Vice Chancellor and Dean of Graduate Education Steven R. Lerman ’72 has announced that he will be leaving MIT to serve as provost of George Washington University, starting July 1.
In his decades as a faculty member and an administrator at MIT, Lerman spearheaded the creation of Project Athena, MIT’s campus computing system, and contributed instrumentally to the development of OpenCourseWare, among other initiatives.
Lerman has been a member of the MIT community for over 40 years. Having first entered as an undergraduate in Course 1, he went on to earn an PhD in transportation systems in 1975 and then become a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
He served as the MIT faculty chair from 2000 to 2002 and then again from 2006 to 2007, and became the dean of graduate education in 2007 and vice chancellor in 2008.
He has lived with his wife in the Warehouse, a graduate dorm, as housemasters for nine years.
According to the GWU’s online news service, Lerman will oversee all student life related programs and offices as a chief academic officer and, as provost, will function as “second-in-command” to the president of the university.
MIT President Susan J. Hockfield said in an MIT News Office article on Lerman’s departure, “With integrity, thoughtfulness, enthusiasm and unfailing good cheer, Steve Lerman has lived the life of MIT in every dimension… We are very sorry to lose this remarkable friend and servant of MIT.”
In an interview with The Tech on Sunday, Lerman reflected on his long MIT career and discussed of his some most memorable experiences at the Institute.
The Tech: What are you most proud of having accomplished at MIT?
Steven Lerman: Well, maybe two or three different things. I think first project Athena, which is high on my list. I was the first director of it when it was a research program from 1983 to 1998. It really created the first computing system for integrated campus. I think the second thing would be my involvement with OpenCourseWare… The early stages of it were run in my lab, though the idea didn’t come from my lab. I have been the chair of [OCW’s] Faculty Advisory Committee since it existed.
TT: Any personal anecdotes or anything you’ll remember the most from your experience at MIT?
SL: The most of course is people — all the people that I worked with: faculty, staff, administrators, students… During the time since I moved on campus [as a housemaster], there were probably over 900 students in my dorm that I got to know to various degrees… And then I must know half the faculty, many of them over a lot of years. There is also a fantastic staff here that I will miss. So, I suspect the biggest memories are going to be about the people, not about an event or a thing.
TT: How do you think MIT has changed over the years that you’ve worked here?
SL: Well, I’ve been here for over forty years: six as a student and now this is my 35th year as a faculty. So of course it’s changed a lot. I think the core values of the place haven’t changed much. It’s still very much about excellence, doing things well, doing things right, and a culture that doesn’t care much about hierarchy. Once you’re in the lab, whether the idea comes from a faculty member or a post doc or a student, it doesn’t matter as much as it would in a lot of places.
But in another sense, of course, it is quite different; the student body is… much more diverse, which I think is a great thing. In terms of gender diversity, when I was here, there were probably 3 to 6 percent women undergraduates, and now there are 45 percent. Racial diversity has improved tremendously: a quarter of the freshmen class last year were underrepresented minority students. I think that’s fantastic… The student body is [alse] more diverse in their range of interests. So we have more musicians, more athletes as well as people who are so extraordinary in science and engineering. That’s been a great change for MIT.
TT: You’ve been able to experience a lot different roles [at MIT…] Were any of these positions your favorites?
SL: I’ve always enjoyed teaching, so certainly teaching undergraduate courses and graduate courses. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching large undergraduate courses… and that was always fun. And in fact, part of the hard thing about becoming a dean and vice chancellor is not having the time to do that…
I think the Athena experience, because it was so unique in my career, was incredibly enjoyable. It was also exciting and enjoyable and at times a little daunting. But I was a very young faculty member at the time… I was about 31 when I had to do that, which for faculty is on the young side to be leading a major initiative.
TT: Now that you’re leaving, who do you envision will watch over these programs and keep them alive?
SL: Well, the OCW has a faculty advisory committee which I have chaired since it started and many people share the passion for the program who are on the committee. And I expect that one of them will be appointed chair as I leave…and that that group will continue to sustain and advocate for OpenCourseWare. The Athena system I think will similarly be supported; there’s something called the MIT Council of Education and Technology… which I have been part of since it started, though I don’t chair it, and I think they will continue to be the faculty and the students who are involved in this and will continue to support Athena. All these committees will I think continue to advocate for and provide advice to both the OCW and Athena staff. So I am confident that both these things are so deeply rooted into MIT’s culture that they’ll be sustained.
TT: What made you decide to become housemaster [of Warehouse]?
SL: [My wife and I] decided to do it when our third, our last child went off to college. And MIT was just about to open… the building that we’re in now, the Warehouse. We had talked about it and the whole idea of starting a whole new chapter in our lives. We were living in a suburban house, but that no longer made a great deal of sense, considering we didn’t have children in schools anymore. We were really excited about the idea of doing something different, to be really deeply engaged with our students. It was just an incredibly exciting opportunity. We loved it.
TT: Do you have any especially memorable times?
SL: We almost always celebrate Thanksgiving with the students that were here… but our favorite event started right when the dorm opened, called the pancake breakfast. So once a month, my wife and I cook breakfast for the dorm in our apartment. Anybody who wants to can come as they are — even pajamas if you want. Every month is a themed month. We would have cherry pancakes and chocolate chip pancakes for Valentine’s Day and Halloween… For December it was usually something like ginger bread pancakes… We must have had one for almost every month in the academic year for nine years.
TT: What was the incentive for going someplace new?
SL: It was a hard choice, to be honest. Leaving was a very difficult decision. It wasn’t that I felt pushed from MIT; it was more a pull. The application from George Washington University came about rather suddenly for me. I hadn’t even expected to be asked to apply. And then I made a trip down there and I was incredibly impressed and excited by the opportunity to move into a very different world there. To be honest, it is a very different university than MIT, and that’s part of what interested me. I think another component, frankly, is that I am now of an age where if I am going to move to a position of leadership like this one, now is the time; the door doesn’t stay open forever…