Twofish's Blog

August 7, 2006

Another MIT story

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology, wikipedia — twofish @ 2:02 am

Earlier I talked about working with one of the deans of MIT in 1991. Since she is something of a public figure and since she has been dead for such a long time, I don’t think that it would harm anything to mention that I’m referring to Margaret MacVicar (class of 1965) who was Dean of Undergraduate Education until her early death due to breast cancer around 1992.

I remember the first time I met her. I was chief of the Course Evaluation Guide and I did a lot of data production. CEG had (and still has) an interesting role at MIT, because teacher evaluation is something that is politically too sensitive to be handled by anyone in the administration so its done by a student group, and being part of the group got me very familar with the politics of academia. Anyway, because I was a relative low person in the Undergraduate Association, I rarely got to talk to the deans. But MacVicar had asked for some custom reports and I got them for her.

The first time we met face to face, she played an interesting mind game. One thing that I’ve learned is that any person in middle or upper management learns a whole host of mind games, and tricks, and I could tell that one was being used on me. First she mentioned that she was glad that I had made those custom reports, and that if I needed any money that she has some spare amount in her budget. I thank her nicely. No reaction. I’m not motivated by money. Second, she mentioned how the information that I provided was going to be used by the deans and how important a part that was. No reaction. I’m not motivated by power.


She mentioned how important my data was to changing the culture of MIT. Boom, I bit the hook and she just needed to reel me in. I’m not motivated by money. I’m not motivated by power. I *am* motivated by glory, and the second she saw something in my eyes, she started talking about educational reform, the problem of lack of humanities, etc. etc. One phrase that she mentioned is “we are going to lead the revolution.” Interesting to hear a Dean say that.

But there was a problem…. Her use of CEG data involved some wild scheme that involved getting the a ccreditators to force MIT to list course work hours correctly. Once the hours were listed correctly, then it would have been obvious that MIT was wildly under accreditation requirements for humanities, and this would have forced the science and engineering types to move things more to humanities. The problem with the scheme (which I understood, but I didn’t think that I could let her know because she was a dean and I wasn’t) is that the science and engineering types at MIT were too politically powerful. Even if you had brought the accreditators into the picture, they would not have backed down. Her idea of increasing the work load of the humanities courses to match the hours and causing a student backlash against science and engineering was equally hare-brained. (I’m sorry to be so blunt, but its true.)

So when I got rejected from MIT and Harvard grad schools because I spend too much time on the humanities, and also refused to overwork myself, I was unhappy. Part of my rant, was a point by point discussion of the political realities at MIT, with the conclusion that Dean MacVicar was very well meaning, but her efforts at changing the system were useless, because they underestimated some of the political strengths and motivations of people enforcing the status quo.

I phrased it very bluntly because I was angry. I did not know she had terminal breast cancer when I wrote the letter, and my stomach dropped when someone at the Undergraduate Academic Support Office mentioned it a few weeks later.

And the remaining story of education reform at MIT in the early nineties is predictable. Some minor changes of no consequence. Victory declared. End of story.

Except the story doesn’t end. Dean MacVicar died over a decade ago. I’m still angry, and I still want a revolution.

One of the things I’ve learned is that you cannot change an entrenched bureaucratic system from within. It just won’t happen. For something to happen, you need to scare the living daylights out of the people in power. One of the facts that I mentioned to the person from Olin College at Wikimania was about the talk that Professor Woody Flowers at the 2006 reunion gave about the MIT engineering curriculum. His point was that in order to stay relevant, MIT needs to fundamentally change its engineering curriculum to face challengers such as Olin College and a hypothetical engineering school that Harvard has the money to build. Professor Flowers wants MIT to be scared of Olin College. MIT *should be* scared of Olin, and unless MIT is made of dumber people than I think, MIT *IS* scared of Olin.


You should see now, why I don’t think it is unreasonable to talk about Wikiversity challenging Harvard. One thing I’ve learned being on the other side of the interview and admissions table, is that entrenched bureaucracies do all sorts of mind tricks to make themselves more powerful than they are. For example, at a job interview, the interviewers know everything about you in your resume. Wouldn’t it be fair, if the interviewers gave you their resumes so that you know their job histories? Entrenched institutions rely on information asymmetry, which is why blogging and wikis is a bad thing since it makes the information situation more symmetric, thereby destroying the illusion. Once you really understand the basis of power that the elite schools have and their weaknesses, challenging them no longer looks impossible, merely very difficult. One of the things that you need to understand is that in the elite schools, there are huge numbers of people that are as angry/annoyed/resentful as I am, and they are looking for some external force to force change. The fact that the Harvard Law School has been as generous as they have toward wikimania should make you wonder, why? And the answer is that system works just as badly for people inside the system as it does for people on the outside.

One final thing. Something that I always wished was that I understood more about how Margaret MacVicar senior class of 1965 turned into Margaret MacVicar, Dean of Undergraduate Education at MIT or for that matter the process that turned Paul Grey from senior, class of 1954 to President of MIT 1980. I’m also interested in the process that turned the “fairy princess” from someone I hated and resented and couldn’t communicate with as an entry tutor to someone I hate and resent and can communicate with as a very high level administrator at a major university. I’m interested in their lives, because I know my life, and I wonder what I did wrong that the “fairy princess” is still in the running for being president of a major elite institution (i.e. Harvard, Yale) in twenty years, whereas I’m not.

I see the resume, but what did it feel like? What were the trade-offs? What were the stories? What was the regret? I also wonder what Dean MacVicar’s reaction to my letter was, or the “fairy princesses” reaction to my letter to her.

Would have been much easier if they had blogs…..



  1. Margaret MacVicar was my advisor at MIT from 1973 to 1976. I don’t remember her playing any mindgames, but she had a unique way of answering questions. I would ask a question and she would give the answer to the question I should have asked. She left it to me to infer what that question was.

    Comment by Paul Ackman — August 14, 2006 @ 7:29 pm

  2. I saw Dean MacVicar from a very different perspective. I was working as a low level bureaucrat in the Undergraduate Association working on the Course Evaluation Guide, and from my point of view a Dean was like the gods on Olympus. It was actually rather intimidating to talk to her, much less disagree with her, not because of anything that she said or did, but simply because of the different social positions we occupied.

    Curiously, this view was actually reinforced by student politics. The people at the higher levels of the UA got a rather large amount of their power because they had access to the university administration, and so it was actually in the interest of the UA officers to portray the administration as gods on Olympus.

    I did get the sense that there was a lot of sniping back and forth among the administrators, and my main goal as CEG chair was to keep one’s heads down so we didn’t get burned in the administrative politics at the time.

    The thing that I kept having to remind myself was that Dean MacVicar was a senior at MIT in 1965, and I always wondered about the process that turned an ordinary undergraduate into either a Dean or president of the university.

    Comment by twofish — August 14, 2006 @ 7:55 pm

  3. Just some more comments….

    Anyone who is interested might want to do a google for Wikiversity. A lot of the way that I think that the undergraduate physics program ought to be restructured is based on the MIT UROP program. You make undergraduate research the centerpiece and then the classes are just to support the research.

    One thing that irks me greatly is how MIT says all sorts of nice things about MacVicar while totally undermining the vision that she had for undergraduate education. One of the first things that they did after she died was to abolish her office, and combine with the the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs which totally made it powerless. Even today, the reformed office of the Dean of Undergraduate Education has no authority in talking abou t the undergraduate curriculum, which moves the power to determine curriculum into the departments. MacVicar I think onces said that her office was the conscience of MIT when it came to undergraduate education. Without that office (and someone that could fight the bureaucratic battles the way that she could), these just lose their moorings.

    When we last spoke in 1991, she was literally talking about a student revolution, and a fundamental way that MIT did things. I think she had also come to the realization that nothing in curriculum reform would ever come without an outside force, although I think she misidentified the outside force (she thought it could be the accreditators).

    One of the memories I have of Dean MacVicar is her standing in front of her desk. It was a large desk, and she wasn’t a very large woman, and now that I think about it, the feeling that I get is a sense of how sad it was, that she seemed to be extremely isolated. Also, I remember the meeting in which she started talking about the CEG numbers to people from the departments, and the sense I got was that they were being rather rude to her, which didn’t seem to faze her.

    What basically happened was that the curriculum reform movement of the late 1980’s at MIT basically died with MacVicar. They added a biology requirement, but nothing changed. The reason I think that this is having new life is that I think that there is a real sense that both MIT and academia is in crisis. Basically (and we need to get this discussion out of the halls of MIT if anything is going to happen), there is a very real sense that MIT is not teaching engineering students the skills that they really need to be effective in the work force.

    The thing that really lit a fire under me was Woodie Flowers speech at Technology Day 2006. I wish someone would stream the entire speech online since it was really “fire and brimstone” and the MIT news excerpts really got rid of the interesting parts.

    Comment by twofish — August 14, 2006 @ 9:00 pm

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