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Cost cutting forces Lowell to move

By Yaron Koren

Last year's decision to move the Lowell Institute School from MIT to Northeastern University effective July 1, 1996 created much controversy among MIT faculty and the Cambridge community.

The Lowell Institute offers evening instruction in technical subjects such as electronics, computer applications, and engineering. A tradition at MIT since 1902, the school is geared toward adult residents of Boston and Cambridge.

Classes are held in MIT's classrooms and laboratories. There are currently about 1,000 students.

The decision to close LIS was made last January by former provost Mark Wrighton as part of the Institute's cost-cutting efforts.

After months of negotiation, the final contract was signed mid-September by Northeastern President John A. Curry and John Lowell, the sole trustee of the Lowell Institute (an educational funding group) and a grandson of its founder.

The school was planned to close in July but will instead join Northeastern's School of Engineering Technology at that time, with classes starting in the fall.

Northeastern, which already has a technological night school program, will merge those classes with the LIS classes under the Lowell name. According to NU Provost Michael Baer, many of the Lowell School's current instructors will be retained.

"In this era of constraint we must make some difficult decisions about what we will do and what resources will be directed to such efforts in order to sustain excellence in our core missions," Wrighton said.

Feelings about move are mixed

Northeastern officials are enthusiastic about the acquisition. Baer said that he expected the majority of the Lowell School's current students to stay with the program after the move.

The director of Northeastern's School of Engineering Technology, Charles W. Finn PhD '71, said the move is "a fantastic synergy. I'm very excited about it."

Finn added that many LIS instructors are also professors at Northeastern during the day.

Lowell himself called the move to Northeastern "a wonderful fit".

But the moving of the Lowell School came as a shock and a disappointment to many MIT administrators connected with the school.

None seemed more upset than Bruce D. Wedlock '56, a lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and for 22 years the director of the Lowell Institute. Wedlock was skeptical about the future quality of the school. The decision was misguided, he said. "Wrighton left a legacy of a lot of angry people."

"I have yet to talk to anyone at MIT, faculty to hourly employee, who thinks the closing was a good idea," Wedlock said.

"It obviously won't be the same thing. I don't want to sound negative, but North-eastern isn't MIT," Wedlock said.

Cambridge City Council members were also upset by the closing. The Lowell School has until now served as the most inexpensive source for adult technical education to Cambridge residents. Tuition is $300 to $400 per class, compared to about $1,000 at Harvard's adult education school, the Extension School.

LIS has also served as a channel of communication and outreach between MIT and Cambridge, a bright spot in an otherwise rocky relationship typified by a perceived aloofness on the part of the MIT administration.

John Pitkin, a concerned Cambridge resident, said that there will be a tremendous consensus that the moving "is not a wise move."

Mayor asks MIT to keep Lowell

In April, Cambridge Mayor Kenneth Reeves formed a subcommittee that met with MIT officials to try to convince them to reverse the Lowell School decision.

The discussions turned out to be fruitless. The subcommittee could not pin down from Institute officials "a really logical and rational reason why they couldn't continue the program," said subcommittee member and Cambridge City Councillor Katherine Triantafillou.

The desperate council proposed to buy land from the campus and maintain the school independently of MIT starting July. The proposal was defeated 5 to 3.

Northeastern's administrators, aware of the strong feelings of the Council and many Cambridge residents against moving the school, have tried to paint the move as a positive one. Charles Finn noted that NU is "only a couple of stops on the subway down from the old location."

"I have assured the city council, through the MIT provost, that we will make every possible effort to [reach] Cambridge residents and to the students currently in the program," Finn said. At the time of the decision to move the school, Finn suggested creating special scholarships for Cambridge residents to defray the higher cost of the NU program.

But Northeastern officials may be facing a losing battle. "There will be a tremendous consensus that [the closing] is not a wise move," Pitkin said.

Wedlock added that his observations during the transfer process had left him unimpressed with NU's educational facilities.

"Instruction at computer terminals is rarely done at NU, where it was the normal mode at LIS," he said. "Computing is taught in a classroom, and the students go to the computer lab and work on their own without even a TA."

He added that "the well-equipped EECS labs are another example of an exceptional teaching environment that NU doesn't duplicate."

Some disagree over perceptions

Many disgruntled residents have questioned decision to eliminate the Lowell School from MIT. Wrighton cited cost-cutting as part of the effort to eliminate non-essential services during a time of tight budgets.

LIS uses 1,000 square feet of classroom space a night, and its use of MIT classrooms and the Athena network amounts to little overhead, since these are in lower demand during the evening.

The Lowell Institute shoulders most of the cost of maintaining the school. MIT is required to contribute only $100,000 a year to cover Wedlock's salary-related costs.

In fact, last spring John Lowell offered to increase the Lowell Institute's annual endowment to the school by $100,000 to cover MIT's expenditures.

But the offer was rejected by Wrighton, who said that a decision had been made. Wrighton stepped down as provost last summer in moving to Washington University, and has not publicly commented about the closing since.

Some speculated that Wrighton's decision came more than anything else from a belief that LIS, a community trade school, did not fit well into MIT's general image as a prestigious, selective institution. As former Cambridge resident David Blackwell put it, "eliminating the Lowell School... makes [MIT's] perceived elitism very real."

Wedlock agreed. MIT "is more focused on winning a Nobel Prize than educating highly motivated students at the level of LIS. I mentioned the question of elitism to a number of highly-placed friends at the Institute, and none denied that concept" relative to Wrighton.

Whatever the reason, next fall, for the first time in years, community residents looking to MIT for a technical education will have to look elsewhere.