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Professor Talks About Achievements, Changes at MIT

By Jiao Wang

Professor of Electrical Engineering and President Emeritus Paul E. Gray ’54 started his career at MIT as an undergraduate student in Course VI in 1950. Through the years, he has served the Institute in a number of positions. He rose to become the 14th president of MIT from 1980-1990 and chairman of the MIT Corporation from 1990-1997. Since then, he has continued to teach undergraduate classes and to advise undergraduate students. This fall marks his 50th year of service to MIT.

The following is the second of a two-part interview in which Gray reflects on his early interest in science and his experiences at the Institute.

The Tech: Describe some memorable accomplishments in life.

Paul Gray: Well, I will put it in two dimensions, one of which is the family. My wife and I both believe that the most important thing we did we believed it at the time and we still believe it — was to do a good job of parenting. The fact that the kids are now all grown up with their own families and there have not been any divorces or problems is an accomplishment, which we don’t attempt to take all the credit for. It is not easy these days for those four families to go through the pressures of life and stay stuck firmly together. For me, that is an accomplishment and I delight in it fully with my wife.

On the professional side, let me talk about some things that happened during the time that I was president, and preceding that. In 1968, following on the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy that spring and summer, the African American students at MIT — they then preferred to be called “black” students — organized themselves into the Black Student Union. The principal leader of that group was Shirley [A.] Jackson ’68, now president of [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], alumna of MIT. They presented the then president of MIT, Howard [W.] Johnson, with a list of “requests,” not demands, but “requests,” saying that the Institute should do these things to increase the minority presence at MIT.

President Johnson asked me to take on that task and see what could be done. I was at that time a part-time associate provost. We worked very hard to recruit in high schools and encourage folks to think about MIT. There have been changes since then. The work that began in the fall of 1968 and lasted about seven years, to the mid 1970s, was extremely difficult, demanding, at times frustrating, but enormously satisfying. It was important to MIT and to the people that came.

A very important undertaking was bringing the Whitehead Institute to MIT in 1983, but that is a longer story that is best told another day.

TT: In your inaugural speech as 14th president of MIT, you outlined certain things that you hoped to do. Do you think you accomplished what you set out to do?

PG: To a certain degree, but not completely. I said something in that speech about turning back the throttle, about slowing the pace of MIT. I wanted to try to get faculty and students to reduce the intensity of their activities, to have a little more time for reflection and for the thinking of new ideas. That was the thing I failed most dramatically on. Someone, I don’t know who, coined a phrase to describe that idea called “pace and pressure.” It was a reasonable description. I made some suggestions about things that we might do to push us in that direction, but when all was said and done, 10 years later, I had to say, it didn’t change that much. It is somehow built into the DNA of the place. Everyone has to be going full-speed all the time to feel fulfilled. And I said publicly at that time, I failed on that, and folks said, “Well, it might even have been worse if you hadn’t tried.”

TT: What do you think you succeeded in doing?

PG: I said something in the speech along the lines of changing the things that ought to be changed and preserving the things that ought not to be, the values of the place and the character. I think we did reasonably well on that. There were changes in some of the laboratory structures. Some disappeared and a couple of new ones came into being. It was in those years that we first began to put a focus on energy. The Energy Lab came about in those years.

One of the painful things that I did in those 10 years was to shut down a department. There was a department here called Applied Biological Sciences. It had evolved from ... the Department of Food Technology. In the 19th century, food technology was a big deal. It was at MIT that people learned the rules for canning food and how to do it safely. If canned food had any living organisms in it such as bacteria, they could grow under certain conditions, and you could poison people by the millions. Canning was a touchy business until ... a food manufacturer named [William L.] Underwood and a man at MIT named [Samuel C.] Prescott 1894 first laid out the sound scientific principles for doing canning safely.

The department evolved in its 80- to 90-year history, from Food Technology to Food, Science, and Technology to Food, Science, and Nutrition and eventually to Applied Biological Sciences. It was a small department, on the scale of Nuclear Science and Engineering today or Ocean Engineering before it merged with Mechanical Engineering. It had people who were doing good work in certain areas. Yet, the department lacked a focus. There was no central mission, no focus that tied it together. They were having trouble replacing faculty, hiring young faculty. And so the provost and I made a decision to shut it down. We did so in ways that protected the interests of the students and faculty who were in the pipeline. It was a time of great turmoil. Faculty and students who never thought of the possibility wondered ,”Gee, what happens to me if somebody shuts down my department?” Eventually, we worked it through.

There is one other topic I want to talk about. By 1985, there was much concern in the United States about the ascendancy of the Japanese economic machine. This was when people began talking about the Rust Belt, the states across the northern central part of the nation: New York, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, where automobile and heavy equipment manufacturing was occurring. People were worried that the Japanese were becoming so strong in exporting manufactured goods that they were going to eat our lunch and dinner too. The question came up in meetings of the Executive Committee of the Corporation. What can MIT do about this growing problem? What is going to happen to manufacturing in the United States under the threat of low-wage foreign competition? The executive committee is a group of seven trustees who meet once a month and spend a whole day on the concerns of MIT. Two members particularly said we’re got to do something about this; we cannot just ignore it. So, we created then what was called the MIT Commission on Industrial Productivity.

It was pretty well understood by 1985 that the manufacturing productivity in the United States had been flat for at least a decade if not longer. Productivity in Japan was growing in leaps and bounds. So we put in place this commission of about 12 people, chaired jointly by the late Michael Dertouzos who was at that point director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. and by Robert Solow, Institute Professor and Nobel laureate in economics. After studying this issue for two years, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Commission produced a book called “Made in America.” The report said there were a number of things that needed to be changed to improve industrial productivity, including the way management and unions in the big manufacturing communities interacted and the way production systems were organized.

Among the things they said had to change was that management schools have to teach differently those folks interested in being managers of manufacturing activities. So the book came out, had quite an impact, and got a lot of publicity. The provost, John M. Deutch ’61, and I said, one of the recommendations here is that management education must change. How are we going to do it here at MIT? We got the School of Engineering and Sloan School of Management to create, working together with representatives of manufacturing industries, a new graduate Engineering and management program called Leaders for Manufacturing. It has been operating for nearly 20 years now and it is still going strong. It has also been picked up at other universities.

The students who come into the Leaders for Manufacturing program must have had four to six years of experience in manufacturing before they apply. They have a very intensive two year (21-month) program, without a summer break. They start in September and finish in May 20 months later. They have been much sought after in the real world and have no trouble finding jobs. The program has not only been successful in our terms but successful in terms of its impact on industry.

One of the things that is unique about the program was that we asked engineers and managers together with representatives from industry to work it out on a clean sheet of paper. They started from scratch and said what they thought it ought to be. To do that, we had to raise a fair amount of money to get the program up and going. Over a short period of a couple of years, we raised $40 million. It came in $8 million chunks from five corporations who agreed to be the principal supporters of the Leaders for Manufacturing program over a five-year period. They agreed to send some of their best people here to work with faculty in engineering and management to figure out what this program should be. It was a success story. And again, no individual can take credit for its conception and its success, but it worked out and it has stuck.

I should go back to 1968 again. An important thing that I was much involved in was the creation of UROP. The UROP program came into being in the fall of 1968. My contribution to it was to hire a remarkable young woman, now unfortunately long deceased. She died at age 47 of lung cancer — never smoked in her life. Margaret [L.] MacVicar ’64, founder of UROP, made the program work. She went ahead and got it started, made it grow, and tended it until she died 22 years later. When you ask alumni what mattered to them at MIT, many say UROP. It was a very important part of their education.

TT: Is there anything at MIT that you haven’t done and would like to have done?

PG: No. I had this extraordinary opportunity to begin a career here as an instructor, and then as a professor in this department. My first 13 years were in that mode. Then I had the chance to be involved in administrative activities at the highest levels for another 26 years. For these last 10 years, I’ve come back and been a professor again. I have often been quoted saying that the best job at MIT is professor and I really believe it. The excitement and challenge of learning that comes out of interacting with bright students is unbeatable. That is why professor is the best job. I was delighted to have a chance to go back to it full-time in 1997 when I ceased being Chairman of the Corporation.