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Wrighton seeks a balance in education

interview

By Dave Watt

Professor Mark S. Wrighton has risen rapidly through the academic hierarchy to become Institute provost. At 41, he is nearly the same age as Paul E. Gray '54 when he assumed the job of chancellor, which proved to be stepping stone to the presidency.

Wrighton received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology at the age of 22, and became full professor here at MIT when he was 27. His research group works on many different topics in electrochemistry, from molecular electronics to chemical modeling of photosynthesis.

In the chemistry department, Wrighton is known among the graduate students, and perhaps even the professors, as the Man with Money. He generates $1 million per year in research grant money to finance his own work, and while he was department head, he found still more money to help finance the purchase of major instruments for other chemistry research groups.

He has won awards for both his teaching and research, including the Chemistry Graduate Teaching Award and a Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Grant. He has also been a MacArthur Fellow.

Q: What do you think are some of

the main issues you're going to face as provost?

A: The near-term issue is to learn enough about MIT to be able to find out from the people who are directly concerned what their issues really are. So I think that in the next couple of months the biggest issue will be to get to know people and to learn about those areas of the Institute that I don't know enough about. Also, the next couple of months will be my first period in connection with dealing with budget; budget activities are the principal responsibility of mine; we have a five-year planning process. Five-year plans are submitted and updated every year. It will be my responsibility to read those plans and to adjust budgets accordingly.

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Q: What kind of measures do you think should be taken to hold the line on costs? Do you think that MIT should commit to something like Stanford has, of saying we're not going to raise our tuition over the line of inflation?

A: What I see is a lot of constraint on how far we can go to increasing tuition. First, on the undergraduate side we have very high costs for the students, and financial aid contributions from the budget are fairly sizable, so we're not interested in raising the cost too much. On the other hand, if we're going to continue to expand services, we may need more resources. I don't anticipate that we're going to have draconian cuts and I don't know all of the hits that the budget is likely to have over the next year or so. I believe from my overlap discussions with John Deutch that the president and I have been left with an institution that is financially sound. And we're in the midst of a major effort to improve the resources that we have through the Campaign for the Future, and I strongly support that effort. I'm optimistic that the campaign will continue to be successful.

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Q: Do you think that MIT should be appealing more to other sources of funding beyond student tuition? What other resources are out there that MIT could appeal to for support?

A: Well, we've probably appealed to every possible supporting agency or group or individual, but we already have some significant streams of support: the federal government, endowment income, unrestricted gifts, and tuition income.

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Q: You don't mention private industry support.

A: All private industry is about 25 percent of our research budget. So one area of strength in terms of our support stream has been the private sector. We've done better there than most other institutions. And yet, I think there's a lot of room for improvement.

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Q: John Deutch took strong stands on a variety of issues, including the participation of gays in ROTC, or lack thereof. Do you expect that while you are provost you will be outspoken about certain issues, and if so, which ones?

A: Well, to me one of the most important issues -- it's a sort of global issue -- it's not something that one needs to be outspoken about, but we need to improve the synergism between education and research. It seems to me that the US educational system is built on the hope that a strong research enterprise, like the graduate programs we have in chemistry, physics, [and] engineering, will make our traditional educational enterprise stronger, better, in percentages. And I think we've realized an element of that hope, but I think we can do much more.

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Q: How?

A: Well, for one thing, I think one area where we've done well is we have excellent people teaching in the undergraduate programs. And we have undergraduate research opportunities which put undergraduates in research groups. These are things that can be improved on yet further; but I also note that it's often the case that undergraduates don't have as much appreciation for how the research enterprise really works.

One area where we as educators are falling short is we haven't acquainted our public supporters -- parents, the public at large, others interested in our university -- with why research is going to lead to a better formal educational experience for students. It's amazing to me that people can come through the educational enterprise and not understand, for example, the day to day activities of the faculty. You would probably see it more as a graduate student than you ever would as an undergraduate.

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Q: Do you think that faculty make an effort to isolate themselves from the students, from undergraduates?

A: I take that as an example, but I remember I had been at MIT for ten years and had somebody ask me, "Are you still working here at night?" And, "Why do you have to work on Saturday?" I think that it isn't simple to transmit this kind of information, but what I know is that we've done an inadequate job, and if the public is to remain a strong supporter of our enterprise I think they ought to know what they're buying into.

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Q: That sort of segues into planning at the federal level. For example, the National Science Foundation seems to be more interested in funding education at the expense of research.

A: But that doesn't mean that we're going to be cut out. In fact, I'm very proud of the activities of people in the chemistry department -- Jeff Steinfeld, Keith Nelson, those in the biological chemistry group -- these people have pulled together the new initiative for undergraduate [chemistry] laboratories to bring into the laboratories state of the art research-oriented experiments that acquaint people with what's going on at the cutting edge. That's an example of what I mean when I say undergraduates can be involved in realizing that synergism.

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Q: Could you talk about the specific things that MIT does for recruiting minorities at the undergraduate level, and what additional things they could do?

A: I'm not sure of all of the things they do at the moment. Presently, the admissions process for the undergraduate course is directed by Michael Behnke, and I'm going to be going to the Committee on

the Undergraduate Program in November. We'll have a number of issues on the agenda, things I will want to discuss. And, it seems to me that we will want to aggressively recruit underrepresented minorities. We do, it seems, well with women as well as with underrepresented minorities.

Q: But you don't have any specific things you think can be done yet?

A: I think the thing we need to do is spend time and work hard to attract the students. I believe that means more involvement in a personal sense with the people that we want to come to MIT. It's been effective in the past to call people and tell them how much we admire them and wish they'd consider MIT and answer questions, and I think we should work very hard to call everyone who is accepted here, make that personal contact. Hearing from a faculty member, for example, can have a big impression.

When we identify underrepresented minorities, we should make a special effort to see to it that we are as accommodating as possible to their schedules, [and] know that it's difficult for incoming students to take time away from whatever they're doing.

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Q: Do you think that having more on-campus housing, and more dormitories instead of fraternities, which is part of the freshman housing proposal, is part of that in any way? Is that tied to this issue?

A: I think housing is a very important issue. I myself would favor more on-campus housing. I like it because I think it promotes collegiality. It makes it easier for everyone to participate in community activities which would be taking place on campus. I think it makes it logistically easier. I realize that the tradition of some of the fraternities is quite strong; they represent important components of the living-group situation. But I really like the notion of us being a community, and it's hard if we're separated by n Smoots or whatever.

For international students who are coming great distances to come here, I think it's especially important that we make clear that they will be able to get housing, and, to take the graduate student side for just a moment, I think for international students, the housing situation is very important.

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Q: Does that mean that you advocate more housing on campus both for undergraduates and graduate students?

A: I think it's more critical for undergraduates. Graduate students are more experienced, more mature. Many come from independent living situations at other campuses, and know a lot about how to go about finding an arrangement. So I think the immediacy for graduate students is less in most cases, with the exception of international students.

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Q: If someone like Jeremy Wolfe were up for tenure, do you think things would be handled differently? For example, if next April some popular lecturer comes up for tenure, would it be handled differently?

A: It would be handled very nearly the same. What each of the schools will be coming to grips with will be a process of documenting achievements in educational activities, and conveying to junior faculty early on in their careers what the criteria are to be in some circumstances. We certainly want to encourage great relations between classroom instructors and the students they are teaching. We also want to be fair to faculty who are in junior positions, letting them know early that great lecturing is not necessarily going to be viewed as great teaching. I don't myself believe that Jeremy Wolfe was only a great lecturer. I don't know him personally, but my understanding was that he is an effective person for many students in ways which go beyond just delivering a lecture. But I think that as time goes on, what one is going to see at each of the levels of consideration -- at the department level, school council level, and at the academic council level -- [is] weightier documentation, more substantial documentation about the achievements in education.

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Q: Are you implying a criticism of the tenure review process at this point, or that there was insufficient documentation at that point of Wolfe's achievements in education?

A: It's not a criticism of the process; first of all I participated in it on the Whitaker Council.

It's typically the case that we hire assistant professors on the basis of their promise as leaders in their discipline. We do not often have the prospect of attracting people here because we think they can create new classes or subjects for people to be taking. And when people create new subjects, that's an element that should be considered if they are going to be considered, for example.

Let me give you an example. Professor [Daniel S.] Kemp in chemistry, as you probably know, has been involved in the development of several subjects during his tenure at MIT. At the same time, he's a great scholar in protein chemistry and synthesis. So he has in my estimation dual achievement. And when people are going to be thinking about the criteria for advancement, and the assessment of quality in the educational contribution, I think we have to be looking at what they have done to be innovative in the educational sector, in a manner analogous to the evaluation that we carry out -- we look for innovation, we look for creativity in research. We ask, has this person created a field that others are jumping into? Who's reading their papers, and being inspired by the new work? That's what we're going to be looking to in educational initiatives.

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Q: That's a much harder thing to put a handle on in education.

A: In the educational process it's harder. Oftentimes it takes a little longer. But we give people a pretty good run at making tenure here, in terms of time. One has to be informed about tenure no later than the end of the seventh year. That means that the evaluation begins earlier.

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Q: So what's going to happen to your research group?

A: The research group is currently fairly large, 25 people. We're not going to be able to turn it off immediately, and I don't want to turn it off immediately. I have a number of excellent students who are working with me. So far, no one has come to tell me of their termination. I've invited all of them to come speak with me regarding their progress. Some have already discussed with me their plans for graduation. Others that are earlier in the program want to change advisors, and I can certainly understand that.