Article - Issue 6, November 2000

Collaborating with MIT: how we compare

Professor David Newland FREng

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The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in November 1999 that he was funding a joint venture between Cambridge University and MIT. Its purpose is to capture the entrepreneurial spirit of MIT for the UK and to collaborate on teaching, research and professional practice in engineering and the sciences and in management. A detailed account of the methods and objectives of the five-year programme which has just started will be the subject of later papers. This is a personal account of how Cambridge and MIT differ.

I took my PhD at MIT and was an assistant professor in the 1960s. Since then I have been back many times and I know the place well. But earlier this year I made my first visit since the collaboration agreement was announced, and so now have a renewed and closer interest.

For a week I stayed at the Marriott hotel in Kendal Square with its panoramic views of the MIT campus: that concrete maze of 150 acres of buildings, some 25 floors high, which look and feel like a vast industrial research laboratory. It takes 10 minutes to walk across the campus. There are the same dull, wide, long corridors that I remember in the old buildings (the central courtyard dates from 1916), the same, dusty broken pavements in the streets around the campus, the same parking restrictions, the same rumble as underground trains pass under the MIT bookshop. But year by year there are changes. New buildings and laboratories are packed onto the site as old ones are demolished. This year there is a vacant building site in Vassar Street. When I was there last year, the Radiation Laboratory, home of MIT’s radar research, was a landmark. Now it is gone.

A new centre for computer and information sciences will shortly be built here to the startling design of the American architect Frank Gehry. Someone has described it as looking like a pile of giant beer cans that have been jumped on. Its design has been possible only by the use of the aerospace industry’s CATIA geometric analysis software which can handle its complicated curved beams and surface cladding. Its design is as unconventional or outrageous, whichever way you see it, as Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. That is said to have put Bilbao on the map. Whatever else it does, MIT’s new building, so extraordinary and extravagant, will raise the profile and awareness of MIT even higher. People who know nothing about what goes on inside it will visit this new building. It is bound to become an icon of the confidence and vitality of MIT.

Apart from looking different, how do MIT and Cambridge University compare? MIT is not a big university. It has about 4,400 undergraduates (compare Cambridge’s 11,000) and 5,500 graduate students (Cambridge has 4,500). Its campus is about the size of our West Cambridge development site, and significantly less than Cambridge University as a whole. The two universities employ about the same number of people. MIT has 8,000 employees on campus, Cambridge has 7,000 excluding college employees.

The first and most obvious difference is MIT’s concentration on engineering and the sciences. The Institute’s undergraduate population is dominated by engineers (63% of students) with the sciences next (25%) and management (5%), humanities (4%) and architecture (2%) trailing behind. Graduate students (about half each master’s and doctoral candidates) are more evenly divided, but still favour engineering (44%) over the sciences (22%), management (17%), architecture (10%) and the humanities (6%). In Cambridge the spread is much more even. MIT see the breadth of Cambridge as its strength. We see the depth of MIT in technology as its strength.

A fundamental difference between the USA and the UK is the availability of large private sources of wealth which benefactors are willing to give to good causes and particularly to the great American universities. Cambridge has succeeded in raising large sums by British standards, most recently from Microsoft (£12 million), BP (£25 million) and Marconi (£40 million), but large as these sums are, they are dwarfed by the funds that MIT can raise. A single private benefactor recently gave $100 million (about £63 million). It was an unrestricted gift at the start of MIT’s new capital campaign. The 21st century Campaign intends to raise $1.5 billion from MIT’s graduates and well-wishers. This will be largely uncommitted funding to improve faculty and student stipends, and build and renew laboratories and infrastructure.

In contrast, industrial gifts usually come with conditions. What is done with the gift has to show perceived benefits for the donor. To that extent the continuous process of renewal and rebuilding is easier for MIT than it is for Cambridge. MIT can plan further ahead. Cambridge is driven by the wheel of fund-raising fortune. For example, Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy may find its place on the West Cambridge site plan taken by an industrially-funded laboratory for another department.

And there are other differences. They stem from a different and more adventurous attitude to change.

I talked with my colleague Nam Suh, head of mechanical engineering at MIT. Professor Suh is Korean by birth and a specialist in engineering design. He has been head of his department for 10 years during which mechanical engineering’s focus has swung from the ‘old economy’ subjects to new topics like smart structures, communications, bio-materials and medical instrumentation. He sees the traditional mechanical areas as offering diminishing returns. Instead he encourages blue-sky speculative research in new fields or applied research working directly with industry. Research areas that are neither one thing nor the other are unlikely to bring major advances. I can summarise Professor Suh’s philosophy like this. Blue-sky work makes reputations, applied research brings in the money. And he is certainly successful at the latter.

Last year I was present during the annual review of associate professors for tenure. A committee of senior faculty members attend presentations by candidates for tenure and afterwards decide who will be retained. I was invited to join the committee for Mechanical Engineering. The tension during the presentations I attended was palpable. This was make or break time for the candidates, and for the majority of them it was break. MIT has a ruthless promotion procedure. The majority of young faculty members now fail to get tenure. Many have moved upwards from graduate student to research assistant to assistant professor to associate professor by their late 30s to find that it is time to move on. MIT doesn’t want them. In contrast, Cambridge takes a great deal of trouble with recruitment but gives tenure at an earlier age. Promotion to a personal chair is a tough road, but most people who work hard are reappointed to the retiring age after a three- or five-year probationary period.

Paradoxically, having found the best people, even MIT may have trouble keeping them. While I was visiting, a front page article in the Wall Street Journal ran the headline Faculty dropouts escalate as high-tech employment beckons. The substance of the article was that more university professors are leaving academia to join computer and internet ventures. Universities, MIT and Cambridge included, have to respond to this changing situation. Cornell and Stanford were quoted as allowing faculty members to take sabbatical leave to pursue their research interests. MIT has fairly strict rules, stricter than in Cambridge, that no faculty member can be an operating officer of a company. They can own companies and be non-executive directors or consultants, but they must make a return of how much time a year they devote to outside work. The limit is one day per week but, as Nam Suh pointed out, the definition of a day (8 hours or 16?) and of a week (5 days or 7?) is appropriately imprecise and he prefers it that way. His view is that it is right that academics should not be operating officers because they are generally good on ideas but poor on business skills and it is much better to have skilled business people running companies than academics. Professor Suh is proud of his own company which sells design technology to the plastics industry and currently employs about 40 PhDs.

His experience is not greatly different from mine in Cambridge. Already this year, two faculty members of the Cambridge Engineering Department have resigned and another has requested leave. They all want to pursue their outside interests in communications and the internet. One senior professor is working half-time while he directs research for a rapidly-growing software company, other fulltime colleagues have major research or consulting roles in industry, several own spin-off companies, and some have become independently wealthy in the last few years. That is what is happening everywhere in the main engineering universities.

MIT’s Dean of Engineering, Tom Magnanti, has this mission statement for his School of Engineering: Leadership through technical excellence in innovation. One facet of that is educational programmes which directly address product development and commercialization. MIT’s Leaders for Manufacturing and System Design and Management programmes have recently been combined. They are designed for practising engineers who have to complete about a dozen courses which are a mixture of engineering and management subjects, with leadership and team-working modules interwoven. Courses are taken either as resident students or by distance learning classes. Some MIT courses are broadcast in real time to company sites by multipoint videoconferencing. Others are distributed by mailing videotapes and setting up video-conferencing discussion groups with the course instructor. We plan to adopt these courses in Cambridge as part of the collaboration agreement as well as sharing practical entrepreneurship courses run by MIT’s School of Management.

The challenges that face Cambridge are largely the same as those that face MIT. Tom Magnanti has a list.

  • Support basic research yet work more closely with industry.

  • Emphasize scientific fundamentals and rigorous analysis, yet encourage creativity and make the curriculum broader.

  • Give faculty members autonomy to pursue their own interests, yet ensure that they work together with common goals to innovate and respond to changing technological priorities.

  • Attract the brightest and best students and make engineering exciting for them by collaborative projects and creative activities.

  • Reduce the time stress on faculty.

  • Do new things without over-stressing the faculty.

  • Reaffirm traditional values yet innovate and cut costs.

These are enormously difficult to manage, many of them completely contradictory. Yet we have to respond as imaginatively as we can, and it is certainly good to have the advantage of sharing problems and solutions where attitudes are more adventurous than we are used to and traditions less firmly ingrained.

Of course our collaboration is not nearly as one-sided as perhaps I may appear to have suggested. We should not underestimate the scholarship of Cambridge, our fine undergraduate courses, our strong PhD candidates, and the many splendid faculty members we have here. My colleagues at MIT see these as most valuable assets. The cultural breadth and strength of Cambridge University is a tremendous attraction to them. They have great respect for us. Offering undergraduates the opportunity of a year’s study in Cambridge is seen as a highly desirable feature of the collaboration. It will help MIT to recruit the best undergraduates in America.

While I was visiting MIT, I attended a colloquium on the future of civil and environmental engineering (http://web.mit.edu/civenv/www/colloquium.html). There was an invited audience from industry and academia. One of my suggestions to the colloquium was that foreign internships should become an accepted part of all degree programmes in engineering. I believe that the mutual respect that stems from international exchanges is an important part of the educational process. The need for this was illustrated during the colloquium. Our plans for the MIT–Cambridge collaboration and its implications were discussed. A visitor from Ghana took the microphone to ask whether this would lead to further exploitation of the under-developed world by the west. Would knowledge be managed by a network of universities and distributed to the rest of the world as its custodians chose? It was hard to reassure him. Inter-university collaboration has started and is here to stay. We need to recognise the global anxieties that it will bring, as well as the benefits.

Will the MIT–Cambridge collaboration work? Gordon Brown’s intended goals are primarily related to improving entrepreneurship, productivity and competitiveness in the UK. They include developing linked research programmes on new technology and achieving cultural change by exchanging students and faculty members. The intention is that Cambridge will be the hub of a network to spread the benefits of the collaboration to the whole of the UK. But I believe that the greatest benefit will be capturing the intangible spirit of MIT. The attitudes at MIT are different. Their ability to approach innovation positively, to respond fast to changing technology, and to embrace the future with enthusiasm are American traits. That is the spirit of MIT.

Postscript

The MIT Museum sells an accurately painted tin box which models MIT’s domed main Building 10, heart of the campus. At a dinner that I attended to mark the 135th anniversary of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, every diner received one of these models as a memento. The model reminded me that each end of Building 10 is embellished with the names of past heroes of technology and science. Pride of place goes to our two Cambridge alumni Newton and Darwin. On turning the model building upside down, I was pleased to read that it had been made in England!

David Newland FREng
Head of The Cambridge University Engineering Department

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