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Holding the Center

MIT President’s reign through turbulent times

By Erik Snowberg

By Howard Wesley Johnson

MIT Press, 1999, 331 pp., $34.95

President Emeritus of MIT Howard Johnson set out to create an account of what it was like for him as an administrator during the turbulent years at our nation’s universities in the sixties and early seventies.

As he correctly notes, there are many first hand accounts of the sixties from students, but very few from presidents, provosts or deans. Such accounts should be of obvious interest to anyone trying to assemble a complete history of the era. Johnson’s text is a play by play of what he saw, but he never ventures into the realm of his thoughts and feelings as he navigated a difficult course for the Institute. This shortcoming makes Holding the Center of limited historical value.

The book is not entirely about the sixties, however. It chronicles Johnson’s life from early childhood until the present. It starts out much like a kindly grandfather talking about his life, but includes details your grandfather probably wouldn’t. Details about what he did (or more accurately didn’t) do with various women he knew in early life makes what otherwise would have been a fairy-tale description of the depression and World War II gritty and realistic.

Johnson’s objectivity works wonderfully for this part of the book, restoring the human elements to a period of time that has become encased in myth and legend. His experiences are not what are typically dwelled on in histories; he was always well provided for during the depression, was never close to the front lines of World War II. Unfortunately, it is only interesting because it is unusual, if one were to put together 100 such accounts, Johnson’s would not stand out in any particular way.

Johnson chronicles his movement from the University of Chicago, to head of the Sloan Fellows program at MIT, to Assistant Dean and then Dean of the School of Management, and finally to President of MIT. There is a good deal of MIT history here. Prospective tuition rioters should take a lesson from days of old when a tuition increase caused students at Senior House to tie a note to the neck of HoJo’s dog. The note told him that if he raised tuition again, the dog would meet an untimely end.

The history is valuable only to those who has ever wondered who a particular building was named after. Johnson’s objectivity no longer works in the later chapters. They are devoid of the interesting anecdotes that made the earlier chapters, and personal histories in general, interesting.

Johnson’s presidency at the Institute spanned years of upheaval at American universities. The plaque that dedicates Johnson Athletic Center in his honor states that “He led MIT through times of great change with skill, energy, humor, a sense of fair play and an unwavering commitment to excellence.” While the book describes his actions in detail, it rarely reveals the reasons for his actions. He spends literally pages on the behavior and manners of anti-war and civil rights protesters without ever addressing what he thought of their claims and demands.

When he concedes a point or two to demonstrators, it is only because he had too. By not backing up his actions with anything more than a sentiment that the Institute goes on, he fails to give us the history of the “center” that he had been striving for from the outset.

After his tenure as president, the book takes a turn for the worse. It quickly becomes a laundry list of corporate boards and vacation homes. This final section explores the details of capital campaigns and operation of corporations at a level which only other managers could enjoy.

The last four pages of the book contain valuable advice on how to manage large organizations through difficult time. This is the reason that was lacking from the rest of the book, and it ends up being too little too late.

Holding the Center is based on an important premise: that history is best represented by views from all sides. It is hamstrung by Johnson’s refusal to explore his own reasons for action or opinions about the issues he confronted. One can only hope that others will follow his lead and learn from his mistakes.