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An interview with MIT Provost John M. Deutch

By Brian Rosenberg

John M. Deutch '61 announced in January that he would resign as MIT's provost effective June 30. In an interview on Feb. 12, Deutch looked back over his tenure as provost and forward into his future and the future of MIT. Deutch agreed to this interview with the restriction that the MIT presidential search not be discussed.

Q: What do you think was your greatest success during your time as provost?

A: I don't know that I would mark any one thing as my greatest success. I believe that when I became provost, Paul Gray and I spoke about having the Institute pay more attention to undergraduate education, and that the appointment of Jay Keyser as Associate Provost, the establishment of the Dean for Undergraduate Education, the establishment of the Committee on Undergraduate Education, and the development of an entire series of discussions and committees to review undergraduate education, have in my view been a very necessary and productive rebalancing of the attention of MIT. I think most faculty supported that reexamination of undergraduate education, especially in the School of Science and the School of Humanities and Social Science. The School of Engineering was already thinking in terms of the undergraduate curriculum. That, I think, has been the single most important hallmark of the last five years that I've been involved in. I don't mean to suggest that I've done all the work, but putting the provost's priority on it has been very helpful.

Q: Would you say that there's been a single greatest mistake or biggest failure while you were provost?

A: There's a long list of matters that I wish had accomplished differently. There's no question that I regret very much the entire procedure which was followed in the closing of the Department of Applied Biological Sciences. I regret it especially because I think it's quite important for universities to be able to make difficult choices which lead to the restructuring or even elimination of ongoing activities, and the closing of ABS has regrettably made people like a cat sitting on a hot stove -- they don't learn not to sit on a hot stove, they learn not to sit on any stove.

There will be a greater reluctance among people, not only here, but at other universities, about examining the base programs they're undertaking. They will be more reluctant to choose when to abandon something to pursue a more productive educational or research opportunity. That's certainly what I would point to as the single greatest disappointment.

Q: If you had to restructure ABS again, what would you change about the way it was handled?

A: I believe that the intellectual reasons for not having ABS be an academic department are quite strong. However, the subject of applied biology is also very important. I think with a greater period of discussion, it would have been possible to have a happy restructuring with essentially the same outcome, without any of the great concern for the process which was followed. I'm generally in agreement with the criticism of what happened. I think it could have been accomplished, indeed we have on occasion accomplished, changes of this kind with a better procedure. For example, while I was provost, the Department of Psychology became the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, and while I was dean of science, the Department of Meteorology was happily merged into the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. It is possible to do it properly; it is even possible for me to do it properly.

Q: What do you think was the difference between the successful reorganizations and the reorganization of ABS?

A: I think events moved too rapidly in the case of ABS, the matter rapidly came to a confrontation, and it didn't prove possible to put the genie back in the bottle once it had gotten out. I would like to point out to you that even though there are times when things don't always go right, there are few people who have done anything who haven't done some things badly.

Q: There's been a lot of discussion recently about your involvement with corporations and organizations outside of MIT. Do you see that as having affected any of your decisions or policies as provost?

A: I think it's very important for academics to be involved with industry. It's especially important at a place like MIT; it's part of MIT's charter, which says that one purpose of MIT is to have a constructive influence on commerce. I'm very proud of my involvement with private corporations. I think I make a contribution to those corporations, because it's important for them to have on their boards of directors a person with an academic background. It gives them a different perspective and makes their companies perform better. I think it's indirectly of benefit to MIT, where the business community sees MIT faculty as making a contribution to their efforts, and I personally find it very rewarding because it gives me a perspective I might otherwise not have had.

In contrast to individuals who question my relationships, I'm of the view that it's entirely appropriate, and I hope that more people at MIT and other universities build these relationships in the future. Rather than being apologetic about it or seeing fault in it, I think it's one of my great strengths, and it's also something I'm quite proud of. I think it's unfortunate that the MIT community has only heard one side of what those relationships bring to the individual, the company, and to this institution. People should understand that we do not live in an isolated world, especially in a modern American research university. In order for us to have appropriate intellectual activities here, close and detailed relationships with a wide range of industries are important. I find it very stimulating and helpful to my understanding of what the world is about. I think it's made me a better provost, not a lesser provost.

Q: Does that same reasoning apply to governmental activities?

A: Governmental activities are even more important. I've been a member of the Defense Science Board for 17 years, but I've also been a member of the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is rarely mentioned in discussions of this kind. I think the relationship of academics to federal advisory committees is even more important than industrial relationships. My personal interests are in the areas of energy and technology, and much less in national defense than is attributed to me. When I finally decided to go to Washington, I elected to enter the Department of Energy, and not to go into the Department of Defense. Although I feel that national security has been important to this country, it is not the only interest that I have pursued in my governmental activities. I think that life has given me the opportunity to participate in federal advisory functions; my counsel was sought, and I think it's important for it to be given. The responsibility of participating in national affairs is as important to me as anything I do.

Q: There's also been a lot of discussion of you as the "War Provost," especially with regard to mycotoxin research and MIT's acceptance of SDI funding.

A: In my mind, all of those comments are based on misinformation, and they're largely nonsense.

Q: Do you think the Institute should be involved in mycotoxin research or SDI?

A: My view on what research the Institute gets involved in is twofold: First, does the research which is sponsored here satisfy the existing rules and policies of MIT? To the best of my knowledge, during my time as provost, there's never been an instance in which we've accepted federally sponsored research which does not meet our explicitly written criteria for public, unclassified, basic research. The second part is, does a faculty member have an interest in the research? As far as I know, there has never been a research grant proposed here which has not been sponsored by a faculty member. Mycotoxin research or basic research on nerve agents has more than just potential weapons applications, it also has medical applications. As long as research is basic and open, meets our rules, has the interest of a faculty member, and has scholarly merit, I see no reason to erect any barrier to it.

Q: How do you feel about the Freshman Housing Committee report?

A: I think the FHC report is a very important matter. It goes to my fundamental views about undergraduate education. Undergraduate education consists of three important subjects: First is admissions -- the kind of students who come here, their backgrounds, motivations, and mix of talents; the curriculum is second; and the third is the character of undergraduate student life. It's a very important part of the entire educational experience. The question of whether our housing system is the best way to educate at MIT is a very important one, especially given that the demographic profile of our undergraduate student population has changed massively, and given that our housing stock, including both dormitories and ILGs, has remained largely unexamined.

I've noted -- I haven't been surprised, but I've noted -- the almost universal reluctance of the undergraduate student body to consider any change whatsoever. I think there is a strong case that can be made for a modified system where freshmen live on campus. I believe that undergraduate students at MIT should be more willing to consider that alternative. I must say that the conduct of the undergraduate student body in this debate has been most pleasing to me. The debate has been carried out with enormous courtesy, and it has been carried out with real eloquence. What has not been present is any allowance about the weaknesses of the present system. For example, the image presented by all undergraduates whom I've heard speak about this is that everyone is happy with the outcome of the selection that takes place the first week one is at MIT. But we all know from personal experience that some people are quite hurt in that initial process. It is only one aspect, but it is an important aspect, to recognize that not everyone is treated equally and humanely in a one week residence/orientation period.

While I personally began with the view that freshman housing on campus would be a good thing educationally, my position has shifted. I have heard many of the reasons that have been given in opposition to that, and so my initial support for such a change has not been eliminated, but attenuated. I would hope that in this dialogue, students would also see their views being somewhat modified, that they would see some of the weaknesses of the present system and some the educational and social advantages that might be gained by an alternative system.

I think this discussion will continue for some time, and that it will not be resolved before the next president comes to office. But what the student body should focus on is that this is a serious matter about the intellectual experience of undergraduates, and that one shouldn't just assume that what exists is best and that alternatives do not have any potential advantages. . . . My friends who comment are not entirely wrong in noting that almost all other leading institutions have residential systems in which freshmen live on campus. It's fine to say that MIT is different, but it's foolish not to ask why they have adopted their systems.

Q: How do you feel that the Institute as a whole has changed while you've been provost?

A: If you asked me to point to matters which have changed, I would say principally a welcome greater attention not only to undergraduate education, but also to undergraduate life. We've also seen an important change in the interests of the School of Engineering, and some of the School of Science and the School of Management, towards issues of manufacturing -- in contrast to just technology development -- in both the educational and research programs. There's been a welcome change in the importance placed on the arts. We've had a complete rejuvenation of the visual and performing arts at MIT. There's been a noticeable change in the direction and interests of the Sloan School of Management. [It has become more concerned] with different parts of MIT and [with] adopting an important research agenda. All of these are activities which I've seen change the climate of the Institute.

Q: How do you see the Institute's focus and research goals changing as a result of the changing world situation?

A: I think there's no question about the fact that the changing relationship between East and West is going to create massive changes in what is considered important in political, economic, and technological terms. There will be a substantially reduced defense effort, which is certainly something I think is called for given the change in political circumstances. There will probably be a change in the mix of federal research expenditures away from national security sponsorship to the sponsorship of all agencies. Not all of that is for the good, as some other agencies will not be able to defend their budgets or sponsor basic research as well as the Department of Defense, but there will be a considerable change of attention from concerns about national security to concerns about the climate and the environment, and about industrial productivity and competitiveness. I believe there will be a sharp resurgence of concern about energy security and the Third World, especially Latin America. All of these are welcome changes, changes brought about by the collapse of the communist system, not due to pressure by hawks and doves, but rather due to the fact that is not suitable for the efficient running of a free society.

Q: Do you see those changes affecting MIT significantly?

A: I think they certainly will affect MIT. Individual faculty will begin to seek out areas of research and education which reflect the times, and I think we'll be able to adapt quite rapidly and quite successfully to those changes. There may be some momentary budgetary problems, but they're problems we'll be able to deal with.

Q: Who do you think will become the next provost?

A: I have no way of predicting that, and it will be a matter for the next president.

Q: On what did you base your decision to resign?

A: I've been provost for five years. The president is stepping down, and I think the new president should be in a position to select a provost who will work with that individual.

Q: What do you plan to do in the future?

A: I plan to do teaching and research in physical chemistry and on public policy issues of interest to me.

Q: Do you plan to stay at the Institute?

A: Currently I have no plans to do anything but remain here.