The author chronicles her five years as dean of students and undergraduate education at MIT (1995–2000) to show how one of the world’s great seats of technical knowledge struggled with the impact of its own principal product: innovation.
Williams is the granddaughter of Warren Kendall Lewis, who came to MIT in 1901 hoping to take some knowledge of agronomy back to his Delaware family farm. Instead, he stayed to teach and shape a renowned chemical engineering curriculum that ultimately helped hasten the demise of thousands of small farms. His granddaughter uses this family tale as a parable for technological change reverberating in ways unforeseen even by those who labor to foster it. She portrays MIT in the ’90s as an institution with an unparalleled engineering tradition at its core that had an increasing number of students more interested in acquiring the abstract skills of manipulating computer code and electronic information than in building bridges, airplanes, and oil refineries. Suddenly, it was unclear exactly what an engineer was or was supposed to do. Falling back on the broadest possible definition of an engineer as a person who “solves problems” was only a little help as the faculty and administration tried to bridge apparent gaps in both curricula and the university community. To make matters worse, the school’s costs and revenues were taking separate paths; insolvency was a projectible fact. Williams (now director of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society) goes on to detail the “retooling” of MIT in terms of new organizational structures and goals that include a formal corporate “reengineering” project that, to her surprise, got much stiff resistance inside the university. Millions were spent on accounting software to just to stay even; efficiency measures threatened to depersonalize processes at every turn, and those biased in favor of innovation merely for its own sake had to be identified and brought on the carpet.
An epic account of the struggle to humanize engineering education.