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Johnson Talks on Leading MIT Through Unsettled Time

By Kristen Landino

Former Chairman of the MIT Corporation and President Emeritus Howard W. Johnson addressed a full audience in 10-250 to inaugurate the release of his latest book, entitled Holding the Center: Memoirs of a Life in Higher Education.

Johnson spoke primarily about his book, which chronicles the struggle to lead MIT through “a significant period in American history when the threat of violence hung over every campus in the nation...a time of social upheaval and cultural revolution.”

Johnson was President of MIT from 1966 to 1971 and served as the Chairman of the MIT Corporation between 1971 and 1983. He was also appointed President of the Museum of Fine Arts and held this position from 1975 to 1980.

President during turbulent times

Johnson acted as the driving force behind many important changes at MIT during that period , including the creation of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Independent Activities Period, freshmen pass/fail, and the Wellesley Exchange Program.

Johnson cited his motivation for writing these memoirs: “I felt I owed the Institute an account of my time as President.” He believed that an account of the challenges he faced as President in such turbulent times would be valuable to record for posterity.

Two of the most significant changes in education at MIT which occurred during Johnson’s term as President include “a rise in the esteem of black Americans and a change in women’s roles throughout the country”.

“People used to think that women would never have an impact in engineering fields. In fact, one corporation member during my time said: ‘You’ll never have more than 25 percent women at MIT because that is the limit of their interest in science and technology.’ Obviously, things have changed,” said Johnson. Of his term as President, Johnson referred to it as a period of great revolution.

“The deconstruction of an old social system and the construction of a new one pervaded in all aspects of society,” said Johnson.

“We created a system where people regardless of their color were brothers, where men and women worked side by side,” said Johnson.

Social upheaval impacted education

Things were changing in the educational process at MIT as well. “We were reviewing the old path of an MIT education. Reorganizing and restructuring the program were our primary goals; however, we were determined to keep the core the same, that is what defined an MIT education and made us unique compared to other prestigious institutions,” said Johnson.

“The revolutions in race and gender were all superimposed on the Vietnam War,” said Johnson. During Johnson’s years, MIT played a significant role in the war effort because the Department of Defense was its biggest source of funding for laboratory research.

One of the biggest advantages of the times, according to Johnson, was the way it brought the faculty together and increased student as well as faculty involvement in education.

“UROP got undergraduates involved in real research. The deans and faculty were on call all the time, and sought to involve students as much as they could. In some ways, we restructured the way in which collegiate education functions,” said Johnson.

Expulsion issue raised during talk

A question raised by the audience later in the talk inquired about the controversial expulsion of Michael Albert. Albert was a political activist during the sixties at MIT. He was elected to the position of Undergraduate Association President in 1968, but vacated the position after his expulsion.

The decision of the Discipline Committee as well as Johnson to expel Albert met with significant resistance from students at the time and led to numerous protests including a seizure of Johnson’s office for a day and a half.

Johnson replied that he upheld the decision of the committee and believed that his decision was right.

Book dedicated to MIT community

Johnson dedicated his book to “the men and women of MIT.” The work includes a forward by John S. Reed, Chairman and CEO of Citicorp.

“People often ask me if I wished I was President during placid times. To this I always respond: ‘Hell no! I wouldn’t know what to do with myself during placid times’... It was a good time to be alive,” said Johnson.