WPI Journal

October 1996

A Miracle at Worcester


By Michael W. Dorsey

More than 25 years ago, something quite remarkable happened on Boynton Hill. With a single vote of the faculty, WPI became a completely different kind of institution. The creation of the WPI Plan was the single most important event in WPI's recent history. This is the story of how, in the words of the Plan's founders, a good college became an excellent one.


"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..."
-- Me and Bobby McGee, Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, 1969
It was 1966, a time of turmoil and social upheaval. In the South, the struggle for racial equality raged. Across the Pacific in Southeast Asia, a bloody war dragged on, while back home demonstrators staged ever larger protest rallies, boycotts and moratoriums. Around the nation, a new generation was awakening to the realities of poverty, sexual inequality and environmental degradation. It was an age of transition, experimentation and excitement -- a time when anything might be possible.

For Professor William Grogan '46, all of that seemed a million miles away. WPI, where he had earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering (the former under the U.S. Navy's wartime V-12 officer training program) and to which he had devoted the last two decades of his life, was stuck in neutral. While change swirled all around it, the Institute on Boynton Hill seemed firmly anchored to the past. Grogan had had enough. It was time to get out -- to jump ship while the ship was still afloat. "I was a month away from leaving WPI and taking a post with the Navy Department in Washington," he says. "From my perspective, WPI was dead in the water. There was simply no reason to stick around."

In the few short years that marked the end of the '60's and the start of the '70's, WPI underwent an avalanche of change, culminating in the creation of the WPI Plan. The seeds of the Plan were sown by President Harry Storke (left); the remarkable program that grew from them was nurtured for two decades by Professor Bill Grogan (on our front cover).

Fortunately for Grogan and for WPI, his dissatisfaction was shared by a fellow military officer, retired Army Lieut. General Harry P. Storke. A 1926 West Point graduate, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, and the recently retired commander of NATO's land forces in southern Europe, Storke had become WPI's 10th president in 1962. He quickly sensed the stagnation that had taken hold of the Institute and decided -- for WPI's own good, and perhaps for its very survival -- he had to try to shake it out of its decades-long slumber.

It would take nearly 10 years to bring that goal to fruition. In that time, "Worcester Tech" would be turned inside out, becoming an educational institution unlike any other in the country. The roles of students and faculty members would completely change, as a traditional, rigid engineering school became a model of flexibility and innovation, one that still serves as a beacon to other educators.

Before it was over, Harry Storke would retire and WPI would inaugurate its 11th president. Many longtime faculty members would depart -- disgruntled or disheartened over what their beloved school had become. But Bill Grogan would remain. Tapped by Storke to begin the process of loosening up the curriculum, he would find a new reason to believe in his alma mater. He would go on to help create the spark that ignited a powder keg of change. And having turned WPI upside down, he would spend the better part of his academic career harnessing and channeling the force of that blast into a workable and effective educational program -- a program that would become known as the WPI Plan.

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