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Interview

Steven Lerman

By Aaron D. Mihalik

Staff Reporter

Steven R. Lerman ’75, the current Faculty Chair, discusses industrial partnerships, changes in the residential system and undergraduate curriculum, women's issues, and student-faculty relations.

Lerman, an MIT alum (BS ’72, MS ’73 and PhD ’75), has played a conspicuous role in the MIT community. He was appointed to the MIT faculty in 1975 and remained a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering. While at MIT, has directed Project Athena from 1983-1988 and is currently the director of the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives.

Over the last few years, he has become very influential in faculty government. He has been the on the Committee for the Undergraduate Program, Committee for Graduate Student Policy and on the faculty policy committee for two years. He became the Chairman of the Faculty in June 1999. He has two years prior experience as associate chair and chair elect.

The Tech: Many students are concerned by the apparent lack of faculty involvement in student issues. Many students point out that the faculty government meetings are often empty and use that as a gauge of lack faculty participation. As faculty chair, how do you respond to that?

Lerman: I think there is probably some truth to that. I think there are parts that the students don’t see. Most of the interesting discussions and interesting decision-making doesn’t happen when the faculty meets as a whole. Most of it really happens in the committees. And the students, who participate in the committees as student members, see a more active and more involved faculty.

It is fair to say that there is a group that is not involved that should be. I do think that faculty should be more involved in student issues and student life. What’s competing against that is time and that will never go away. What we need to do is shift the balance some. We need more faculty to spend more time in student related activities.

We are always going to have faculty who are deeply involved in their research and graduate education. But they, too, ought to have some familiarity and some stake in student issues.

Little things: I think students ought to be inviting faculty to dinner more and faculty ought to be making time for that. Just having faculty see what the dorms are like by eating there, even if it is just occasionally, would help give them sense of student life. We need to do more little things that just shift the margin some in the face of what is an every more complicated competition for time. The same way that students often feel pressed for time, it is equally an issue for the faculty. We just need to create the incentives and make it easier for the faculty to spend some more of their time on student issues.

The Tech: Female faculty issues have been important issues in the recent past. What has been done recently about these issues?

Lerman: You may have seen last year the release the status of women in the school of science report. It was actually a process that went on within the school of science to look at the equity issues for women faculty. It was a very productive process; it produced some changes. I far as I can tell, the faculty within the school of science are pleased with how it turned out. Right now, there is discussion on how to generalize that sort of ‘looking within ourselves’ at equity issues to the other schools. And I think we are going to see that process unfold in the other schools.

The faculty government system is very involved in that. The previous chair, Lotte Bailyn, played a strong leadership role in making that happen. It was a very valuable thing for us to have done. We managed to make changes in ways that makes everyone better off. It was done through internal processes, rather than through legislation, complaints, and grievances. Instead, we really did it ourselves. It was through the spectacular work of the committee and then the dean of science in this case, did a fantastic job at responding effectively to the issues that were raised. It was very a good example of doing things inside, before they become worse. That’s really what happened. So I was excited about that. We will continue to make that part of what the faculty does.

The Tech: What sort of concrete changes where made?

Lerman: The issues that got unearthed by a committee of senior faculty were space allocation -- who had what space -- where women faculty not getting there fair share of laboratory space. Space is a very important resource at MIT and at every university. And lab space in particular with science turn out to be a big issue because that is where you do your research. Salary issues got addressed as well. Also recruiting and hiring: are we doing the best job we can at attracting and obtaining women faculty?

Space was identified and it turned out that there was some evidence that, not consciously, but through a series of decisions, women faculty members had less lab space made available to them for their research than reasonably comparable peers. And the dean changed that and made some salary changes, internally to the school. He worked with his department heads to more effectively recruit and the number of women faculty have, in fact, grown in the school of science. And it seems like that everybody recognizes that this was a good thing to have done.

And it was very exciting. The report was made available publicly, on the web. It got national attention and a fair amount of praise from peer institutions. We felt that we had done a very good job at dealing with internal issues in a way that was more productive than people battling it out in court. So I was very enthusiastic about that.

The Tech: A hot topic for many students is the RSSC and other housing proposals. What do you envision for the future? How do you see faculty involvement?

Lerman: The RSSC was presented to the faculty, but it didn’t engender as much discussion as I anticipated. But faculty need to continue to be involved. Clearly, there will be a change; we are building a new dorm. I have encouraged faculty to become involved with the RSSC process and many have. I know this is one of those issues where students have very diverse views, and so do the faculty. We have faculty who are very traditional.

I think some of the changes, if they work well, will be positive and exciting. I have to be honest, I think our current system did not evolve out of any conscious design but just happened. And such systems sometimes work very well, but sometimes they have dysfunctional elements that exist because they happened, not because anyone thinks they are a good idea. Here, I think we can do better. Some of the ideas from RSSC and some of the ideas that are coming out of the unified response, when merged, can produce a better residential system.

Some of the students feel that this is an attempt to make the FSILG system go away and I certainly don’t feel that. The FSILG system is a wonderful system when it works right. It is not clear that the best way to make that happen is to orientation week rush. I personally think it is too early to do it during orientation. I remember as a freshman, feeling that time as an awkward and confusing period... whatever comes out of this, my personal view is that we need to preserve the best features of the FSILGs. Maybe what could even emerge is a healthier FSILG system.

That’s going to take work. The initial effect will pose a threat to the FSILGs because they need to recruit out of three years of classes the same population as of four. And we need to help them. I am very supportive of the idea of transitional support for the FSILGs. How this will settle out? I’m not sure. It will take a period of adjustment and after which I think we can have a better system.

The Tech: Industrial partnerships are a very important part of MIT funding and research. What is your take on the future of such programs?

Steven Lerman: I think there is a need to look at these at these industrial partnerships with an eye towards being very comfortable that as we accumulate them, we continue to be consistent with the mission and spirit of MIT. I don’t personally believe that we have had a problem with that. But I think that the more we have, the more possibilities exist for conflicts within them. We need to have some way of discussing and reviewing them before we commit the Institution to these.

The Tech: Is there a formal committee for such matters?

Lerman: That’s part of the discussion. There well may become one. There are questions as where that committee might live in the current structure. Do we need another committee or can that become the charter of an existing committee? We need something, in my view, that makes us all comfortable that these things are being organized in a way that serves both student and faculties interest. And that I think the current ones do, to be honest. But clearly these are becoming an important feature of the MIT landscape. And as such, we need to look at them as we would look at anything else.

The Tech: It seems like a conflict of interest might arise in some cases. Do you have examples where we went wrong by working with a particular company? Or are most projects success stories?

Lerman: I think there are mostly success stories. What we’ve done right is to insist that the principles of open research be retained. And that is a lot harder to do with companies than it has been with the government. Our government funding is typically provided through the Natural Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Health and they do so with the intent of encouraging the widespread dissemination of the knowledge that gets created.

With industry, it takes longer to convince them that’s in everybody’s interest, and that we at MIT can’t do work that is confidential and proprietary to a particular company. It is not in our mission; we’re a nonprofit institution chartered for the public good. And that we are not here to do research for any particular company and that is then owned by that particular company.

So we have insisted persistently that the intellectual property ideas can be published and widely spread the way we would do any other type of research, that students can be involved without restricting their future employment options, that the intellectual property, the ideas, the patentable and copyrightable thing that we create are retained at MIT -- it is not exclusively available to the company, and we’ve managed to do that consistently. It takes time and these are complicated negations.

The Tech: Do any specific examples come to mind?

Lerman: Project Athena is certainly a good example. It was what I was involved in -- I directed it. Everything we created was done publicly. We published books, papers and there was no restriction on that. And ultimately, we chose to make publicly available things like the X Windows system and Kerberos authentication system. We controlled that destiny. We could have licensed it to companies. We could have given it away. We could have done anything that we thought was in the best interest of dissemination of knowledge. We chose, in those cases, to simply give it away.

And it had tremendous effect, particularly in the 1980s, in the way in which computer systems evolved. And now, interestingly enough, Kerberos will be part of Windows 2000. The authentication method within Windows 2000 will be Kerberos. The X Windows system is a huge industry now. Essentially, all Unix systems rely on the X Windows system for their graphical display. So it was a very successful partnership with the Digital Equipment Corporation (now part of Compaq) and IBM.

Another that I am aware of is the Ford partnership. They are, again, working in the spirit of open research on new ways of designing products, new ways of organizing engineering teams and virtual engineering. There is a research program now that is looking at redesigning the automobile to change the voltage for the electrical system.

Partnerships provide funding, particularly in this era where governmental funding of research is pretty much flat. The question is ‘how do we take on whole new initiatives?’ Strategic partnerships are an important mechanism today for keeping this place going and keeping us on the cutting edge and providing the funding to do that. But we have to make sure that we retain consistency with the historic style and mission of research here. And there will constantly be pressures to change that from the industry partners. Again, it is a process of educating them and making them understand how it is we work, why that is true, and what the benefits have been historically. It is not an easy sell.

The Tech: How do these research grants come about? Does the researcher take the initiative and approach the corporation and tell the corporation what they want to do, or is it the corporation that approaches the researcher?

Lerman: [To begin Project Athena] we went to them. There was a task force that was assembled under the leadership of Dean Gerald Wilson who was the Dean of Engineering at the time. He assembled a working group to develop a conception of what a university wide academic computing system might look like. And it became very clear that we didn’t have the money inside to do that. We needed partners. Then we went out to a variety of companies to seek partners.

Under his leadership and Mike Dertouzos and Joel Moses we identified IBM and Digital as the best partners to work with. They then committed money, people, hardware -- they gave us a tremendous amount of equipment, and support. And that enabled us to build what we think of as now the Athena system, essentially from scratch.

The Tech: Are the beginnings of most industry sponsored research projects similar to Athena’s case?

Lerman: In most cases, they are. Some of them have interesting beginnings. It is not a secret that the Microsoft relationship began when Bill Gates and Chuck Vest shared a ride to the airport.

The Tech: Many students who are not aware of the specific details of the Microsoft agreement are weary of the partnership. Do you have anything to say to them?

Lerman: Well, because I’ve been directly involved, yes. We had several key principles -- one of which is that MIT is a heterogeneous computing environment and that we didn’t envision that changing. And so Microsoft would understand that everything we do here will not be Windows based. Certainly we have a lot of Windows systems and we will continue to have them and we will continue to work with them, but not to the exclusion of other computing platforms. That is explicitly in what we agreed to.

[Other key principles in the agreement are] the tradition of working openly, that we would have unlimited publication rights and that we would work in the way that we currently do research -- which is teams of faculty, students and researchers work together and do so in a non-confidential way.

I think another thing that people need to realize is that we are working with the Microsoft researching group -- not their product groups. We will certainly talk with the product groups as we do our research, but the researchers really come from the research community. The people that we are working with have experience in academia and they are as interested in advancing the state of knowledge as we are.

I am pretty comfortable with the way this is configured. We had the same questions arise when we worked with digital and IBM. At that time, remember, Digital and IBM dominated the computing markets -- they were number one and two. So the same questions arose, and the same sort of institutional arrangements got created in order to protect MIT from, in effect, being co-opted. There is not exclusivity with this relationship.

The Tech: What sort of developments and benefits do you see coming from this partnership?

Lerman: The thing that excites me the most is having the funding to innovate in the curriculum -- that we can experiment with new ways of teaching and new ways of learning that use technologies.

It is very hard for a university, on its own funding, to invest large amounts of money relatively high risk experiments. We can do incremental things, and we do. Spending millions of dollars for ideas that, while they seem promising, are highly uncertain isn’t something we can do with our own money -- students’ tuition money, endowment money. It is somewhat imprudent to do that. But that is just what research is about. And this will let us do that.

I think we will focus intensively on the undergraduate curriculum. There are lots of interesting ideas on how to innovate in physics and chemistry, collaborative engineering and the humanities. And this is going to enable us to perform a whole round of experiments that we haven’t been able to do since Athena. This is an opportunity to take what we have learned [from project Athena] and really experiment.