WPI Journal

December 1996

Making a Difference

I stand before you to accept the office of president. I pledge to uphold the standards established by my predecessors and to do my utmost to maintain the high quality of this great institution. My confidence in accepting this charge is fortified by the presence of a strong and dedicated faculty, a committed staff, and loyal students and alumni, who together provide the administration an able partner with which to meet the demands and to seize the opportunities of the future.

Today's ceremony honors WPI and its founders, as well as the entire WPI community - past and present. The founding principles established by John Boynton and Ichabod Washburn still serve this institution well today. Since WPI is the third oldest private university of engineering and science in the United States, these principles have bee n in place for a very long time.

It is appropriate here to reflect on the formative years of WPI. Through the generosity of Boynton, Washburn and the citizens of Worcester, WPI was chartered officially on May 10, 1865. Our first two buildings, Boynton Hall and the Washburn Shops, greeted incoming students about three years later. They went to classes in Boynton Hall and put theory into practice in the Washburn Shops. The towers of these two buildings came to symbolize the balance of theory and practice that has been at the heart of WPI's educational philosophy ever since, and so was born the Two Towers Tradition. This philosophy became the basis for many of the well-known engineering schools established in the latter part of the 19th century, including Georgia Institute of Technology and Rose-Hulman University. Thus, even in its youth, WPI was already making a difference far beyond its own campus.

On the occasion of his inauguration on Oct. 22, 1925, President Ralph Earle spoke of WPI's close relationship with local manufacturing industries. "All these industries have kept pace with the work of the world, they are in the forefront of mechanical adv ance," he said. "With all are connected graduates of this college, for in both high and low degree they are identified with Worcester's place in our industrial world, while 80 percent of our graduates are doing men's work in other cities of our nation." I t is clear from his remarks that WPI's graduates were also making a difference.

Twenty-five years ago, the faculty of WPI extended the Two Towers tradition in a bold new approach to undergraduate technological education that continues today. Called the WPI Plan, this program combines traditional course work and laboratory instruction with three mandatory projects that challenge student teams to cope with open-ended issues. For the benefit of our guests, let me briefly explain.

The first project is called the Sufficiency. Science and engineering students must complete a project on a theme emerging from an elective series of courses in the humanities or arts; likewise, humanists must do a project in science or engineering. Second , all students must complete the Interactive Qualifying Project, whose domain is the intersection of science, technology and culture; the project emphasizes the impact of technology on society. Finally, they must complete the Major Qualifying Project, whi ch involves problems typical of those found in their professional disciplines and which often addresses economical, ethical and safety issues. These qualifying projects are far from trivial; each requires a substantial part of an academic year. Frequently , projects are sponsored by outside agencies to whom students must present their oral and written reports.

About 20 years ago, the faculty began developing off-campus project centers around the world that now range from London to San Francisco to Venice to South America to Thailand. WPI students have many opportunities to work in teams for a seven-week term at one of these residential project centers. Often their projects contribute to solving complex problems of a local community. Further, under faculty guidance, graduate students here on campus are engaged in leading-edge research with outcomes that contribu te to the solution of vexing problems and to the nation's wealth of knowledge. Here, then, we see WPI students making a difference.

Today, we hear clarion calls for massive changes in higher education. Industry has been especially vocal, asserting that there is too much science in technological curricula. The belief is that graduates are well-grounded in theory, but are unprepared for practice. Furthermore, there are calls for a broad technological education, what I refer to as the new liberal education, to enable graduates to adapt to new technologies and unforeseen branches in career paths. The rapidly changing global marketplace is resulting in growing competition among nations and now adds a new dimension to educational requirements. This afternoon's symposium will provide another forum for raising these and other issues. [See Getting on With the Job of Change, a report on the symposium.]

As a result of these growing concerns, several national studies have led to specific recommendations. Among those repeated most often are the following: incorporate hands-on experiences into programs rather than rely just on the classroom; develop teamwor k as well as individual capabilities; improve students' communication skills; provide the broad education necessary for students to understand the impact of technology in a global societal context; and instill a recognition of the need for and an ability to engage in lifelong learning. As one of a relatively small number of technological universities in the country, I believe WPI has a special responsibility in helping to meet these challenges.

It is in these challenges that I envision great opportunities for WPI over the next decade. Because of the foresight of the faculty a quarter century ago, the WPI Plan already is the manifestation of the recommendations being heard on the national scene. This suggests to me that WPI can be recognized as a world leader among comprehensive, technological institutions in providing the new liberal education. For example, regional and specialized accreditation bodies are bringing their standards into conforman ce with these recommended changes, in effect reflecting key attributes of the WPI Plan. This fall WPI will participate in one of two experimental evaluations being conducted by the agency that accredits engineering programs. These visits will be the bases for case studies to be used for training purposes within the agency and by other institutions that will undergo evaluations in the future.

As another example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has proposed a new Education Category under the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The draft education criteria parallel those of the existing Baldrige Award and are based upon c ore values that are at the very heart of WPI: learning-centered education and leadership. Here again, the principal concern is with outcomes, and so the WPI Plan would appear a natural fit. This is strong confirmation that the educational philosophy bound up in the Two Towers Tradition is likely to be widely recognized and adopted.

My point in mentioning these examples is to say that this institution has been quietly (too quietly, in fact) out in front for many years. Thus, I believe that WPI is positioned to lead the cultural change that will be required of faculties across the cou ntry to implement what for them will be a new approach to education.

A cultural change is indeed required, as many faculty members are not accustomed to spending quality time with undergraduate students - especially directing student teams engaged in meaningful project work. About six years ago the National Science Foundatio n established several coalitions to address educational reform. Thus far, over $100 million has been expended in support of some 60 institutions. A progress report last month indicated considerable difficulty in assessing outcomes of these new programs, a long with organizational problems.

The most telling difficulty, however, was embodied in statements like, "We have learned that faculty members are key to establishing educational reform, but that they often prefer not to participate in the process. While deans may see the need for change, the faculty, as a whole, often does not." Another states, "Our biggest problems have been dealing with the educational community's overall resistance to change and with the structures of the universities that inhibit innovation."

WPI solved many of these problems years ago and by leading the cultural change will again be making a difference. We can begin to do so, for example, through additional faculty presentations on pedagogical research at national meetings, through a planned major education conference at WPI in response to this afternoon's symposium, and by offering workshops to faculty from other institutions.

We cannot afford to be complacent, however. As Will Rogers said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." We must continue to reduce costs as well as identify new resources to meet our future needs. Our efforts to ex pand the base of applicants for WPI's programs must be redoubled, with due attention to various diversity issues. The WPI Plan should be continuously improved, refined and extended to incorporate the freshman year and even the master's level within our gr aduate program. Our international programs should be strengthened, with even greater opportunities for students to develop cultural awareness and foreign language skills as part of their project work.

The graduate program also needs strategic examination and support to bring it more into the campus mainstream. We must continue to integrate our scholarly research and teaching efforts and to develop further concepts like ethics and academic honesty withi n all our educational programs. Beyond academics, we need to address additional quality-of-life issues on campus. For example, we badly need a campus center, a facility I believe was first proposed in 1925. Other strategic needs are being identified and w ill be prioritized in the coming year with the help of the entire WPI community.

In closing, I want to say to my faculty colleagues that, as individuals, you are our leaven for making a difference. You contribute as teachers, as advisors, as scholars, as role models, and as friends of your students. It is nearly impossible to measure your impact as it radiates through your students like ripples in a pond. Let me illustrate this point.

In my senior year, one of my teachers at the University of Virginia, Prof. Eugene McVey, asked me to join his research team and pursue graduate work. I had already accepted a job with the Newport News Shipyard and had never even considered graduate school . I gained release from the job commitment and went on to complete my master's and doctorate. This led to a faculty appointment; 10 years later, I was asked to chair the Department of Electrical Engineering. That, in turn, led to my becoming dean of the S chool of Engineering at Vanderbilt University. Finally, here I am today in the midst of this ceremony rather than at some dry-dock in Virginia. Clearly, Gene McVey changed my life. I have tried to repay him by mentoring my own students. Some of them are n ow faculty members who help their students, and so these ripples continue to propagate. Each member of this faculty is an important part of a similar dynamic.

I hope that as president I, too, can make a difference. However, realizing that I am the 14th president to serve WPI is sobering. It brings home the fact that each president has but a short time to hold the baton before passing it on to a successor. The obligation to take a long view that extends well beyond one's own tenure is thus very compelling. I intend to meet this obligation to the best of my ability. I look forward to working with the trustees, the provost and other officers, the faculty, the stud ents, the staff, and the alumni in turning our challenges into opportunities and, together, making a difference.


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