Is Research the Soul of MIT?
Recently, I was thumbing through the pamphlet MIT Facts 2015 distributed to visitors by the MIT Information Office, when I read on page 40 that “The soul of MIT is research.” After more than 45 years at MIT, this was a fact that I had not known. It certainly was not a fact when I arrived as a freshman in 1968 and it was not something that was true when I stepped down as Department Head in 2000. Clearly something has changed over the past 15 years.
Moreover, something has changed in the original conception of MIT: for the first 80 years, from 1865 to 1945, the mission of MIT was not very different from what is currently on page 6 of the MIT Facts booklet:
“The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world . . . .”
“Research” doesn’t appear in this mission. This is a mission statement that I can endorse. Education of students, post-docs, other faculty and professionals is the soul of MIT. Research may be a by-product of MIT’s educational mission, but it is not its “soul.”
As I read further in MIT Facts 2015, “For more than 150 years, the Institute has married teaching with engineering and scientific studies . . . .” Again, this is a statement with which I can agree; this is not a marriage of education and research. Reading further, the booklet listed 15 examples of MIT research, some dating back as far as Doc Edgerton’s invention of the stroboscope in the 1930s or engineering of radar during World War II. About a third were singular MIT breakthroughs, but the rest were a rehash of recent MIT Press news articles, the long-term consequence of which is unproven. Even the cover of the MIT Facts booklet, given as a first impression to visitors, failed to impress me as an MIT “lifer.” The cover consists of the imprint of the soles of two hiking boots with two more on the back. Of all the images that might symbolize MIT’s significant contributions to society, I cannot fathom how hiking boots convey the message of MIT.
Many of us believe that the essence of MIT consists of the faculty and the students. When asked about his steel empire, Andrew Carnegie said, “Take away my people, but leave my factories, and soon grass will grow on the factory floors. Take away my factories, but leave my people, and soon we will have a new and better factory.” So it is with MIT.
The columns and dome of Building 10 are a worldwide symbol for excellence in engineering, science, and a number of other disciplines, but this building by itself is merely a mass of sandstone slowly eroding in acid rain.
As a new faculty member in 1976, there were none of the generous startup packages given to junior faculty today. I used to say “MIT gives you a desk, a local phone [individual faculty had to pay their long distance phone bills until the 1990s when the Internet made long distance phone calls inexpensive], and the MIT name. The only one of value is the MIT name and our job is to make sure we leave the MIT reputation stronger than when we came.”
Up to the mid-1970s in my department (Course III, Materials Science and Engineering), new faculty were expected to work with a senior faculty mentor, who would provide laboratory space, a few graduate students to supervise, some research funds and the opportunity to help teach the senior faculty member’s subjects and write joint proposals. In their spare time, the junior faculty members were expected to develop their own subjects, write their own proposals, and establish independence from their mentor before the beginning of the tenure decision process six years later. I saw it as a feudal system and I elected to start as an independent rather than a serf. As a result, I had no research money, no students, and no laboratory my first year as a faculty member. I concentrated on teaching and writing proposals.
I was also assigned 25 percent of a secretary located on the fifth floor of Building 13, while I shared Room 8-137 (the short door just off the Infinite Corridor) with a few graduate students.
There were no word processors for faculty in 1976 and personal computers had not been invented. I would handwrite a letter, walk it over to Cathy, my secretary a few buildings away, and wait a week for her to type it. (I was third priority behind two more senior faculty.)
In the fall of the first year, Cathy brought one of my letters for me to sign. She asked what research account number she should use to purchase the stamps. I had none. Maybe this is what the MIT Facts booklet means when it says, “The soul of MIT is research.”; without an account number you could (and can) do nothing.
I immediately went to my Department Head, Professor Walter Owen, to ask how I would get funding to pay for my long distance phone bills. Walter said, “We’ll give you an advance on your ILP (Industrial Liaison Program) funds,” which I had not yet accumulated.
Unimpressed with Walter’s response, I crossed the suite of offices to see our Department Administrative Officer, Joe Dhosi. Posing a new question so as not to be playing one person’s negative answer against another, I said “Joe, Cathy says she needs an account number to buy stamps for me.” Joe responded, “Why don’t you ask some of the other secretaries if they will give you some stamps?”
Feeling discouraged but knowing that Professor Mert Flemings was the senior mentor that everyone expected me to assist, I walked up to Mert’s office on the fourth floor. I told Mert that I did not have an account number to copy my proposals. Mert hemmed and hawed a bit, but then said, “I’ll give you an account number but let me know if you spend more than fifty dollars.”
Today, most people would consider this incredible, but it is most assuredly accurate. I returned to my office, sat at my desk, clasped my hands together and said to myself, “So this is what it means to be an assistant professor at MIT – it’s sink or swim!” I determined that I would strive to swim, but I promised myself that if I was successful, I would make sure that no other junior faculty member would go through what I was experiencing.
The first opportunity came two years later when Professor Don Sadoway was hired. Don had come from the University of Toronto and did not know the culture of junior faculty support in our department. Don was given the desk, the local phone and the MIT name, but Don wanted a credenza for his office and the department said no. Don came to me since I had been mentoring him on navigating MIT. Always ready to teach with a story, I told Don about my $50 first-year budget. After two years I now had three research contracts and grants from the Office of Naval Research, the DoE Office of Basic Energy Sciences and the NSF, but none of these accounts would permit purchase of office furniture. Don said the credenza cost $200 and I agreed to buy it from the $600 I had in my ILP account. There have been ample opportunities over the past 37 years to assist junior faculty, and the Institute has progressed beyond refusing stamps and credenzas. Mentoring has improved greatly but it could still be better.
A few years later I had another opportunity to learn about research funding. Robert Seamans was the Dean of Engineering and he decided it would be helpful to meet with all of the untenured faculty in the School. About 30 or 40 of us had lunch with the Dean and Associate Deans at the Faculty Club. At the end of the meal Bob Seamans stood and expressed his appreciation for all of us. Then he announced he had to leave for the airport and his Associates could answer any questions.
One of the first questions was “How important is research funding in the tenure decision?” It should be noted that for my first 15 years on the faculty, all faculty, senior or junior, except those who had gone into administration, were expected to pay 50 percent of their academic year salary plus benefits and overhead from research, and if there was something left over you could pay two months of summer salary.
All of the faculty, but especially the junior faculty, found that a tremendous burden. It was no burden at all for the administration. These faculty were paid for 12 months with no research funding requirement.
The response from the Associate Dean was “I have never heard the question of research funding come up in a tenure decision at Engineering Council.” Several junior faculty tried to clarify because they could not believe their ears. We were always under pressure to “help” the department budget by paying more of our academic year salary. The Deans were adamant; research funding was never a topic of discussion. The dining room was in an uproar of incredulity. I leaned over to the junior faculty member next to me and said “That’s because if you do not have a lot of funding, your tenure case will never get out of your department for Engineering Council to discuss!”
Fortunately, MIT saw the handwriting from NSF and Congress and hardened academic year salaries in the 1990s. As hard as it is for junior faculty to secure funds for basic research today, the pressures of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were merely of a different sort.
Today there are huge resources for applied research from non-governmental sources. Junior faculty have to do some basic research with these funds while also working on applied problems. Frankly, that was always my approach to receiving 80 percent of my funding from basic research agencies of the government. They wanted basic research that had an opportunity to be applied. The funding pendulum swings over the decades.
But this history begs the question of whether research is the soul of MIT. Going back further in time to pre-WWII, research was not the soul of MIT. Review of the research funding or its corollary, number of graduate students and post-docs, indicates that the research emphasis was nearly non-existent prior to WWII (and later Sputnik).
As a Department Head and Center Director serving on Engineering Council for over a decade, I always knew that Deans Gerry Wilson and Joel Moses understood the primacy of the educational mission. Budgets were determined by numbers of undergraduate students taught, and not by research funds accumulated nor graduate student/post-doc population. Faculty considered for promotion were judged in part on the number of student theses supervised and not on the amount of research funding. The graduate student-to-post-doc ratio had to be greater than one and preferably two to three.
When I read that “The soul of MIT is research” I must correct this misconception. The soul of MIT relates to education and knowledge creation. Research is merely a by-product of the “marriage of teaching with engineering and scientific studies.” Research can be beneficial or harmful depending on how we manage it; it is not our soul.