Every now and then you get into a conversation and then a ghost appears.
In 1991, I had some brief conversations with Dean MacVicar about fundamentally changing the structure of undergraduate education at MIT. We just talked briefly, and I was frankly scared of her because she was a dean and I was a senior then, and looking back, I’m not sure she completely trusted me. But what she was thinking about and plotting was far more radical than anything that had been done at the time. She was talking to me in terms of student committees to review curriculum, and through a series of careful questions, I think she had me pegged as a fellow revolutionary.
Tactically, what she was trying to do was to get the departments to accurately describe the number of hours that each class took in the bulletin and to use the Course Evaluation Guide to enforce accuracy. The result of this would have been that MIT would have been far over-hours in science and engineering and far under hours in humanities, which would have gotten the regional accreditators involved. The subtext of this was that the departments at MIT deeply wanted control over the curriculum, and was not about to allow a external dean have any sort of influence on that. Personally, I thought what she was trying was totally crazy and would not work, but I was too afraid to mention that.
However, when I got a letter from Vice-Provost Jay Keyser, the same day I got my rejection letter from MIT graduate school, I let loose a tirade, which I cc’d to Dean MacVicar. One thing that I said was that she was very well meaning, but her attempts at changing the undergraduate education system at MIT was doomed, because the system was too strong and everything that she was working for would in the end come to nothing in the end.
I found out a few weeks later that she had terminal cancer, and we never spoke after that. I’ve always wondered what she thought about what I wrote.
One of the things that I realized, and which I think Dean MacVicar was begining to realize was that you cannot change things from within the system. The reason she was talking in terms of getting the regional accreditators to force change at MIT was that I think she had come to the realization that nothing ever was going to happen unless there was some outside force. One of the limitations that Dean MacVicar had was that she had spent her entire life on the MIT campus, and I don’t think she had that much experience on the outside.
The last thing that she said to me the first time we spoke to each other in her office was, “we are going to lead the revolution, and things are really going to change around here.”
Yes we are, Dean MacVicar. Yes we are.