find that the values and aspirations among our students are increasingly diverse as well. This heterogeneity, depending on the context, is viewed as providing a great resource and opportunity, as demanding new institutional services and responsibilities, or as establishing new tensions on campus. Each of these views is correct. None can be escaped.
As faculty and administrators across the country grapple with these new realities, they are caught in a vise of political opinion the "politically correct" arguments of the left and of the right. From the left, political correctness condemns us if we do not fragment every academic subject indefinitely along gender, racial, ethnic and other lines. It seems to strive to make us so self-conscious about differences, terminology and "isms" that open, objective intellectual and social discourse becomes both difficult and unproductive. On the other hand, the politically correct on the right cry "quota" and "standards" at the first sighting of a minority student on a prestigious campus; find it inappropriate when our studies of history, politics and literature become more inclusive and view the world through many eyes and experiences; and see the decline of American civilization if a group of black students eat together in the cafeteria.
Now it is true that the growing diversity of our campuses is accompanied by a tendency toward fragmentation in many academic communities. There are a variety of reasons for this. Some delineation along racial, ethnic, and other lines is appropriate. It certainly is true that studies of human affairs require examination from the perspectives of the various peoples who have led or participated in them. Then, too, individuals gain a sense of identity, a sense of history, and a sense of purpose that derive in part from exploring and affirming their personal heritage. That is why it is appropriate for there to be ethnic interest groups, women's groups, and other culturally based activities on our campuses.
But there are lines that can be crossed from the productive to the counterproductive. This occurs when we move into too much self-centeredness, and when we fall victim, for example, to what Cornel West calls "racial reasoning", which creates a closing-ranks mentality stemming from fixation on racial authenticity.(1) At some point, a community ceases to be inclusive if its constituent groups all define themselves in exclusivist terms, regardless of whether they comprise a majority or minority, or whether they have come recently to the table or have been there since the inception.
The tensions introduced by diversity into the academic community are very real. So are the opportunities and responsibilities that it makes possible. We need to find ways for our differences of experience, culture, and perspective to enrich, rather than divide, our community. As Alfred North Whitehead said in his 1925 lectures on Science and the Modern World, "Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends."(2) This is true whether we speak of societies, professions, or single institutions. The electrical engineer and the mechanical engineer are able to build systems together that neither can build alone. Men and women together create a balanced discourse and world view. Black and white... brown and yellow...red and tan...create a campus and a nation far more meaningful and creative than any alone.
Speaking to this issue, Paul Penfield, the head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, concluded in a recent thoughtful essay that "a diverse faculty can carry out the mission of our department better than a nondiverse one." This mission, he said, includes attracting the best students, providing them the best environment for learning, and helping them to develop the necessary personal and professional skills for a fulfilling life. These goals are well served by at least three benefits of faculty diversity providing role models, enriching the intellectual environment, and improving counseling and mentoring.(3)
Penfield's key point is that a diverse faculty can better accomplish our central mission the tasks that we collectively consider to be our core activities. The very term "university" denotes a gathering together for common purpose, with learning as the unifying force. We are all here at MIT for the same fundamental purpose: to pursue our intellectual interests and to improve ourselves and our society through teaching, study and research. We must be more determined to use this common focus to overcome the centrifugal forces of separatism. Through community and civility we enhance our ability to grow as individuals. This is particularly important in times of change.
Writing of such times, Martin Luther King warned that "our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change....Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools."(4)
Fragmentation has accompanied the changing racial and social profiles of our university communities, but fragmentation is part of our intellectual history as well. Over the past century, the exponential expansion of knowledge coupled with the increasing complexity of society has resulted in fields of knowledge becoming increasingly specialized and distinct from one another.
Most twentieth century science has been reductionist in nature. Despite the goals of discovering the great unifying principles, much of what scientists do is to refine and narrow; to burrow deeper and deeper into structure; to move from systemic description to component to cell to gene to molecule. Over time, this narrowing together with the consequent explosion of factual knowledge led to division and specialization. This fragmentation was codified ultimately as scientific disciplines, subdisciplines, and specialties. We became increasingly technical and less concerned with the larger issues that give rise to scientific curiosity to begin with.
The same was true perhaps more so of technologists. After World War II, engineers, especially in academia, began to specialize. Even systems engineering itself became more of a specialty than a unifying concept.
For a time, the humanities and social sciences followed much the same path in part because the knowledge base was expanding, although not so dramatically, and not for the same reasons. Expansion and diversification in the humanities and social sciences came about with the inclusion of knowledge about aspects of society and human experience that had heretofore been largely neglected in academia. I refer here to non-Western cultures and civilizations, to groups that have not been economically and socially powerful, and to popular culture, for example. This, coupled with the pattern of increasing specialization in other disciplines and the lure of the powerful quantitative techniques of the sciences, tended to break down the humanities and social sciences into increasing numbers of specialties as well.
In all of these fields, specialization was a natural response. It was one way of dealing with the information explosion. But in many ways, it led to an intellectual tower of Babel.
But now there is a shifting of the tide, as scholars and researchers pay more attention to how disciplines can inform one another. Within the humanities and social sciences, for example, scholars are applying the methodologies of anthropology to social and cultural history. And in the sciences, the line between biology and chemistry is increasingly difficult to draw.
The forces calling for greater communication among fields do not stop at the boundaries of science and engineering on the one hand, or of the social sciences and humanities on the other. A greater synthesis is becoming paramount in response to many of the challenges that we face.
Perhaps the ultimate example is global environmental change. The problem of humankind's effects on the earth's atmosphere cannot be understood by physical scientists without data collected by sophisticated engineering instruments, and the meaning of the data and its projection into the future cannot be contemplated without the use of prodigious calculations carried out on state-of-the-art computers created by engineers and computer scientists. More to the point, all of this scientific knowledge is useless unless we understand the human, emotional, cultural and political responses to potential changes in the earth's climate and ecosystems. And still more to the point, if scientists discover ways in which escalating or irreversible damage to the earth is caused by human behavior, the historians and economists, political scientists and psychologists, writers and artists must be called upon to suggest ways in which that behavior can be changed.
This is but one example of how changing questions and challenges are making us increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of both things and ideas that comprise our research and that must be reflected in our teaching. Interdisciplinary research and study are hardly new. Indeed, it has been a catch phrase on campuses for about three decades, and at MIT, for even longer. A variety of approaches to academic organization have been attempted to foster such work. Centers and institutes have been formed for this purpose, and administrators have been assigned the task of promoting interdisciplinary work. Many of these efforts failed. As far as I know, none of the experiments of dissolving traditional academic departments and rearranging them along cross-disciplinary lines has been successful. Yet there is a decided recent upturn in truly interdisciplinary work. Why?
The reason is obvious: many of the really interesting and intellectually challenging issues of the day simply transcend disciplinary boundaries. Scholars need their colleagues' expertise. The sheer complexity of these problems demands it. Form is again following function. Ralph Gomory once indicated that as senior vice president for science and technology at IBM, he had tried many different ways to get researchers to work well together across disciplinary boundaries. Organization charts were redrawn, and offices and laboratories were regrouped and rearranged. Nothing really worked well. Finally, the truth that should have been apparent all along emerged. Researchers worked well across disciplines if they were engaged in solving a problem that interested and excited them, and that required each others' expertise. The same is even more true in academia.
This trend of coalescing of people and ideas from intellectually disparate disciplines to gain new insights and solve new problems will continue. It will be very dynamic not a matter of creating a few new centers or institutes, but a shifting and changing scene that will require institutions like MIT to be very nimble. We must be able to reorganize and rearrange our efforts without having to continually build and dismantle bureaucratic structures, or physical ones for that matter. The idea of virtual centers is one powerful way to accomplish this, and in the last two years, four virtual centers have been established at the Institute.
Advances in information technology will soon enable us to take a quantum leap in the way we deal with issues that emerge from the continual reorganization of knowledge. Work will increasingly be done in collaboratories, that is, through computer-mediated collaboration that transcends geographical and temporal distances. As the national and international information infrastructure expands in scale, sophistication, and ease of access, the traditional meaning of creating, archiving, disseminating, and accessing information will be lost. We will readily sift through national and international data bases to garner, combine, and shape information from an unimaginably wide variety of sources.
Thus the complexity of important problems and areas of research and study is expanding rapidly, as is our knowledge base. Progress will depend on our ability to effectively combine knowledge and expertise of many different sorts. Specialists and in-depth, disciplinary explorations will still be needed, but the critical factor will be our ability to work together as teams and to collectively focus our disparate knowledge and expertise on problems and issues of importance.
Our curriculum, and even our way of teaching, derives from our research and scholarly activities. Thus, we will see this trend of integration and greater interdisciplinary activity expressed in our educational programs as well. Nowhere at MIT is this more evident than in the School of Engineering.
Engineering education in the United States generally follows a format originating in the fifties and sixties. This was the period of the engineering science revolution. Stimulated by the foresight of leaders in engineering education, especially at MIT and Stanford, faculties developed curricula that brought scientific tools and approaches to bear on engineering problems. This was driven by the need to address the challenging issues presented by space flight, the development of computing, the sophisticated defense needs during the Cold War, and the rapidly evolving electronics industry. All benefited enormously from this approach, and still do. During this period there also was a rapid development of research and graduate education in American universities. Engineering faculty members increasingly built their activities and approach to research and education on the model of the physical sciences. Inevitably, engineering subjects and activities became increasingly specialized.
The results of the engineering science revolution were, and are, remarkable in terms of the increased sophistication of engineering analysis and the depth of knowledge possessed by engineering graduates. This revolution was so powerful that the basic structure of engineering curricula in this country has been unchanged for over three decades. Of course, curricula have been revised and improved, especially through the influence of computing, but the basic structure has been rather static.
The context within which engineering is practiced, however, has changed dramatically during the last decade or two. The Cold War has come to an end, bringing with it a rapid redirection of federal, industrial and public priorities toward civilian concerns. And because of shifting geopolitics, changing economic structures, and rapid communications, many of our central concerns are of a much less isolated and national nature, and are marked more and more by interconnectedness and global perspectives.
In this changing world, many American industries have lost their positions of dominance, and have moved, sometimes grudgingly and sometimes enthusiastically, from national to international perspectives and operations in order to remain competitive. There are other changes as well. Large corporations have dispersed their functions internally and externally in new ways. More technical work is outsourced, both domestically and internationally. Emphasis has been placed on reducing product development times; improving the quality of manufactured products; integrating design, development and process functions; and developing new management styles and methodologies. Engineering graduates are increasingly ill-adapted to this new environment, because they lack sufficient flexibility, systems perspective, understanding of manufacturing processes, teamwork, communication skills, and experience and appreciation for the broader context.
It must be said that the lack of skills needed for immediate deployment as practicing engineers has been the theme of various national reports for many decades. Yet the immediacy of this view today, in my opinion, is much greater and more accurate than in the past. The scale, complexity and rapid time frame of much contemporary engineering is different and will continue to increase.
Our students need more exposure to the integrative aspects of engineering design and practice to the analysis and management of large scale, complex systems. They need more experience with, or at least appreciation of, the integration of mechanical, electronic, computational, and perhaps optical systems. They also need an increased understanding of the larger economic, social, and political and technical system within which scientific principles and engineering analysis and synthesis operate in order to create technological change. And these must be presented as what they indeed are: difficult intellectual challenges.
So here is the paradox. We have developed an educational approach that provides students with an unsurpassed grasp of fundamentals of individual engineering and science disciplines, which are organized as fragmented disciplines and subdisciplines. But our graduates increasingly need integrative experiences and subjects. How do we shift the balance? What is the optimum?
It is generally agreed among advisors from industry, as well as our own faculty, that a strong working knowledge of fundamentals is the most important goal of an undergraduate engineering education. This strength must be retained, as must the encouragement of flexible thinking and innovation. We cannot run the risk that ten or twenty years from now our engineers will be adept at reducing product development cycles and at manufacturing high-quality products through continuous improvement, but will have lost their edge in creativity so that the new ideas that are driving a knowledge-intensive world are generated elsewhere.
Still, we must build greater cooperative strengths in our students by increased attention to teamwork and collective enterprises. The MIT tradition of "design-build-operate" experiences obtained by many students through the 2.70 design contest and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program are good examples. The ideas embodied in these and other programs, such as Concourse, the Experimental Study Group, the Integrated Studies Program, the freshman advisor seminars, and the new team approach to introductory chemistry subjects can provide lessons that we can incorporate more broadly into the education of our students. If our faculty become committed to the idea of change in the undergraduate curriculum, their creativity and directed energy will ensure success.
Dramatic curricular change, however, most naturally flows from graduate programs. The Leaders for Manufacturing Program, which is jointly organized by the School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management, in partnership with a number of US manufacturing firms, has already demonstrated a new paradigm in the education of engineer/managers. The goal of the program is to discover and translate into teaching and practice the principles that will produce world-class manufacturing and manufacturing leaders. Working together, faculty and their industrial partners have brought disparate disciplinary expertise and perspectives to the development of a curriculum of study and research organized around the themes of Foundations, Integration, and Leadership. By involving many faculty and by opening LFM subjects to other students, the program is having an ever-increasing influence on education at MIT and elsewhere.
The next few years afford us an opportunity to play an even more dramatic and effective role in promoting a more integrative approach to the education of engineers. MIT faculty, in the context of a major five-year planning exercise, are debating the merits of a number of proposals including the establishment of a cross-School department concerned with linking technology, management, and policy. Several departments are looking at the possibility of restructuring their curricula with an eye toward finding or creating common sequences of courses that could serve multiple departments, thereby emphasizing the commonality of objectives, knowledge, and techniques across disciplines.
In addition, the Dean of Engineering, Joel Moses, has proposed the establishment of a second professional degree to be offered through a radical new masters program in systems engineering/systems architecture. This is an idea whose time has come. The program, which would span Engineering and the Sloan School of Management, would address the needs of first-rate engineers who have been in practice for five to ten years, and who demonstrate the talent to become systems engineers and architects in their fields and/or to move toward positions such as vice president of engineering. The program would be based on a combination of campus and industry experiences that would develop and teach approaches to the engineering of large-scale complex systems, including those that require considerable public policy implications. Just as with the Leaders for Manufacturing Program, the philosophy, insights and approaches developed in such a program would soon influence the entire engineering curriculum.
The move toward greater emphasis on common fundamentals and a more holistic approach to engineering education is apparent at the national level as well. A number of engineering deans and university presidents who are engineers have joined with colleagues from industry to work together with the Accreditation Board on Engineering and Technology (ABET) to establish a far more flexible approach to accreditation one that measures outcomes against principles instead of counting credits for discrete elements in the curriculum. This cooperative effort recognizes that engineering schools need the flexibility to develop curricula appropriate to the times.
And these times call for a more integrative experience for engineering students. By returning closer to the roots of engineering practice, armed with the knowledge and sophisticated approaches of engineering science, but with an eye on the nimbleness and flexibility required by a future of rapid change, we can best prepare our students to lead through engineering.
The intellectual and social map of MIT, and the world in which MIT operates, is marked by increasing diversification. These changes are the cause of discomfort and tension. They are also the source of renewal and growth.
We should welcome these changes and the opportunities they bring. And we should rise to the challenge they present: to recognize the importance of our varied talents and backgrounds while renewing a sense of common vision and purpose. We need to value, celebrate and build on our differences, but also to rediscover and renew our mutual commitment to the shared values of academia. We must have community. We must have mutual respect. We must have common purpose.
It is a time to come together, to rediscover unifying forces, and to integrate our energies to solve grand problems.
Charles M. Vest
1. Cornel West, Race Matters, (Boston: Beacon Press 1993), Chapter 2. Back to text.
2. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World. Lowell lectures, 1925 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925) p.185. Back to text.
3. Paul Penfield, Jr., "Memorandum on Faculty Diversity," a document sent to the faculty of the Department on Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and other colleagues at MIT, February 26, 1993. Back to text.
4. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p.171. Back to text.
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