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Gray Takes a Look At Education, MIT Life


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Chairman of the Corporation Paul E. Gray '54 has taught at or run the Institute since his graduation

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Senior Editor

Second of two parts.

From his days as an undergraduate in the early 1950s to the present, Chairman of the Corporation Paul E. Gray '54 has spent more time at the Institute than most students would ever want to.

To put that in perspective: By the time he steps down next June to return to teaching, Gray will have been here for all but two years since Bob Hope aired his first Christmas special. He has worn a Brass Rat since Sputnik. By any measure, he is a lifer.

In that time, Gray has earned a reputation not just as an expert on MIT's budget but also as a dedicated and experienced teacher.

The roots of that reputation stretch back to his days as an instructor in Electrical Engineering - no "and Computer Science" back then - in 1957 and run through his stints as chancellor and president right up through this term, when he may be more familiar to some students as their Circuits and Electronics (6.002) recitation instructor.

Gray shared his views on teaching, the endowment ["Outgoing Chairman Gray Says Endowment Too Low," Nov. 5], and his life at MIT in a recent interview with The Tech.

Scandal' as profs shirk teaching

Since he announced he would be shifting his focus back to teaching this summer, Gray has spoken out sharply against what he called the "outrageous scandal" of universities wooing top researchers by promising them a pass on teaching undergraduates.

While Gray hinted that many top schools across the country are guilty of this bribery, he said MIT, at least recently, has been above board. "I believe strongly that we have not done that," he said in the interview. "And we certainly did not do that in the 1980s," when he was president, he said.

Department heads could in theory strike a deal with new faculty members without the knowledge of the provost, whose job in part it is to confirm new faculty, Gray said. But such behavior would be scandalous. "To bring a star' faculty member under the promise of not teaching is against the purpose of the undergraduate mission," he said.

Unlike other schools, "MIT has no [separate] undergraduate, graduate, and research faculty," Gray said. "We have faculty, and they are supposed to do all three things. If you come to MIT as a faculty member, you're expected to play on all three of those tables. It seems to be immoral to promise to come as a star to produce some notoriety or a headline, [when] what is not said publicly is that that individual has been promised no teaching responsibilities," he said.

But what makes this practice so scandalous and immoral? "That question has complex answers," Gray said. "I believe strongly that in an institution in a science-based community with an emphasis on science and engineering, the coupling between scholarship and research and what gets taught is quite tight," he said.

"As I see this coupling, there is an [ongoing] process when what is learned in research is transformed to what is taught on the graduate level, and as it is better understood, it works its way into the undergraduate curriculum," he said.

Then Gray turned the situation around. "If that's a valid perspective - and I believe that it is - then you have to ask, is it appropriate for a young, untenured member of the faculty to focus on teaching to the essential exclusion of scholarship, research, [and the] generation of new knowledge?" he said. "At this institution, and most others that see themselves as research universities, if an untenured member of the faculty is not good at research, that [member] will cease to be active [and] current in the ability to teach."

Without specifically naming anyone, Gray described the cases of two former MIT instructors, "one in math and one in psychology, [who] were denied tenure on that ground; that produced unhappiness among undergrads because each of those was a great teacher. But will [a] person remain current as a teacher for the next 30-35 years, given that [that] person is not involved in intellectual renewal?" The answer, according to Gray and MIT, is "no."

The story of Jeremy M. Wolfe PhD '81, a former associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences who was denied tenure in 1991, fits that description. But the same logic holds for researchers who shirk teaching, Gray said.

In addition to scandalous hiring practices, the shrinkage of federal research funding in recent years has also taken a toll on undergraduate teaching. "It's a much more bureaucratized process to get research funds, and that takes its cost on faculty" in terms of time, Gray said. "I'm sure, some of the time, that it hurts undergraduate teaching."

Overall, striking the balance between research and teaching requires that MIT "rely on the oversight of the faculty and the decency of individuals," Gray said. "If a faculty member gets increasingly negative feedback, then that has to be addressed."

As he returns to teaching, Gray will turn his attention to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science core subjects, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (6.001) through Computation and Structures (6.004). "The whole [core] is under review by the department," he said. "Iwill get much more involved in that."

MIT changes to reflect society

All told, Gray has spent 45 of the last 47 years studying at, teaching at, or running the Institute. He spent the remaining two years with Army intelligence in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, during the Korean War.

"ROTC was a requirement in those years," Gray said. "There was a draft on in the U.S. and there was not necessarily a deferment. Many of the townspeople in New Jersey" - his home state - "had been in a marine reserve unit. I was pretty high on the list of recruitment," he said.

Between then and now, Gray has seen and overseen MIT's emergence as a world-class university, and that has meant many changes. "For me, the most immediate observable, dramatic change over that period of time is the demographic change," Gray said. "My entering class had 16 women [and] half-a-dozen African Americans."

Those figures did not change much through the mid-1960s, Gray said. "Beginning in '68, Ibegan being in a position of influence" - he would become dean of the school of engineering in 1970 - "and largely over the '70s and '80s the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities began to increase substantially," he said.

"That change was driven by the fact that the demographics of our society were changing," Gray said. "And if MITis preparing people to be relevant and helpful in that society, they need to be experiencing those demographics here."

While he openly shares his perspectives on MIT, Gray is reluctant to offer a scorecard on his own career.

"I have done as well as others have done it, and others will do it as well after me," Gray said. "It's not that difficult or demanding."

He did say that he thought he benefitted from having served as president before becoming chairman. "The former president knows the community, the donor community, the needs of the community," Gray said. "That person can open doors, and make appeals" - especially for fund raising - "as well as the president can."

"I'm not a fan of immediate reflection," Gray said. Questions about his legacy as president and corporation chairman "are best answered by longer periods of observation in a considered historical view," he said. Gray used almost the same words six years ago when asked to evaluate his just-completed term as president.

But as the 64-year-old Gray approaches his 46th year at the Institute, it seems ever likelier that when "those longer periods of observation" roll around, he will still be here.