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MIT by the Book

Examining turning points in the Institute’s history
December 21, 2010

What would make a good gift for the academic institution that has everything? A nice book might be just the thing. In honor of MIT’s 150th anniversary, the MIT Press has published Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, a volume of essays about pivotal junctures in the Institute’s history. The book explores the conflicts and choices that have shaped MIT, from the vision of its founder, William Barton Rogers, through modern-­day debates over issues such as the social responsibilities of scientists.

Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision
Edited by David Kaiser, associate professor
MIT Press, 2010, $24.95

“It was really up my alley from the start,” says the book’s editor, David Kaiser, an associate professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and a lecturer in the Department of Physics, who was a member of the anniversary planning committee. He solicited contributions from MIT faculty, President Susan Hockfield, and Deborah Douglas, the MIT Museum’s science and technology curator, as well as from academics at other institutions.

Kaiser, a science historian, was familiar with the highlights of MIT’s history but appreciated the chance to go deeper. In the chapter “Mergers and Acquisitions,” for example, technology historian Bruce ­Sinclair describes MIT’s struggle to maintain its independence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a merger with Harvard seemed imminent. “It was quite astonishing to see not just the administrative wrangling … but the real kind of cultural snobbishness, the assumptions about what students should and shouldn’t know,” Kaiser says. Harvard folks argued that teaching students science and engineering without giving them a foundation in the liberal arts would produce narrow-­minded technicians; MIT advocates felt that students whose training focused on the sciences would gain mental discipline and superior reasoning skills.

Kaiser was also fascinated by Sloan professor Lotte Bailyn’s chapter on the 1999 release of A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT, which uncovered rampant gender inequity in the School of Science. “[MIT leaders] could easily have thanked its authors for their careful and important work and then shelved the report and done nothing substantive in response,” he says. But MIT admitted fault—in fact, President Charles Vest acknowledged the validity of the findings in his introduction to the published report—and sought to rectify the problem. “MIT said, ‘We could do something about it and we must; we can’t get away with a weaselly response,’ ” says Kaiser. As a first step, the provost asked the deans of the other MIT schools to examine their own practices by interviewing female faculty members and collecting data on salary and teaching assignments.

“One thread runs through all of MIT’s history,” Kaiser says. “That is the question of patronage, the constant concern over who is calling the shots.” Industrial partners, the military, and wealthy corporations have been very generous to MIT, and their financial support has made possible some amazing achievements by students and faculty. Still, he says, “in every age, MIT has had to wrestle with who was guiding the intellectual endeavors on campus and to clarify to whom we are beholden.”

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