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How a butterfly influences teh presidential search

The tiny breeze in your face that you do not feel is the wind of change sweeping through the MIT administration. Is there a butterfly in California flapping its wings and thereby creating currents which would determine the leadership that will pilot MIT toward the 21st century?

The Butterfly Effect (originally proposed by our emeritus colleague Edward N. Lorenz SM '43) is a whimsical extrapolation from the theory of chaos which asserts that some dynamic systems are so complex that no imaginable variable is external to them. The theory asserts that it may be reasoned that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in Pasadena could have <>

a major effect on Cambridge's weather weeks later.

Is the behavior of the MIT presidential search committee an affirmation of the Butterfly Effect? I have been wondering recently why the committee doesn't resist its fluttering urges, ignore third-order noise, do the right thing (God bless <>

Spike Lee) and nominate Dean Lester C. Thurow to become the 15th President of the Institute. I've never met Lester Thurow; therefore, it may be concluded that in the eyes of the MIT administration there is, at least, one thing that's in his favor.

Those who think that the MIT presidency is primarily an intellectual academic role are applying 19th century thinking to a 21st century task. Visionary, charismatic, articulate, global perspective, influential, strategist, and yes, intelligence are words which should come to mind in considering the potential leader of a world-class modern academic institution. L. T. (perfect initials for a linebacker) more than anyone at MIT is that person.

This search committee dismays me. Are they looking for a person to serve as a faculty member or a president? I believe, when considering candidates, they are presently inclined to count publications, assess Nobel Prize prospects, or perhaps seek an economist's economist. (Paul Samuelson is the only economist who knows everything, but he's retired.) Number of publications and prospects for prizes are attractive qualities in anyone, but what is their controlling relevance in a prospective MIT president?

I fear the committee will unload another surprising and surprised nominee with a rich sauce of academic cant, designed to cat reality and designed to convince us that they have selected the savior. We're big boys and girls; there's no need to gravy our hamburger to disguise it as filet mignion.

Is Lester Thurow perfect? No way. Do you know any perfect leaders? Have you ever heard of any perfect leaders (excluding American mythology of course)? As a community, we should be mature enough to stop pretending to require such nonsense. Still, if Thurow has half the vision, competence and compassion I think he has, he's likely to surpass the "achievements" of the present waning regime -- a regime during which we've witnessed, among other things, a dictatorial corporate management style, the barbaric physical attacking of our academic progeny as they peacefully protested at home (which is just what this campus is), and the decimation of the MIT black faculty (despite those dubious minority faculty numbers which it publishes).

The rap on Lester Thurow is that he will never win the Nobel Prize, that he is frothy, not inclined to address details, flighty; you know, like a butterfly. To be blunt, his critics say he is Less Thorough. Well, this is the pedantic chatter of little politicians. (What they don't say is that he is smidgen too liberal for the neo right-wingers.) If they want someone to tend to everyday nuts and bolts, hire an administrative mechanic. The issue is not the management of an ice-cream parlor in Central Square but the leadership of a world-renowned institution, polarized around engineering and the sciences with peerage throughout the humanities and arts. Generals delegate missions to colonels and majors who pass along details to captains and lieutenants for sergeants to implement.

MIT's national and international roles could shrink or expand significantly as a result of this committee's choices. If the main focus of the US consciousness during the 1930s was overcoming the depression, the 1940s defeating the Axis, the 1950s containing communism and improving the standard of living, the 1960s embracing technology and civil struggles, the 1970s recognizing global limitations and social needs, and the 1980s economic competition and the declining debt-based standard of living; then the 1990s should be about addressing our deficits: trade (international competitiveness), federal (public and corporate infrastructure, savings and investment) and people (education, quality of life and pluralism). The relationship between a great university and the engaging of these deficits is perceived by no candidate better than Lester Thurow.

He is a visionary, enthusiastically articulate in the presentation of his perspectives on issues and solutions to problems. He greatly values science and engineering, and he greatly respects science and engineering educators. He is global in his views and collegial in his approach. He has a national and international identity that exceeds that of any (incoming) president in the history of MIT. (Just think, the committee members won't have to go around responding to the question "Lester who?") He is already a leader.

Unless this search committee is in a fog, they're probably focusing on insiders at this point. Is there a self-respecting outsider, worthy of consideration, who would test his or her mettle in these muddy predator-infested waters? Let's face it, it would take a neophyte six months simply to find the fourth floor of Building 11. Any newcomer is likely to be put on a leash, led around by the nose by the current administration, and told whom to select as provost, dean for this and dean for that. No one who is or desires to be president of MIT is free, and an outsider would be least free.

Perhaps the search committee will now be constrained by the law of the conservation of collective constitutional compensation -- I know of no such law but there could be such a principle -- which states that each flash of committee darkness must be balanced by a flash of committee light. Perhaps they will recognize that sometimes opportunity does not arrive with a bang, but with a breeze; the breeze in their faces which they have not yet felt, the breeze of The Butterfly.


James Williams '67 is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.->