MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVI No. 4
February / March 2004
The New President
The New President
Improving Our System
of Faculty Governance
Update on Women Faculty in the
School of Engineering
Recommendations for Improving
Faculty Quality of Life
FRADS Supports Faculty Fundraising
Reminiscences: Fifty Years on the Engineering Faculty
A Formal Recommendation
to the MIT Corporation
The Center for International Studies
The Clinical Research Center
The Operations Research Center
Beyond Fuzzy Definitions of Community:
A Report and an Invitation
Cambridge and MIT:
Exchanging Students, Exchanging Ideas
Information Services & Technololgy (IS&T):
The Focus is on Service
Campus Growth (1985 – Present)
Printable Version

Reminiscences: Fifty Years on the Engineering Faculty

Leon Trilling

Like one of the proverbial blind men who try to describe an elephant, I offer a personal account of what seemed most important in the intellectual and institutional life at MIT during my 50 years on the engineering and STS faculty.

I focus on three themes. In the fifties and sixties, stimulated by military needs, several MIT groups invented data processing, communication and control techniques and applied them to manage devices and to run increasingly complex technical and social systems.

The late sixties and seventies saw the flowering of the civil rights movement and the revulsion of the young and some of their elders from the Vietnam War. The MIT community sought a fair way to achieve greater diversity in its student body and its faculty while maintaining MIT standards of excellence. At the same time, it tried to define the social responsibility of scientists and engineers for uses of their work. It reached a consensus that all students must show awareness of ethical and social context as part of their professional education.

In the eighties and nineties, MIT rediscovered engineering.Renewed emphasis was put on the design of machines, on understanding how they work, and also on the management of large social-technical systems.

The Institute broadened the range of its activities to include biotechnology, information technology, and most recently, nanotechnology. It also pursued initiatives which dramatize its leadership on the world scene.

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The Fifties and Sixties: Computing, Communication and Control

World War II changed the way people thought about science and engineering. Both the technical community, led by Vannevar Bush, and the military concluded that the security and welfare of the U.S. required a continuing partnership of academia with the state, represented for now by the military. Even after the creation of NSF, NIH, NASA and the AEC, the military remained major sponsors of research, because they had built relations of trust with the scientific community and because it was easy to get appropriations through Congress under the heading of defense. Inevitably, the research agenda reflected that situation.

Compton Hall, 1950s
Compton Hall, 1950s (click on image to enlarge) Photo: Courtesy MIT Museum.

In part to define its policy under those conditions, in 1949 MIT appointed the Committee on Educational Survey, chaired by Professor W. K. Lewis. The Committee recommended that MIT participate cautiously in the new partnership with the state and expand its faculty and its graduate enrollment, particularly in fields of MIT strength. Most of the new faculty were alumni of wartime laboratories like MIT's own Radiation Laboratory (RadLab). The new graduate students were largely veterans financed under the GI Bill, an exceptionally mature, hard-working group of men.

In the course of reconversion to a peace which soon turned into the Cold War, both the MIT leaders and the military concluded that the RadLab team of experts should not be allowed to disperse. MIT then created, and the military funded, the Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE), under terms which gave RLE considerable latitude in defining its agenda. Thus, Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, and their associates laid the foundations of information theory; Jay Stratton, Jerome Wiesner, Jerrold Zacharias, Al Hill, and their associates combined radar technology with a network of automatically controlled anti- aircraft guns to design the SAGE Air Defense system, and founded the Lincoln Laboratory to create an ever more sophisticated air defense.

Independently, the Servo-Mechanisms Laboratory, founded in 1940 by Gordon Brown, had developed automatically controlled gun sights and was designing a flight simulator. To extend the reach of the required electronic computers, Jay Forrester had invented a magnetic core memory element.

Also independently, at the Instrumentation Laboratory, Stark Draper applied precision gyroscopes to stabilize naval firing platforms, and eventually to supply the measurements needed for inertial flight vehicle guidance, including those used on the Apollo missions.

By the early sixties, with support from ARPA, MIT's project MAC refined the time-shared use of computers and pioneered the use of computer networks which eventually led to the Internet.

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Thus, several often competing, sometimes cooperating teams of younger faculty and staff developed all the elements of a communication, command and control system which could assist and even replace human agency. It could also be used as a metaphor to explain microbiological processes and the working of the genetic code. It might even provide a guide to understanding how the mind functions.

The ability to control large sets of data to carry out prescribed tasks automatically was valued by the market as well as by the military. Numerically controlled machine tools, for example, changed the way mechanical devices were manufactured and eventually reduced the need for skilled workers. Routine banking and financial operations could be automated, eliminating the need for some clerks.

Early MIT Computer Lab
Early MIT Computer Lab (click on image to enlarge) Photo: Courtesy MIT Museum.

This vision of systems control as a central task of engineering changed Institute life. Course 6 became the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and emphasized communications, control systems, electronic materials, and computer hardware and software design. This transformation, partly funded by the Ford Foundation, also included the writing of a series of new textbooks, the creation of new laboratories, and a large increase in enrollment. Department Head Gordon Brown proposed the creation of new Interdepartmental Centers for graduate research.

Underlying this reform was the deeper notion that the nature of engineering was changing, at least at an elite school like MIT. New science, especially physics, should be applied to the design of very high performance devices and systems as quickly as possible to outclass any competition. This view of engineering fitted the needs of the military and matched the nature of communication, command and control engineering.

The stress on applied science changed the MIT faculty. Young (almost exclusively) men with doctorates, often from MIT, caused some inbreeding – but where else could one find staff for the new EECS?

The operation of this military-academic complex had two other notable consequences. When a faculty member came up with a particularly marketable idea or device, he might set up his private company to exploit it without giving up his faculty position, creating the potential for serious conflicts of interest. This practice was banned by 1969.

The military extended some of the research they were sponsoring to building and testing actual prototypes. Faculty such as Stark Draper considered such work the last step in the education of an engineer – an internship. The military also sent groups of officers to learn about the new technology first hand. Both of these practices required that classified research and teaching be conducted on campus. They were discontinued in 1969.

The students admitted during this period were mostly young middle-class men from public schools in medium-sized towns; they were excellent in mathematics and physics and considered an MIT degree an important step up the ladder. The mix, which had been mostly WASP before the war, now included many young men of immigrant background. In 1972, 6% of the undergraduate student body was female and minority undergraduates could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

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The Late Sixties and Seventies: Diversity and the Importance of Context

The intellectual focus of the Institute in the late sixties and seventies reflected an emerging set of national concerns, illustrated by the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

While deploring the excessive rhetoric and occasional direct action of some student groups, the MIT community came to agree that a rethinking of priorities and some policies was needed. President Howard Johnson appointed a commission chaired by Professor Kenneth Hoffman to lead a dialogue within MIT and recommend appropriate changes. The main effect was a reorientation in student admissions and faculty recruitment and a broadening of engineering education.

The admission of a larger number of undergraduate women was originally held up by a shortage of separate housing on campus. The construction of McCormick Hall and a gradual change in sexual mores which made it possible to house women in sections of previously all-male dormitories removed that obstacle.

It was easy to identify many young women whose records met MIT admission standards. But some of them – and more often their parents – had to be persuaded that an MIT education and the implied career options were seemly for them, and that they had as good a chance of academic success as did the men. That problem was largely solved by personal recruitment, in which MIT women students' visits to their high schools played a major role. Gender diversity has now been achieved in the undergraduate student body, which includes 42% women. In graduate school, some 25% of the students are women. The academic performance of MIT women students has always been statistically indistinguishable from the performance of the men.

Increasing African-American, Hispanic, and Native American presence in the MIT student body was more difficult. The pool of qualified potential applicants was poorly known in the 1960s. Yet, MIT did feel a responsibility to provide equal opportunities to these young people, but was uncertain about the best way to proceed.

In 1967, four African-Americans and one Native American were admitted under the bittersweet label- Project Epsilon. Four graduated, and in a show of support for the integration of MIT, students elected one of them president of the Undergraduate Association. But all suffered serious adjustment problems.

Epsilon was the first step in a systematic recruitment and retention effort. The Admissions Office added several minority recruiters to their staff, expertise and contacts with a wide range of high schools were built up and young men and women were offered admission when their academic records and personal qualities identified them as likely to graduate. Their number grew to exceed 15% of the entering classes.

Still, for many, the step from high school to MIT included a substantial social adjustment and exposure to the legendary MIT academic fire hose. To support them, the MIT administration worked out a structure which included an optional pre-freshman eight-week Interphase program (now in its thirty-fifth year), an advising and tutoring system run through the Office of Minority Education, and a (hopefully) adequate financial aid package.

The student body did become more diverse. The proportion of White American male undergraduates dropped from 80% in the 1950s to 25% today. But the diversification of the faculty is proving more elusive. The proportion of women has reached 17% and they have gained equal treatment with their male colleagues. Minority faculty still number well below 5% of the total.

Alumni Day, 1969
MIT Alumni Day, 1969 (click on image to enlarge) Photo: Courtesy MIT Museum.

In the same period, the MIT community participated in the national debate over military policy, particularly the wisdom of developing an anti-ballistic missile system. An influential group of graduate students and faculty dramatized their concern over the Institute's excessive concentration on military-related research by staging a symbolic work stoppage on March 4, 1969. This event dramatized the mutual disenchantment which was fraying the military-academic alliance.

As the campus discussion broadened to include the proper activities of scientists and engineers in a free society, Jerry Wiesner sought to design a framework for engineers and scientists, together with their humanist and social science colleagues, to study the role of science and technology in human societies. After several false starts, this effort led to the creation of the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) staffed by largely new faculty, and, on a shared basis, by a few resident scientists and engineers. The STS Program awards double BS degrees with any department, and a PhD with History and Anthropology.

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The School of Engineering created the Technology and Policy Program (TPP) in which an engineer with some experience can earn a Master's Degree and occasionally a PhD, by studying in depth a situation which calls for a policy with important economic, cultural, regulatory, environmental, and ethical components. It also set up several interdepartmental centers to look at alternative ways to provide important social goods and services, such as energy or transportation, to diverse social organisms.

Most of the faculty accepted the greater diversity of the student body and the emphasis on the social context of their disciplines. They experimented with new subjects and tried to match the style and content of their teaching to the needs of their students.

A major effort was made to loosen the freshman year. Pass/Fail or Pass/No Record grading was introduced and several experimental freshman year programs were created, mostly by younger faculty, to respond to students' diverse learning styles. They provided welcome alternatives for some 10% of the freshman class. Similarly, undergraduate seminars, sometimes combined with freshman advising, increased the range of available freshman options.

Many students had been frustrated by curricula which imposed on them nearly two years of applied science before they could approach the engineering which they had come to MIT to learn. Most engineering departments now introduced design exercises in the sophomore year, such as the Mechanical Engineering contest originally labeled 2.70.

The most important innovation in educational practice, which shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning by doing, is the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) founded in 1981 by Edwin Land, Paul Gray, and Margaret MacVicar.

It enables any faculty member to invite an undergraduate to do research in his/her laboratory and any undergraduate to do research in a laboratory she/he chooses, for academic credit or for pay. The UROP program is extremely successful; over half the undergraduates take advantage of it in dozens of laboratories all over campus.

The appointment of new faculty, the stress on societal context, and the greater variety in teaching styles, led MIT to compete with Ivy League schools for applicants who displayed interest and competence in both the sciences and in humanistic disciplines. But in 1987, Physics Professor Anthony French and several colleagues reported a marked drop in student performance, especially in their ability to apply basic principles to specific problems. The outcome of the ensuing debate was a re-emphasis on numeracy skills among the diverse admission criteria. But broader trends still increased our overlap with the Ivies.

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The Eighties and Nineties: The Rediscovery of Engineering

In the eighties and nineties, the MIT School of Engineering refocused its attention on what engineering in a market-oriented society should be, and on how to teach it to the more diverse, more demanding students who chose to come to MIT.

The rediscovery of engineering had two distinct effects on the education of our students. It insisted on hands-on learning; on students, alone or more often in teams, designing, building and testing the performance of actual devices, coming into visual, tactile contact with real materials and mechanisms. It also stressed a utility function which balances performance, cost, and safety of devices and systems over their entire lifetimes. This combines design, production, operation, and maintenance, and takes account of the environmental, regulatory, and ethical constraints under which they operate.

In research as well, from multiple roots – the Harvard/MIT Health Sciences Program, the Biology, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, EECS, Brain and Cognitive Science, Mechanical Engineering and other departments – an intense activity in biotechnology and health science and technology has developed at MIT over the last 20 years. Much of it is devoted to specific biological interactions, to their health consequences and to the design of diagnostic instrumentation and remedial apparatus.

Similarly, much research goes into the tailored design from first principles of structural, polymeric, electronic, and biological materials, into the nature and context of archaeological materials, into nanocircuits and materials, into electrical and electronic devices.

But communication, command and control techniques are needed to manage large technical-social systems subject to environmental, regulatory, and market constraints, whose design occupies the attention of many engineers. In the fifties and sixties, computer power was applied to the production and use of individual artifacts – numerically controlled machine tools to shape a turbine blade, for example – the new task was to organize a whole aircraft production line so that required parts arrived just in time from many places, and diverse operations at different locations were dovetailed to minimize cost and assembly time.


Over the last 50 years, the composition of the MIT undergraduate student body has become much more diverse, the graduate student body and the faculty less so. The range of academic and research fields has broadened. Learning and teaching take place in a greater variety of styles.

But two defining features of MIT have not changed. All members of the MIT student and faculty community are selected on the basis of demonstrated academic excellence, and they work very hard, long hours at specific tasks. Also, there is an enduring tension between thinking in abstract terms – applied science or system dynamics – and interest in particular devices or phenomena for their own sake. That tension often occurs within a single individual. It appears in the MIT Seal where "Mens" and "Manus" look away from each other.

There is a price to be paid for intense concentration of time and effort on specific professionally-related activities. Ken Keniston described it in a paper he presented in1982 as: "a selective inattention to feelings, fantasies and awareness of the nuances in the behavior of others," and Dean Silbey's Task Force on Student Life and Learning (1998) points out that "of the many difficult design problems MIT faces, promoting faculty and student participation in community activities is probably the most difficult."

The focus of MIT activities is instrumental. It is to provide the skills, knowledge, tools, and advice which particular actors in society need badly enough, to be willing to pay for them. Over the last 50 years, the emphasis has shifted from narrowly defined agendas (fire control of a gun, numerical control of a machine tool) to broad analyses meant to reduce the scope of unintended consequences and to foresee the counter-intuitive behavior of complex systems.

This broader definition of engineering calls for the ability to choose and design the components of a system and to point out the – not always quantifiable or unique - ways in which they interact. To specify the most appropriate model and to foresee the uncertainties and constraints under which the system may operate, the engineer needs a tolerance for ambiguity and a sensitivity to the range of human responses. We try to convey the importance of these uncertainties in our teaching. But we cannot fully succeed unless our students come with minds open to these uncertainties and explore the possible consequences of the diverse ways of using the tools which we give them.

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