MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 2
November / December 2004
Comment on the FPC Suggestions
on Faculty Governance
A University Residential Community at MIT
Institutional Level International Engagements: Points for Discussion
Professors of the Practice:
Bringing the Real World to MIT
The Industrial Performance Center
President Appoints Medical Care
Task Force
Assessment of Teaching Facilities Continues
Watching the One-Eyed Hawk
A Beer with J. R. R. Tolkien
Not Another Survey!
The role of the Faculty Newsletter
Faculty Mentor Program –
Faculty & Athletes: A Winning Combination
Percentage of Faculty with
Highest Degree from MIT
Awarding Institution of Highest Degree: Tenured and Tenure Track Faculty
Printable Version

Professors of the Practice:
Bringing the Real World to MIT

Olivier de Weck

Origins and Intent

MIT has a long tradition of making its research and scholarship, as well as its educational programs, relevant to the real world. But there is a fundamental dilemma in terms of how faculty traditionally enter academia and how they experience and relate to industrial and government practice during their tenure. The typical path is for a young scientist or engineer to join the tenure track as an assistant professor in their late 20s or early 30s. In many cases, this is preceded by a few years of experience as a postdoctoral researcher or industry professional. Yet the rigors of a busy academic life often deprive them of gaining and passing on life lessons and professional experiences similar to those of their peers in industry and government.

Many MIT professors are strongly connected to the outside world via consulting, entrepreneurship, and sabbatical leaves. But the résumés of experienced professionals in industry do not typically meet the traditional criteria for awarding tenure at a leading research university (particularly with respect to publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals).

So how could the depth and experience of decades of professional experience be made available to our students, research staff, and faculty? This was a central question that MIT's leadership focused on in the mid- to late-'90s.

Ultimately, their deliberations led to a formal proposal for the creation of new appointments for Professors of the Practice and Associate Professors of the Practice. The proposal, originally advocated by Bill Mitchell, then dean of Architecture and Planning, Bob Brown then dean of Engineering, and Joel Moses, then provost, was formally approved at a meeting of the MIT faculty on May 21, 1997. The following excerpt most succinctly presents the context and rationale for the appointments of Professors of the Practice:

" In many fields at MIT there is a need to bring in outstanding practitioners, in various roles, to support our teaching and research efforts. In practice-based fields such as architecture, where offering a professional masters degree is the core teaching commitment, recruitment of outstanding practitioners is crucial to an outstanding educational program.

We seek practitioners who are successful, influential leaders in their fields - just as we seek researchers and scholars with these qualities. However, the demands of active, successful professional practice frequently are so great that they do not simultaneously allow full-time academic appointments. It is therefore highly unrealistic to require all practice-based appointments to be full-time ."

Back to top

The central objective was to allow MIT to attract and retain practitioners of comparable quality to its professors, associate professors, and assistant professors. In practice-oriented fields such as architecture, this new policy was to allow MIT to compete effectively with other top schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia, which have distinguished rosters of leading practitioners, many of whom teach on a part-time basis.

The new policy was put in place to give schools and departments the flexibility to enhance the breadth and quality of their educational offerings, and to increase their overall quality by attracting the very best practitioners to their ranks. At the same time, this had to be balanced against the desire by some to limit the number of such appointments. There was also a desire to accomplish these objectives without in any way altering policy with respect to standard faculty appointments. The new appointments are flexible enough to cover both full-time on-campus faculty who return to academia after accomplished careers in industry and government, as well as those part-time senior people who are still active in their careers, in some cases far away from the Institute. [MIT Policies and Procedures , sections 2.3.2 and 2.3.3.] Finally, the number of all such appointments - Adjunct Professor, Adjunct Associate Professor, Professor of the Practice and Associate Professor of the Practice - is limited to 10 percent of the faculty in each department of the School of Architecture and Planning, and to five percent of the faculty in each department in the other schools.

Current Professors of the Practice

Seven years after the Professor of the Practice positions were created, a number of schools and departments have taken advantage of this new opportunity. As of June 2004, MIT had made 14 current appointments to Professor of the Practice positions. Click for a list of the current Professors of the Practice.

The overview in the table shows the breadth and depth of expertise represented by our colleagues who are Professors of the Practice. It is evident that they represent the very best practioners in various fields of science, engineering, and medicine. A number of them are members of the National Academies and all of them have undergone a rigorous review and appointment process, which mirrors the rigors of the tenure process. It must be said, however, that the current 14 Professors of the Practice represent less than 2% of the MIT faculty. While Adjunct Professors are not counted in this list, we suspect that many departments have not yet realized the full potential that this new category of professors gives them to improve the quality of their research and educational programs.

Jeffrey A. Hoffman, Astrophysicist, Astronaut, Professor

Jeffrey Hoffman perhaps best exemplifies the intent and impact of this new type of professorship on MIT. Dr. Jeff Hoffman embodies the dream of many of the sophomores who choose to enter Course 16 (Aeronautics and Astronautics) at the beginning of their sophomore year. He earned a doctorate in astrophysics from Harvard University in 1971, with original research interests in high-energy astrophysics, specifically cosmic gamma ray and x-ray astronomy. He also worked in the Center for Space Research at MIT from 1975 to 1978 as project scientist in charge of the orbiting HEAO-1 hard x-ray and gamma ray experiment, launched in August 1977.

incremental cost over budget
Astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman in the Space Shuttle (click on image to enlarge)

Selected by NASA in January 1978, Dr. Hoffman became an astronaut in August 1979. He made his first space flight as a mission specialist on STS 51-D (April 1985) on the Shuttle Discovery. On this mission, he made the first STS contingency space walk, in an attempted rescue of a malfunctioning satellite. This was followed by a flight on STS-35 (December 1990) on the Shuttle Columbia and flight STS-46 (July-August 1992) on the Shuttle Atlantis. This third mission is well known for its first test flight of the Tethered Satellite System (TSS), a joint project between NASA and the Italian Space Agency. Dr. Hoffman made his fourth flight as an EVA crewmember on STS-61 (December 1993) on the Shuttle Endeavour. During this flight, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was captured, serviced, and restored to full capacity through a record five space walks by four astronauts, including Hoffman. Dr. Hoffman last flew on STS-75 (February-March 1996) on the Shuttle Columbia. During this mission, Dr. Hoffman became the first astronaut to log 1000 hours aboard the Space Shuttle.

Back to top

Dr. Hoffman left the astronaut program in July 1997 to become NASA's European Representative in Paris, where he served until August 2001. He was then seconded by NASA to MIT, where he is now a Professor of the Practice in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Dr. Hoffman had always kept his ties with MIT and his return in 2001 was a win-win situation for him and the Institute. Under the leadership of Prof. Edward Crawley, the Aero/Astro curriculum had been revamped to emphasize a CDIO (conceive-design-implement-operate) philosophy. While much emphasis had traditionally been placed on design and manufacturing issues, there existed little theoretical and practical experience in operations of complex aerospace systems at MIT. This is exactly the gap that Jeff Hoffman was able to fill, and he has done so with excellence and dedication for the last three years.

In terms of research, Hoffman has been deeply involved in attempts to bring the envisioned Space Station Research Institute to Cambridge. After President Bush announced the new Space Exploration Vision in January 2004, however, he has shifted his focus to support various projects and activities related to this vision. Among these is a $2.9 million joint Draper-MIT project to analyze the Systems-of-Systems architecture option space and requirements formulation for a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which is slated to replace the Space Shuttle after 2010. Other research activities include work on the SPHERES mini-satellites project with Prof. David Miller in the Space Systems Laboratory and work on the new Bio-Suit project with Prof. Dava Newman in the Man-Vehicle Laboratory.

His teaching activities include the introductory course 16.00 Introduction to Aerospace and Design, which is the main vehicle for sparking interest in MIT freshmen for a career in aerospace engineering. He has also been involved in running and lecturing in the following courses: 16.83 (U) and 16.89 (G) Space Systems Engineering, 16.621/2 Experimental Projects, 16.891 Space Policy, and 16.851 Satellite Engineering. Additionally, he has established and managed the 16.S26 lecture series on Modern Space Science & Engineering. This seminar focuses on the close relationship between science and engineering in the exploration of space.

To the delight of many undergraduates, he has introduced a new IAP course, Operational Internship Experience, in which he spent three weeks during January 2004 with eight undergraduate students at the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

The students were selected by the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, for which Hoffman serves as co-director. Once at NASA, the students were broken up into three groups to investigate if and how operational needs had been considered during conception and design of various manned space systems. Hoffman and the students spent IAP working closely with engineers and scientists at NASA to better understand how operational issues can be considered further upstream during conception and design of Aerospace systems. This activity illustrates perfectly the pedagogical and professional value that Hoffman brings to MIT as Professor of the Practice.

Future Newsletter articles will examine other issues and exemplars of Professors of the Practice, as well as other types of non-traditional professorships at MIT.

Back to top
Send your comments