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As Dean, Hastings Will Focus on Global Skill Set

By Hanhan Wang

Daniel E. Hastings ’78, professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the Engineering Systems Division, was named the next dean for undergraduate education last Thursday. Hastings agreed to speak with The Tech about his new position — and as someone who has followed the selection of this position closely, I jumped at the opportunity.

Hastings will take office in January, replacing current Dean Robert P. Redwine. Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 said that the dean should have management experience in order to lead the over 200 people under him, and Hastings’ experiences as ESD director and former chief scientist of the Air Force give him strong qualifications for the position.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

TT: What are some of the goals and visions you have while serving in this position?

DH: I think the most important thing to do is to understand how to implement the recommendations of the [General Institute Requirements] task force because that is how MIT wants to set the core of undergraduate education for the time to come.… I’m also very interested in addressing the question of how to think about the impact of globalization.

TT: What exactly do you mean by that?

DH: Well, at a minimum, I would say, we need to be sure that the undergraduates we’re producing understand that they’re going to be living and moving in a global environment, and have the skills so that they can add value.

TT: How does that relate to an academia-focused student? How would you prepare them?

DH: Most people come out of undergraduate and go to graduate school. So the question is, are we preparing them to communicate well, to understand how science and technology is educationally done in other countries, to understand what other countries contribute?

MIT, as an institution, sends less students abroad than many other schools. I’m not saying I’m convinced that’s the only answer, but it’s certainly an answer. There may be other ways we can give this … maybe by global summer internships, maybe by having more of the CMI exchange program.… Here in 2005, the trends we see will only increase. There will be more of a global flow of people, competing with other nations such as China or India who are producing lots of good trained individuals, but who cost much less. One-fifth of the cost.

TT: All my cousins in China.

DH: [Laughs] So, what are we producing in our undergraduates that’s of value if we’re going to move in that world? I really want to think through that. There are a number of national calls to think about how to educate students differently to be contributors in that kind of world.… MIT has the opportunity to lead because one of things we know is what we do, people will look at. If we do sensible things, people will follow.

The third thing I’m very interested in thinking through is how we get more women and minority students to go to graduate school. The country is half women, but we don’t see the same kind of statistics reflected in graduate school. That’s an issue you can’t address in graduate school.

TT: You have to do it before.

DH: It’s too late to address it in graduate school, you got to do it before. I’d like to think seriously about how we can do this at MIT and how we show leadership in doing this for the country. We’ve been actually so good here in getting a science and technology centered education that the number of women and minorities going into it is increasing. People can’t believe it when I tell them that MIT is 45 percent women students. I’m serious, people can’t believe it because they have this vision that a science and technology centered education is male. But you know it’s different.

TT: Do you feel that your best shot at changing this is at the undergraduate level?

DH: You probably have to start at freshman year. Whether students realize it or not, they choose for graduate school by the things they start doing freshman year. Whether people realize it or not, that’s what’s going on…

TT: How would you describe the culture of MIT undergrads today?

DH: Work hard. Play hard. High energy. Intense. And you see, you see some interesting data points. So this is the only institution I know that has the phrase IHTFP. I mean, do you know any other institution that has that?

TT: Not as pronounced, I guess.

DH: It tells you that it’s intense. It tells you there’s kind of a love hate relationship. Another very interesting data point is the percentage of alumni who give back to the institute. It’s a good percentage, but there are other institutions where the percentage is much higher, much higher. What that tells you is that some fraction is just turned off by MIT. They probably had an intense experience here. There’s a whole bunch of wonderful things about the MIT culture: hard-driving place, a lot of people working to solve a problem, but that’s what I think.… The word that comes to mind is intense.

TT: What are you going to do to foster this environment? Or, do you want to change it?

DH: Well, I’ll tell you what I think MIT undergrads need more of. It’s time for reflection. There’s precious little time for reflection with the curriculum and the life here. Now, having said that, I realize how deep in the culture the MIT way of life goes. I think we can think seriously about how this institution can better integrate life and learning. I hope we can give people more time to reflect, more creative experiences. Now, having said that, I know how deep MIT culture goes, I’m not going to say this is easy. This is very, very deeply rooted in how the dormitories operate.

TT: And you worry that if you change the culture, you might get different kinds of student?

DH: Well, fortunately, in terms of the country, we’re headed to a period of more people applying to college, so I don’t believe there will be a shortage of people applying. But you’re right, we don’t want to change the fact that we attract the best and brightest students.

TT: How have your varied experiences teaching and non-teaching prepare you for this position?

DH: Well, the teaching, because I’ve taught undergraduates here, and I’ve always been amazed at their energy and the intensity at which they approach the task.… So, I’ve had a lot of fun teaching undergraduates. And outside of that, I’ve done a fair amount administrative work. I run a department; I’ve run different parts of a department. You know, I have a fair idea of how to encourage faculty to move along. Now, I understand that the DUE has a lot of people. But these are very important offices: admission, financial aid. These are the core of the undergraduates here.

TT: What are some of the challenges facing MIT undergrads that aren’t necessarily in the curriculum?

DH: Well, first of all, let me say this, we have a lot of excellent students.… They’re smart individuals with the kind of stuff it takes to do well in the globalizing world that is yet to come. Hopefully, we add some value as you go through MIT.

First of all, I think the challenge of MIT is to truly add value and to prepare you for this future. Given of course, I understand, is that undergraduate school for most undergraduates is a fulcrum, a passage in life. For most undergraduates, we leave the parents, and we transition to being an independent adult. It’s a transition where you come together with other like-minded students who go through these rites of passage and move onto graduate school.…

I’m very less worried about giving you the knowledge.… How will we give you the skill set, and the attitude, that will enable you as a student to continue to adapt, and to lead, and to thrive in this future world where there are these global economic forces. Companies will make choices based on lowest cost, where there will be new opportunities for innovation.… How do we help MIT students lead and create those companies? We’ve done pretty well, and we’ll continue to do pretty well.…

I want it to be the case, 25 years from now, that they say to me, “You prepared us well for that happened in our lives.” Generally speaking, it’s not knowledge; knowledge is ephemeral. I mean, you’re in Course 6 now. My guess is that in five years, almost everything that you know now will be almost obsolete. I mean, V equals IR is not going be obsolete, but some of that high-level stuff you [learned] about circuits will be old. But the skills to communicate and to balance different stakeholders and to understand how to lead an organization, those skills tend to last. And the attitude which says, “I have to be a lifelong learner” — those things last. I want to prepare students well for this.