Evolution of Schools, Departments, and Centers at MIT
In the March/April 2016 Faculty Newsletter, Professor Olivier de Weck wrote an excellent review of the birth, progress, and subsequent dismemberment of the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) [“MIT Engineering Systems Division R.I.P.”]. As MIT President Chuck Vest said when it started, ESD “is the most important educational experiment MIT has undertaken in the previous 30 years.” Now 15 years later, I estimate MIT invested $50 million in ESD. Professor de Weck calls it a “successful experiment,” as it was on many levels, but it ultimately was closed down and the parts are now scattered without any unifying structure remaining. There are broader lessons about the formation, growth, and success of MIT’s organizational units to be taken from the ESD story.
For its first 80 years, MIT’s administrative structure consisted of departments and Schools. It was not until the growth caused by World War II that research laboratories and centers began to proliferate. The number of Schools also expanded with the formation of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences after the war to broaden the education of the scientists and engineers who had done so much during the war years to impact society.
The Sloan School was formed in 1952 as an expansion of the Department of Business and Industrial Development in the School of Engineering. [P.B. Cronin, A Work in Progress, MIT Press 2002.]
When MIT moved to Cambridge in 1916, “John Ripley Freeman proposed a radical design . . . that emphasized flexibility and sited departments in adjoining spaces instead of separate buildings.” [D.G. Douglas, “The Move That Shaped MIT,” Technology Review, May/June 2016, p.12-18.] Creation of Schools within MIT builds walls that may assist administrators, but generally stifles innovation. It requires huge sums of money to induce Schools at MIT to collaborate with each other as effectively as in the departmental structure. Each School Dean is a sentinel, bound to protect budgets and turf from other Schools. So it was when Dean of Engineering Joel Moses appointed me in 1995 to chair a School of Engineering committee with a charge:
“Our system is not ideally matched to the hiring and promotion of faculty interested in certain Big E areas. How can we change our hiring and promotion policies and practices (including some reorganization of the School) to enable such faculty to flourish?”
Our report noted “Leadership in Engineering Education and Research requires that MIT have strengths in both the functional aspects of engineering science as well as the integrative aspects of engineering systems design and engineering management.” One of our references was “Socio-Engineering,” an address given by Norm Augustine in which he describes the increasing importance of external social, political, or economic factors in engineering design. [N.R. Augustine, The Bridge, Fall 1994, p.3-14.] Joel Moses was concerned that a bright young MIT mechanical engineer, Professor Karl Ulrich, had been denied tenure in the Sloan School. Karl represented a non-traditional faculty member who did not fit the traditional mold of either School, as evidenced by his failure to receive tenure. Dean Moses formed a committee to address the concern that a talented “Big E” engineer could not flourish at MIT. When another Department Head asked why Joel selected Tom Eagar to chair the committee, he responded “Only Eagar has the [guts] to do it.”
There were a number of constraints that Joel gave us; the primary one that there was no money to implement any proposed changes. This was solved by creating Zero-based Faculty Budgeting (ZBFB) in which departments no longer held a fixed number of faculty slots. “ZBFB would require all unfilled or released faculty positions to be returned to the Dean of Engineering each year for re-allotment to the Division (ESD) and the Departments.”
I envisioned this transfer of power from the Department Heads to the Dean would be the hardest sell for our proposal. It turned out to be the easiest. The Department Heads recognized the flexibility this created in reapportioning the faculty among various departments over time.
A second, unarticulated constraint is that we could not use the “M” word. Personally, I believed that separating engineering management from engineering science in 1952 had been a mistake. Half a dozen prior committees over the previous 40 years had tried to bring back some of the educational richness that had left the School of Engineering when MIT created the Sloan School. Nonetheless, in my first draft of our proposal, I called for creation of a Division of Engineering Management. As expected, Tom Magnanti, the Sloan School representative on our committee went ballistic. In the second draft, I coined the title Engineering Systems Division with the intent that this would be a different focus than a Division of Engineering Systems. In hindsight, it would have been more accurate, more appropriate, and a firmer foundation for the future to use the first title; but that would have incited war between the Schools.
Our proposal was for an educational organization to provide subjects cutting across the eight departments of Engineering. Our Conclusion stated:
“This Committee has not presented any conclusions that have not been articulated previously by many of our colleagues. In order to remain preeminent in Engineering Education and Research it is essential that the School of Engineering develop faculty with a diverse range of interests. The leaders of the School of Engineering continue to believe that we need to attract and retain a larger number of faculty with interests in Big E engineering. We propose a divisional structure to accomplish this objective while requiring that these faculty remain committed to the educational programs of the individual Departments.”
We recognized that the organizational structure we proposed would be useful in helping form new departments in the School of Engineering or helping a department become absorbed into existing departments.
“While the Committee has developed this organization proposal as a means of hiring, nurturing and retaining Big E engineering faculty, this organizational structure (or a similar one) may be useful in a number of other contexts. For example, programs cutting across Schools might benefit from a similar organizational academic structure. We believe that this framework can provide flexibility across the Institute as well as across the School of Engineering.”
In fact, Professor Doug Lauffenberger, a member of our committee, was the first to use the proposal to form the Division of Bioengineering, which has since grown into the Department of Bioengineering.
The fact that ESD might appeal to faculty beyond the School of Engineering was not lost upon us, but we knew that it would be easier to start solely within the School of Engineering, rather than spend years negotiating between Schools. The proposal to form ESD was sold to the other seven Department Heads as an educational mission.
Bob Brown was now the Dean of Engineering and Joel Moses was Provost. Dean Brown left the marketing to me because of the risk involved. I told the other Department Heads that MIT did not need a new organizational structure to foster research; we already had enough laboratories and centers that did that. We did need educational subjects that cut across the departments; subjects that no one department could support as a service to the other seven; that the Sloan School was restricting enrollment of our students from subjects central to their future profession, etc. ZBFB would provide the necessary faculty slots in a flexible and equitable manner and the departments would get broad-based integrative engineering economics, policy, and management subjects in return. Six of the seven other departments bought into the proposal.
Now that Dean Brown could see the direction of the wind, he supported the proposal.
Soon after ESD was announced as a School of Engineering initiative, faculty from the Sloan School and SHASS asked to participate. We knew our mission cut across those Schools and we were gratified with the response. After placating the Deans from the other Schools who were protecting their turf, ESD soon became an Institute-wide initiative, albeit centered in the School of Engineering.
So why did an educational program with such broad support fail? There are multiple reasons.
1. Lack of a unified mission. ESD was sold to the departments as an educational program that would “give-back” unified Big E engineering subjects. In the first five years, ESD could only count two or three new offerings (several by myself and one by Joe Sussman) that would not have existed without ESD. During ESD faculty meetings in those years, I would repeatedly remind the faculty of the educational imperative of ESD.
In one Endicott House ESD retreat, defining ESD objectives for the future, Paul Lagace and I were in a break-out session that concluded that our educational mission should be the first priority. After reporting this conclusion back to the faculty as a whole, Dan Roos, then head of ESD, stated he “did not think education should be the first priority or even in our top three or four.” Sitting in the back, I quietly arose, walked out, and never returned to ESD.
Reflecting on the drive home, I realized it had been a mistake to place someone who took some pride in not having taught a lecture subject for 15 or 20 years, in charge of an educational program.
What I learned some years later from Yossi Sheffi, was that Dean Brown had secretly redefined the ESD Mission. Yossi told me that shortly after the announcement of the formation of ESD, Dean Brown held a closed meeting with selected ESD faculty to tell them that ESD was not to involve undergraduates and was not to focus on education. Only then did I understand why my reminders of the educational mission of ESD were falling on so many deaf ears.
2. The departments failed to receive the promised benefits from ESD. The departments were asked to share faculty slots with ESD in exchange for a broader and more diverse curriculum that each alone did not have the resources to provide. Dissatisfaction arose each year as the departments did not receive the proposed benefit.
Professor de Weck listed “Clarity of Mission” as one of his lessons and takeaways in his eulogy for ESD. I concur, but from a different perspective. The initial mission was clear but a few early administrators and leaders failed to fulfill, and I believe had no intent to fulfill, the pledges made to the departments that had agreed to sacrifice for ESD. Unfortunately, it is a tale that is being repeated at frequent intervals within MIT today. The faculty are promised benefits from aligning ourselves with an entity that will provide tremendous resources but when the resources arrive, they are maldistributed. While ESD was told at the outset that no money was available, but that a student and faculty need existed, an organizational framework was created to address the need. The Department of Bioengineering is proof that the organizational framework can succeed. In the case of ESD, the Division’s mission was hijacked by half-a-dozen faculty who used ESD as their personal sandbox. As Professor de Weck noted, some faculty recognized the educational imperative of ESD, while others claimed to be in search of a grand unified theory of socio-technical systems.
Generalizing from this, creation of new departments, Schools, laboratories, or centers should have a clearly defined mission with measurable objectives, and the promised resources should be distributed to those who are asked to make the sacrifices.
In fact, ESD had a clear educational mission, yet the administrators in charge had no interest in fulfilling the promises. Millions of dollars were wasted along with decades of faculty effort. In the end, the greatest losers have been the students who have to search harder for the education that nearly everyone agrees they need.
In the past 40 years, MIT has established numerous laboratories and centers. Some address important national or international needs. Some are opportunistic ways to secure large amounts of funding. A few provide a way to placate a powerful faculty member who is seeking to expand his influence. Whatever the reason for creating a new entity, the mission, the deliverables, and the timeframe should be put in writing and publically disseminated. Backroom secret reorganizations should not be permitted. Such deals do a disservice to all faculty and students. The five-year review committee should measure what we have gotten against what we were promised.