MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVIII No. 1
September / October 2015
MIT's Role in the Iran Nuclear Negotiations
Iran and the P5+1 Pact
Pluto in View! O! The Joy!
The Year Ahead
An Open Letter to President Reif and the Executive Committee on Divesting from Fossil Fuel Companies
MIT Construction Plans Continue
to Undervalue Graduate Student Needs
A Frog in Water
Part I: The Forces That Move Us
Why MIT Is Implementing Duo
Two-Factor Authentication
Professor John W. Belcher Receives Prestigious Oersted Medal
Enhanced Mental Health Initiatives
and MindHandHeart Announced
Nominate a Colleague as a
MacVicar Faculty Fellow
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Status of World Nuclear Forces 2015
Printable Version

A Frog in Water
Part I: The Forces That Move Us

Thomas W. Eagar

The parable of frogs in water suggests that a frog immediately placed in very hot water will jump out and free itself; while a frog placed in cool water will remain as the water is slowly heated until the frog expires. A rapid change of environment causes a rapid response, but gradual changes provoke no response and can lead to death. So it is with our MIT environment.

MIT is an intense environment and probably always has been; or else we would not have accomplished so much over the past 150 years. Our intensity is part of our strength; but from time to time we should reflect if the nature of our intensity has changed. The nature of what keeps me busy has changed over the 40 years I have been a faculty member and it has not all been for the better.

As a new assistant professor in 1976, I was expected to pay 50 percent of my academic year salary and teach one subject per semester. At that time 25 percent of all NSF proposals were funded and you had an even better success rate if you were from an elite research university such as MIT.

Multiple federal research grants were not frowned upon but were a sign of proposing significant scientific work. Peer review generally involved true peers and the process was not politicized.

Compliance with regulations, both external and internal, was minimal. Mail was slower and there was much less of it. While it took longer to communicate with others, the quality of communication was better. There were many fewer people demanding your attention or asking you to complete purposeless surveys, the answers to which were already known.

To understand how we have evolved, it is necessary to probe further back in time. Before World War II, MIT was primarily an undergraduate educational institution, located in the old complex of buildings. The pressure of the war and the need for the best and brightest to help solve a multitude of new problems, from nuclear fission, to engineering of practical radar, to bomb sights and ordnance control, to production of new metals, measurement of stress and strain and the like, brought research for national needs into focus with new sources of funding. After the war, the nation formed the Office of Naval Research, the Atomic Energy Commission, NACA (predecessor to NASA) and the NSF to expand on the proven successes of science during WWII. MIT added a School of Humanities and required that all undergraduates take 20 percent (now 25 percent) of their coursework in Humanities. The Sloan School of Management was created from the Department of Business and Industrial Development in the School of Engineering. Watson and Crick in England discovered the structure of DNA and MIT became a leader in molecular biology. The list goes on. New buildings were added to the MIT campus but interestingly, relatively few new departments were created.

The big change after WWII was the Soviet deployment of Sputnik. The United States, deep in an ideological war with the USSR, and feeling technologically superior to the rest of the world after WWII, was shocked. Congress started pouring money into science and engineering. My thesis advisor, Bob Rose, who lived through this as a young professor, often said the joke was “While you are up, get me a grant.” MIT grew from 600 faculty to 1000 faculty within a decade and the graduate student population grew even faster. National graduate fellowships meant any qualified young person desiring a doctoral degree in science or engineering could be paid a stipend to attend graduate school. Previously, doctoral candidates often took instructorships, which were much more limited in number.

To permit the faculty to pursue more research and to produce more doctoral degrees, funding agencies agreed to pay 50 percent or more of the faculty member’s academic salary. In science and engineering the expected teaching load dropped from four subjects per year to two. This, along with the additional tuition from the larger number of graduate students, helped fund the rapid growth in number of faculty.

To MIT’s credit, the administration during the second half of the twentieth century kept undergraduate education as the driving force for departmental budgets. New laboratories could be established to take advantage of the government’s largesse, but these administrators had grown up when MIT’s educational mission was paramount, and they did not depart from what they had been taught in their youth. The 1950s through the 1970s were the heyday of the research universities who had contributed so much during WWII; and there were only 30 to 40 of these research-ready universities.

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By the mid-1970s other universities attempted to copy the prosperous “research universities.” They hired our graduating doctoral students. The State universities asked for new facilities and staff from their legislatures. Their successes at becoming elite research institutions were marginal. There is more to creating the culture and intensity of an MIT or a CalTech than buildings and money as so many other universities around the world have proven over the past 50 years.

The culture of MIT resides in the people who make up the Institute. Some complain that MIT is too inbred; but some inbreeding is necessary to preserve the culture to excel, to think creatively, to have the humility to know one’s limitations, to be in an environment where others of similar qualities can help us overcome our individual weaknesses.

The balance of accepting people from all world cultures while preserving enough inbreeding to perpetuate the culture that started with William Barton Rogers and was established over our first 100 years is essential to our future success. We attract the best and the brightest students and we should not fear keeping some of them, especially those who understand the legacy of MIT.

With their limited success in competing with the research universities for federal grants, the other 250 universities changed their tactics and made their case directly to Congress. Research grants should be distributed geographically since citizens from every state paid taxes, and many of these other universities had even better football teams than MIT. Who could argue with such logic? Pork barrel funding of research and geographical quotas became new metrics for receiving a research grant. Although Congress expanded the funding several fold, the 10-fold increase in universities seeking grants caused the success rate of grants to fall dramatically. The 25 percent rate at NSF fell to 5 percent, and if you were from one of those overfunded traditional research universities, your prospects were dim. No more than one federal grant per investigator became a measure of equal opportunity.

Obvious excesses, such as Stanford’s funding of its alumni party yacht, were in the news. The old agreements that federal agencies would pay the full cost of research were unilaterally withdrawn by the new leaders in Washington. These new administrators in the funding agencies were babies when Congress lured the original few research universities with promises of new buildings, fellowships, grants, and the like. MIT took some serious financial hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to these broken agreements by Washington. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, MIT took additional financial hits by hardening faculty salaries, although the rule of one subject per semester for science and engineering faculty was not changed. The faculty numbers might not grow, but neither would they shrink. Through the strong economy and the generosity of alumni, the Institute survived the 1990s academic financial crisis.

With the 1990s financial crisis and new government regulations (I also believe as we passed the billion dollar per year budget mark) MIT added administrative staff and new regulations both external and internal. A faculty member now has to respond to new paperwork, new internal oversight with the attendant decrease in quality of life and time for academic scholarship.

With the new competition from our former students who are now faculty at competing universities, and the lower success rate of proposals, we are forced to steal time from our students, our research, and our teaching. As difficult as I thought my own time was as a junior faculty member, I would not want to endure what the junior faculty today have to endure in seeking funding from Washington. I am not sure I could adapt to the environment they face today. Surely we give them more start-up resources, but they compete in a larger world. They must not only sell the intellectual merit of their ideas, they must package the ideas for the approval of Wall Street and others. The junior faculty (and the senior faculty) are no longer being judged by their scientific peers; everyone criticizes their ideas. This is not the path to the best science; scientific research is not a populist enterprise.

Compared to 40 years ago, the faculty spend too much of their time writing proposals as opposed to doing the research; filling out paperwork rather than teaching; and sitting in meetings with well-paid administrators who have never been on the faculty and who do not understand how to teach and mentor students.

The environment has changed; the frog’s water is slowly getting hotter and we do not seem to notice.

In Part II I will explore the broader and longer-term consequences of these changes in our environment.

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