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Following the Leaders

How MIT’s first presidents shaped the Institute
April 19, 2011

The men who drove MIT’s early development were “charismatic, diverse, quirky, sometimes tragic individuals,” says Philip Alexander, a research associate in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. In A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT, his new book honoring the Institute’s 150th anniversary, he describes how its first nine presidents, from William Barton Rogers to Karl Taylor Compton, shaped much of its first century.

A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT
By Philip N. Alexander, research associate, Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies
MIT Press, 2011, $29.95

Alexander devotes an anecdote-filled chapter to each president. “They are all so different yet equally fascinating as people, each boasting unique leadership styles, strengths, and flaws,” he says. “Their personalities range from the quietly introspective (Rogers and Runkle) to the bombastic (Walker) to the creatively distracted (Crafts, Nichols, and Stratton) to the quintessentially diplomatic (Pritchett, Maclaurin, and Compton).”

Despite their differences, Alexander notes, the presidents all shared an intense desire to reinvent MIT during their tenures. “No one stayed satisfied for long with what MIT was,” he says. “They were always stretching for something it wasn’t; complacency, comfort zone, or resting on one’s laurels were notions foreign to them.”

Though the book is about individual presidencies, one of Alexander’s favorite narrative lines involves “those mini-dramas played out whenever a new president is chosen, that transition point where the Institute’s future—its survival, even—depends on making the right choice.” While that is usually a time for MIT to reflect on where it is headed, ­Alexander says that emotions have occasionally gotten in the way of good sense. “In 1906, with the Institute just off a bruising battle to keep Harvard from swallowing it whole, the Corporation offered the presidency to a Princeton classics scholar because of his reputation for putting Harvard in its place—never mind that he was also known to have shown contempt for technical education and applied science,” says Alexander. “He declined the job, but had he taken it MIT likely would have turned into a very different place from the one we know today.”

Alexander worked on the book for about five years, but in many ways he’d been preparing to write it for much longer. Over 35 years at MIT, he has investigated the history of science and medicine, and he has worked on biographies, exhibits, and other projects related to the history of the Institute. In 2005 he completed Mind and Hand, a book on the founding of MIT that was begun by former president Julius Stratton and his assistant, Loretta Mannix, in the 1960s. Mannix had tried to finish it after Stratton’s death in 1994, and Alexander took over in 2003 when her health failed. For A Widening Sphere, he opted for a less conventional approach to the story of MIT. Instead of focusing on stock events or lists of “achievements,” he emphasized personalities, characters, and the growth of the MIT community. He says, “I wanted to bring the people and the place to life, to generate a feel not just for what goes on here but for the who, the where, and the why.”

Recent Books From the MIT community

For the Love of Physics: From the  End of the Rainbow to the Edge  of Time­—A Journey through the
Wonders of Physics 

By Walter Lewin, professor emeritus of physics, with Warren Goldstein

Free Press, 2011, $26.00

Alone Together: Why We Expect  More from Technology and Less from Each Other

By Sherry Turkle, director of MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and professor of social studies of science and technology

Basic Books, 2011, $28.95

Rising Force: The Magic of  Magnetic Levitation

By James D. Livingston, senior  lecturer, Department of Materials  Science and Engineering (retired)

Harvard University Press, 2011, $27.95

More than Good Intentions:  How a New Economics Is Helping  to Solve Global Poverty

By Dean Karlan, PhD ‘02, and Jacob Appel

Dutton, 2011, $26.95

Ancient Chinese Warfare

By Ralph D. Sawyer ‘67

Basic Books, 2011, $39.99

Inside and Outside Liquidity

By Bengt Holmström, professor of economics, and Jean Tirole, PhD ‘81

MIT Press, 2011, $35.00

Dominion Geometries: Colonial  Construction and Postcolonial  Persistence of the “Imperial” in  the New Delhi Plan

By Anubhav Gupta, MCP ‘05, SM ‘05

VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2011, $82.00

Please submit titles of books and
papers published in 2010 and 2011
to be considered for this column.

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