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EECS Head Discusses Department’s Future

By Rima Arnaout

After five weeks as Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Professor John V. Guttag outlined several changes he plans to make to integrate the EECS department and build relationships with industries while increasing focus on computer science.

Guttag is working to hire five to seven new faculty members within the year. Guttag said that all the new faculty will hold at least associate professor positions at MIT and that some in more senior positions.

Filling the new positions will give Guttag the opportunity to shift focus onto computer science and shape the future of the EECS department. “A very important question is, ‘what should the department do twenty years from now?’” Guttag said.

“The department needs to be rebalanced a bit” in the favor of computer science, Guttag said. “There’s an imbalance between the interests of the faculty and the interests of the students,” and that’s “a message that will impact our hiring.”

“The easiest thing to do would be to hire faculty a lot like our current faculty members” in technical interests and education, he said. Instead, the department foresees hiring slightly more computer science faculty than electrical engineering science faculty, but this is due partly to a faster turnaround of MIT’s computer science faculty. “Many more of the younger computer science people have left [MIT] for industry,” Guttag said.

Through the hiring process, Guttag hopes to broaden EECS interests and connections by hiring faculty whose backgrounds and research interests transcend the traditional boundaries between computer science and electrical engineering. “These distinctions [between electrical engineering and computer science] are going to be very blurry,” Guttag said.

Guttag noted that last year, for example, the department “hired a medical doctor... because applications in health care will become increasingly important” in the fields of electrical engineering and computer science.

Officially, Guttag makes the hiring decisions, but unofficially, he said, the whole faculty is involved in the hiring process, which consists of a two-day interview for each of the roughly forty candidates. “We rely heavily on young faculty to help us find the hot new people in the field,” Guttag said.

The influx of so many new faculty members within a relatively short time presents the possibility for discontinuity in the department. “We need to set up a fairly careful way to set the new faculty to be a success” at MIT, Guttag said.

EECS to build ties with industry

In addition to hiring new faculty, Guttag also plans to restructure the EECS department by forming stronger relationships between the EECS department and leading industries.

“We need to rethink the way we interact with industry,” Guttag said of the EECS department. “Historically, the connection with industry has been achieved through the VI-A program... but today it’s not sufficient.” Course VI-A is the department’s industry internship program.

“We need to be more aggressive bringing people [from companies] to give talks and maybe even teach classes” so that students get exposure to the applications of electrical engineering and computer science, Guttag said.

Guttag said that the department needs to expose students to what goes on at smaller companies in response to increasing interest among Course VI students in joining small companies upon graduation.

“We need to find ways to let students find out about what goes on at smaller companies, perhaps by bringing entrepreneurs on campus,” Guttag said.

Guttag proposed a program that would operate specifically through the EECS department. Companies would agree to provide lectures or workshops at MIT in EECS-related fields and in return get an edge on recruiting MIT students fresh after the completion of their degrees.

The EECS department’s efforts at building connections with industry should be designed to be complementary to MIT’s career services, Guttag said, leveraging the department’s expertise to address the specific needs of EECS majors. Guttag said that the plan would not disrupt any existing agreements between industry and the Institute, saying that he did not want “step on any toes.”

Associate Department Head Rafael L. Reif will assume primary responsibility for establishing relationships with leading companies, and according to Guttag, a relationship-building program should be put together by the Fall of 1999.

Curricular redesign planned

Guttag also hopes to redesign certain aspects of the Course VI curriculum, with that effort being led by Associate Department Head Tomas Lozano-Perez ’73.

“We’ll be looking hard at the common core,” Guttag said. The department is in the process of revising some of the more stale courses, according to Guttag, such as Circuits and Electronics (6.002).

“We need to think about residential education,” Guttag said. The tools now used in teaching, he noticed, “are the same tools people have used for hundreds of years.” Guttag hopes to explore the use of interactive learning tools to better address students’ growing interest in Course VI.

Typically, just below 300 students major in Course VI each year, but that figure is rising the class of 2001 has 360 Course VI majors.

Some changes yet to be determined

The structure for implementing these changes is still at an early stage, where ideas from faculty are organized by a loose committee system. Reif will organize input from the electrical engineers, while Lozano-Perez will do the same for the computer science faculty. Guttag will chair a third committee to oversee them.

Armed with suggestions from the faculty, Guttag and the associate department heads will then propose programs for connection-building and curriculum development.

Further along in the planning process, Guttag will select a steering committee to work with the rough proposals and “start involving faculty and students,” he said.