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Thomas L. Magnanti, Ph.D, was dean of MIT’s engineering school for eight and half years until midnight July 22. The day before, he tossed out the ceremonial first pitch at a Red Sox game because he wanted to do it as engineering dean. Currently, he is one of 14 Institute Professors at MIT, the school's most prestigious, and has been on the faculty since 1971. He is an expert in applied and theoretical aspects of large-scale optimization. Among many accolades, he is credited with starting several new majors and programs. He is a big fan of “learning by doing.” DN Editor-in-Chief John Dodge caught up with him recently in his office, four floors above MIT’s main and fabled thoroughfare, the “Infinite Corridor.”
Q: How is higher education in U.S. engineering doing?
Magnanti: I think the instruction is quite good although there’s considerable concern, consternation and debate. [Schools] are innovating and trying to create better education and more learning by doing. Where we have a problem is we are not attracting enough students to science and technology. We’re not inspiring the students toward science and technology.
Q: Maybe we hear more from disgruntled engineers, but many say the last thing they would do is recommend an engineering career to their son or daughter. With a high bar to entry and a rocky jobs market, there is a cynicism among engineers. Do you hear that?
Magnanti: Not a lot. Our alumni are not standard alumni from across the country. We need to make sure the engineers are flexible and portable enough to move from job to job. There are so many exciting opportunities. The world is very different from a few years ago because of technology. We see a lot in the energy, biotechnology and electronics fields.
Q: You mentioned mobility. What does MIT do to educate and train engineers so they are equipped for the fourth or fifth job? We hear engineering schools do a great job training for their first job only.
Magnanti: MIT is a bit different. We are sometimes criticized for not training students well for their first job. We educate them for a lifetime of jobs. We tend to teach the fundamentals and give them a good foundation. We teach problem solving that in some ways is pretty generic. We tend not to teach more day-to-day skills. A lot of places teach day-to-day skills for an entry-level job. Because of that, our folks tend to be pretty mobile. It’s a problem-solving and engineering approach to the world they bring rather than a specific set of knowledge that is not portable. That said, we have made significant changes to curriculum. We have always been very strong in engineering and science, but could do a better job in terms of practice. So we put in place a new program about five years ago for sophomores, which is called UPOP (Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program). It’s an industrial-type intensive course that tries to give our students some sense of what engineering practice is all about. You’ve got to create products and processes. You’ve got to market and finance those products and negotiate contracts. One of the interesting things is that the [instructors for this course] are people from the industry who are intensively sitting with the students for a week around the clock. Some senior engineers come back and love to spend a week with our students. We are trying to provide more rounding to our education and give students a better sense as they engage in terms of practice.
Q: Is there a crisis in engineering education today?
Magnanti: There’s a national crisis in conveying the fact that engineering is inspiring and exciting to attract people [into it]. We also have large drop-out rates. Last I recall, 50 percent of all engineering students leave that program before they complete it. It’s really hard stuff. We have not made it exciting enough.
Q: What do you think the answer is?
Maganti: [The answer is] putting what we are teaching in context and providing programs like UPOP and more hands-on learning – project-based courses, internships and learning by doing. Over time, that will remedy the crisis. The National Academies issued a report, The Gathering Storm and found the right incentives, courses, curriculum and government policies [will] improve the system.
Q: Did you revamp MIT’s curriculum when you were dean of the engineering?
Magnanti: UPOP was a big thing we did. We started 11 new majors in undergraduate and graduate [studies]. The thought was to provide more opportunities for students. One was an undergraduate program called biological engineering, which was MIT’s first new undergraduate program in a couple of decades. It was started two years ago. At the graduate level, we introduced a new program called computation for design and optimization. We put in place a new major called engineering systems that doesn't just look at products and components, but looks more broadly on how they impact large technical systems [such as] transportation, energy and manufacturing. How do you get your arms around it? How do you design it? How do you manage and operate it? How do you bring engineering thinking to design and innovation? There were a number of innovations where we think we responded to societal needs.
Q: MIT is a huge research university. Is research in conflict with teaching?
Magnanti: People are often surprised that the instruction here is so good. There’s a mental image of MIT as a research machine and that no one cares about education. We’re under enormous time pressure to do research, teaching, public service and interviews like this one here. The very best of our faculty does that extremely well. And they care about education. It’s quite interesting to speak to our president Susan Hockfield, who came from Yale - a very different place that focuses on the humanities and social sciences. She was surprised about the focus our community puts on education and the commitment the faculty makes. When she first came to meet with our leadership team when I was dean, the first thing they wanted to talk to her about was teaching and education, not about research.
Q: What did she want to talk about?
Magnanti: She just wanted to learn what we were doing. What’s this place called MIT? Our faculty spends a lot of time thinking about education. Clearly there are extremes. We have some who are extraordinary researchers whose communications are not particularly good. And there are other people who are extraordinary teachers and are not very good researchers. But most of the folks at our place and I would say this is true of most places do both very well. And that surprises people. Education means many things to us. It’s not just classroom instruction. It’s mentoring and engaging young people and working collaboratively with them. About 90 percent of the undergraduates engage in a research project with faculty and graduate students. Many alumni, when they reflect back on their time at MIT, they say one of two things had a profound impact on their thinking: One was UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the research cousin to UPOP) and the second is internships.
Q: What kind of impact do UROP and UPOP have on pushing students toward entrepreneurship as opposed to getting a steady paycheck with a big company?
Magnanti: UROP would tend to push them more toward the research enterprise. UPOP serves both large and small companies. Last century was the [era] of the large – electric power generation, the interstate highway and petroleum refining, which are large technologies, large engagements and the evolution of large corporations, the Shells and GMs of the world. Before 1900, most manufacturing was crafts-based, done in small environments. You can make an argument and it may be a bit of overstatement that this is the century of the small — bio-engineering, proteins and cells, micro and nano technologies. Also, there is increased interest in joining and starting small companies. That’s not to say large companies won’t attract their fair share [of engineers]. You see a larger portion of them going to a large company for a few years and then joining a small company.
Q: What do you do to encourage entrepreneurship?
Magnanti: MIT has had an incredible impact on the world. MIT would be the 24th largest economy in the world (source: MIT: The Impact of Innovation Study, 1994) because of its engineering tradition. Entrepreneurial activity is part of our genes. About five years ago, we founded a new research center called Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The premise was that there’s lots of great research ideas at MIT that never make it to the marketplace because we did not have mechanisms in place. The Center funds incipient next-generation technology from faculty and students. Each project is reviewed by venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, faculty and staff. Entrepreneurs will serve as mentors on the projects. We’ve turned out more than 10 companies that have been successful.
Q: How is MIT different from other engineering schools?
Magnanti: We’re actually very privileged. I am very privileged. We created a brand name to the world that attracts extraordinary talent. It attracts resources as well. Government agencies and entrepreneurs want to invest in this place. We’re also privileged to be in the Boston-Cambridge-Route 128 ecosystem, which not all schools have. We have access to venture capital, the press, technology and corporations like Silicon Valley and Research Triangle Park. There a few places in the country that have this extraordinary ecosystem with Harvard, BU and all the other great institutions. Each university has to have its own approach to address these sets of issues. Schools in more remote areas have the wherewithal to do entrepreneurial activities, but not on the same scale.
Q: There’s always this intense pressure to keep great faculty. Does MIT cater more to the professors or the students?
Magnanti: We have this virtual cycle thing. Why do the best faculty come to MIT? Because we have best students. Why do the best students come here? Because we have the best faculty. [At the same time], one has to realize that the faculty is permanent and the students are transient. Some faculty members are here 40 years. You develop a different longstanding relationship with faculty. Some people think we care about the faculty and not the students. You can’t run a first-class research university without caring about both.
Q: Is tenure bad or good?
Magnanti: Tenure is wonderful. The reason it’s wonderful is not the reason that is often articulated. It’s wonderful because it causes really great universities to make very difficult decisions. Everyone who comes into this place is outstanding. If you didn’t have tenure, you’d tend to keep everybody. It presses the bar up and sustains the quality of the faculty.
Q: So until you have tenure, you are on probation?
Magnanti: You are on probation.
Q: When does it come up?
Magnanti: Usually every 6-7 years. There’s the mental image that once they get tenure, they don’t care anymore. They get a free ride. In fact, surveys we’ve done show they work harder. All institutions have a spectrum of folks, but for us, the number of people not contributing long term is very small. Hopefully, we provide an environment that permits people to flourish and for an old grazer like me to do things.
Q: How long have you been here?
Magnanti: 36 years.
Q: Are there people who went to school here and never left?
Magnanti: President Paul Gray was an undergrad here, then a grad student, then in administration, then president and chairman of the board. I’m just holding on to make 50 years as a faculty member if I can hang out for 14 more. This is a remarkably engaging and appealing place. We’re fortunate because we have this brand name and constant flow of interesting people and ideas through here. There’s something magical about touching the leaves in Cambridge, MA, something in the environment. It’s not just MIT. It’s pretty special.
Q: When I came into this building, I came via the “Infinite Corridor.” That’s a breathless name. What is the Infinite Corridor?
Magnanti: When this campus was designed and built in 1916, the campus was where everyone came together and essentially is one big building. Then there’s a u-shaped set of buildings that were all connected. The notion was we were going to be one faculty all working and collaborating together. Because of that, we created a big long building and hallway. Because we are sort of techie, it became known as the infinite corridor. Now there are buildings all over the place. I was out here a couple of days ago and there were 15 people just standing there. I said, “What are you doing?” They said “We are waiting for the sun because there’s a certain moment when the sun shines down the Infinite Corridor and it looks like a laser beam.” It’s quite a spectacle. It’s part of the MIT folklore that we have this corridor called the Infinite Corridor where lots of engineers and scientists of our generation and past generations have passed through. It’s a very special place.
Q: As a former dean and after 36 years at MIT, what would be your prescription to bring engineering education out of crisis? If you could wave a magic wand and fix it, what would you do?
Magnanti: I’ll give you two or three [things]. One is trying balance the fundamentals with the world in practice … learning by doing, internships, project engagements and the like. At the national level, the government needs to invest and fuel universities with research programs. The Sputnik era’s National Defense Education Act helped educate an enormous number of scientists and engineers in the sixties. Now, we need a new act called the National Education and Innovation Act, which would provide yearly fellowships.
The third is inspiration. We need more. We know all about lawyers from Boston Legal and LA Law. I don’t watch Boston legal, but I hear about it. We need a program called Route 128 Engineering or Detroit Manufacturing that glamorizes engineering. The engineer guy gets the girl and engineering girls get the guy. I have this dream for a project we have called Open Courseware for secondary education to get some signature companies like Intel, GM and HP to go on TV during the Super Bowl and say “Jimmy and Janey, you want a job at a great company like HP? Go to the Open Courseware site and [start] learning science and technology.”
Q: What is Open Courseware?
Magnanti: Open Courseware are MIT courses. In November, we announced a new initiative called Highlights for High Schools, which tries to provide access to MIT material for high school students in a way that will be easily accessible and engaging. In a period of a month and a half, we’re closing in on 100,000 visitors to the site already. They are not courses, but are educational materials for teachers and students. If you are a student studying a particular topic in biology, [this will contain] the relevant MIT material for the [student and teacher].
Q: What is the purpose of Open Courseware?
Magnanti: The purpose is to share MIT’s curriculum, knowledge and philosophy. It’s a free open portal. Open Courseware for high schools [serves] the same purpose for high school students. Some people feel MIT is too forbidden and abstract and advanced for them. Clearly some of the material at MIT is not for everybody, but a lot of it is. If it’s catchy and portrayed in the right way, it can be used by lots of students. I am hopeful we will see students use it every month.