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Sharp nomination reflects increaed humanitarian concerns at MIT

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The New President


MIT's next president, Professor of Biology Phillip A. Sharp, and Provost John M. Deutch, a past frontrunner, are similar in two ways. Both advise the federal government on biological research. And both are white men. That's about it.

Instead of a Defense Science Board expert on chemical and biological warfare, our next president will be an expert on cancer research who is an ethical advisor to the human genome project. People who care about MIT as an educational institution, and who see an untapped potential for science to serve human needs, have cause to celebrate!

It is not yet clear how long the party will last.

Sharp, who serves on only one outside board of directors, was not the favored candidate of the corporate side of MIT. He is a scientific heavyweight but an industrial lightweight. But he was chosen anyway.

He was chosen in part because relations between the governing MIT Corporation and the academic side of MIT were wounded. Deutch -- once the favored corporate candidate -- helped widen the gash, and then poured salt into it.

Deutch's role in axing Applied Biological Sciences, his press releases supporting the cold fusion hoax, his preoccupation with Pentagon policymaking and corporate consulting, his destructive meddling with humanities programs, and his inaccessibility helped to trigger the academic equivalent of a coup d'etat by students and faculty. But Deutch's leadership was only half of the problem.

"We have the feeling that science and engineering need to regain the confidence of the country, and Phil can speak from an unassailable perspective," stated Professor Robert M. Solow, chair of the faculty advisory committee to the presidential search, to the New York Times.

In other words, the willingness of the public to accept the corporate side of MIT's mission was wounded.

The power and influence of the corporate side depend on the supposed neutrality of science and technology. Military contractors, electric utilities, and biotechnology firms have hired and used scientists to gain federal approval of new technologies when the public is unwilling to accept the risks or costs. Decisions about nuclear power, military spending, and the use of recombinant DNA technology carry more weight if they are viewed as scientific judgements, untainted by political influences.

Exposing the myth of political neutrality reduces "the hold upon our lives enjoyed by those whose social power has long been concealed and dignified by seemingly technological agendas," claims former MIT Professor David F. Noble in the preface to his book Forces of Production.

MIT President Paul E. Gray's advocacy of more federal funding for compartmentalized technical research favored by the largest companies once carried scientific weight. But congressional hearings last June exposed MIT's bias in technology transfer: The Industrial Liason Program favors multi-national companies over small US firms whose prosperity would reduce the trade deficit.

Similarly, Deutch's political involvement was valuable to the MIT Corporation only when it was hidden from public view. When exposed in the national press, this asset became a liability. Having made a bad investment, and with its corporate ties under continued congressional scrutiny, the Institute decided to cut its losses.

The rejection of Deutch and appointment of Sharp, while still a victory, is also an attempt by the Corporation to save face and restore public confidence in MIT. And they are impressed with his biotechnology connections.

Fox Butterfield, writing in the New York Times, linked the choice of Sharp with "the explosion of interest in biotechnology." As a co-founder and director of Biogen, Sharp owned 325,000 shares of stock in the biotechnology firm -- valued yesterday at almost exactly $5 million. He also received at least $45,000 in fees that year for serving on the board and as head of Biogen's Scientific Advisory Committee.

Some Corporation members might see in this industrial tie some hope that Sharp can be molded into an instrument which they can wield for their own ends. But I think such members misread the climate at MIT. There exists a growing concern for disclosure of potential conflicts of interest to guard against potential abuses and to promote public trust and participation in policymaking.

The faculty and the students have spoken. They have issued a mandate that the office of the presidency be used for educational ends. The mandate means a reversal of the damage that has already been done. It means restoring the status of toxicology and nutrition programs. It means rebuilding the foreign languages program, and strengthening the Women's Studies and Science, Technology and Society programs.

The mandate means instituting ethnic studies and increasing the number of tenured black and Hispanic faculty members to at least 10 percent, rather than one percent. It means completing, three years late, the follow-up investigation of military research at MIT and releasing the Lincoln Laboratory Advisory Board report which was kept secret from the faculty. It means honestly examining the sexism that is rampant in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. It means tenuring those faculty members who seek social relevance in their research or are guilty of the crime of good teaching.

Now that Deutch is out and Sharp is in, some members of the community may tune out of Institute affairs. But it would be a mistake to assume that any new president can "take care of" rehumanizing and democratizing MIT. No person alone can redirect institutional momentum.

All the power is still held by the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation, which will be headed by Gray. President Sharp will have to act within the guidelines they lay down. Only by participating in a local and national movement to expand the people's role in shaping higher education can we make those guidelines more democratic.

If we wish to free science from corporate and military control and unleash the humane potential for technological education, we must remember one thing: The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.


Rich Cowan, who received an SM from MIT in Computer Science in 1987, is northeast organizer for the Washington, DC based National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest.