WPI Journal

October 1996

A Miracle at Worcester


By Michael W. Dorsey


"You can't always get what you want / But if you try sometimes / You just might find / You get what you need." -- Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1969
After the publication of the first report, an all-campus Planning Day was held to get input from the entire community on the 12 options. Several trustees, most of the faculty and many students came and met in small groups to voice their opinions and, in some cases, vent their frustrations and express their elation that a tidal wave of change seemed to have been set in motion. To assure that everyone could attend, Storke declared that all classes would be canceled for the day, something no one could recall ever having happened at WPI.

The committee continued to get input from the community through an ambitious series of meetings with faculty, administrators and students. In the process, committee members had dinner in every campus housing unit, including the fraternity houses. Their objective, Shipman says, was to be sure that anyone with a point to make or an idea to contribute would have a chance to voice it, and that in the end, no matter what form the committee's final recommendation might take, everyone would feel as if he had had a part in shaping it.

For Heventhal, this exhaustive procedure might be the greatest legacy of the Planning Committee. "When you read our reports, you will see that what we were really talking about was a process," he says. "This was just as important as creating an ideal vision for WPI. The process of planning was something WPI needed in a time of crisis. The community needed a way of looking at itself and at the possibilities for what it might become, and it needed to know that it had the power to bring about change."


As the spring ended, the committee completed its second report. Then it did something quite remarkable -- it disbanded. From the beginning, many committee members had been uncomfortable with the idea of a presidentially appointed committee creating a plan that would depend on faculty support for its success. In addition, the motivation for reform had come largely from the faculty, and the committee worried that as presidential appointees, their allegiances might seem suspect. Now, as the time came to move from a process to a final plan, these concerns grew especially acute, and the committee demanded to be reconstituted as a faculty-elected body.

Hearing the news, "Storke was horrified," van Alstyne says. "Armies are not run in a democratic manner." But he notes that the faculty was also becoming concerned over the dramatic -- perhaps radical -- course the committee seemed to be charting. As a result, few ran for election to the committee's six slots. Weininger, the demands of completing his textbook and of preparing his tenure file weighing heavily on his mind, chose not to serve again. When the votes were tallied, Shipman, van Alstyne, Heventhal and Boyd were re-elected, but Roadstrum was not. In a bit of poetic justice, the last two slots would be filled by two electrical engineering professors: Grogan, who had chaired the curriculum committee that had ignited the drive toward change, and Moruzzi, a member of the tenure committee that had unleashed the faculty governance system. Seaberg would remain executive secretary until that September, when his appointment as assistant director of admissions required that he step down.

"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
-- Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969
That summer, while Protestants and Catholics fought in Belfast, children starved in Biafra, young men died in the jungles of Vietnam, the "Chicago Eight" were tried in Judge Hoffman's courtroom, and Richard Nixon settled into the Oval Office, the faculty-elected Planning Committee sat down around the conference table in Stratton Hall and honed their ideas and proposals into "The Future of Two Towers, Part III: A Model," which contained the essence of what would later come to be called the WPI Plan. But lurking within its pages was what one committee member would later call "a poison pill."

In the report, the committee outlined an approach that united elements of several of the 12 options, with a heavy emphasis on the Oxford-Cambridge model. It devised a program in which the requirements for graduation were based on a student's ability to learn, and not on his or her ability to accumulate facts through courses. It included a liberal dose of project and independent study work to "provide realistic and intimate learning situations for both student and faculty."

Students would receive their degrees if they successfully completed advanced-level work on two projects (they strongly urged that at least one project be completed off campus), a two-year residency requirement, a comprehensive examination in a particular area of study, and two sufficiency exams in disciplines other than the area of the comprehensive exam. The model also stressed the importance of a culturally vital and intellectually stimulating community to the success of such a program. The committee summarized the philosophy of the model in the following goal statement, a version of which was adopted by vote of the faculty in December 1969:

"The WPI graduate of the future must have an understanding of a sector of science and technology and a mature understanding of himself and the needs of the people around him. While an undergraduate, he must demonstrate that he can learn and translate his learning into worthwhile action. He must learn to teach himself those things that are needed to make his actions socially significant. A WPI education should develop a strong degree of self-confidence, an eagerness to contribute to the community beyond oneself, and an intellectual restlessness, a spur to continual learning."

As the summer wore on, Shipman felt comfortable that the committee had accomplished its objective and should commit it to paper. The other committee members, however, thought they needed more time to sort out a slew of picky details that had to be resolved before the Plan could be declared functional. They arranged for a brief stay that July at the Fitzwilliam Inn just over the border in New Hampshire to complete their work. "I've often thought we should put a plaque up at that inn," Grogan says. "That's where we really hammered out the Plan."

On July 19, as Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to make their historic descent to the moon's surface, Dean Price and George Hazzard, who had just taken office as WPI's 11th president, arrived to hear about the emerging plan.

(By many reports, it was the work of the Planning Committee that turned the tide with Hazzard. A St. Lawrence University graduate with a Ph.D. in experimental physics and physical chemistry from Cornell, with experience in academia and industry, Hazzard had been involved in a national movement to reform physics teaching. Initially, he had been unimpressed with WPI. But after a meeting with the Planning Committee, he realized that the Institute had an opportunity to transform itself from an unexceptional college into a uniquely different one.

"That meeting took place in the Gordon Library Seminar Room," van Alstyne says. "Ironically, it was the same room where the Executive Committee had met to submit their long-range plans and where they had sat in shock when Storke told them he'd appointed the Planning Committee.")


After dinner, everyone retired to the living room of the inn for the presentation. The president and academic dean seemed enthusiastic; in fact, both men would become strong advocates for the Plan and critical forces to assure its passage and success. "Before he became dean, Cookie Price had taught for many years in the Mechanical Engineering Department. He was a member of the old guard," Weininger says. "But he was an open-minded person who was willing to entertain the idea of change -- even radical change. And because he enjoyed pretty much universal respect in the Institute, and because he was an insider with unassailable credentials, he was able to head off what could have been a lot of factional splitting and some pretty nasty infighting over the Plan. His moral authority kept the place together." Echoes Boyd, "It took an enormous act of faith for him to put the weight of his reputation behind this. I really respected him for that."

Keeping things together was much on the minds of committee members that fall when "Two Towers III" was released. The more the committee had thought about their model, which differed fundamentally from WPI's existing program, the more they realized that it could not be carried out successfully by the same organizational structure that had maintained that program far beyond its useful life. In the report, they outlined a new structure that placed the day-to-day operation of the academic program in the hands of a dean of program operations (much like the position of dean of undergraduate studies that was later established) and a dean of academic resources (much like the current position of provost), both of whom would report to the academic vice president.

But the truly explosive proposal -- the one that shocked the faculty as they returned that September from the summer hiatus -- was to abolish the academic departments and replace them with three academic divisions made up of functionally related study groups. The idea was to blast away the rigid, stifling departmental structure and promote faculty interaction across disciplines. To illustrate the concept, the committee included a detailed, fold-out organizational chart. "That almost killed the whole process," Grogan says. "It was an idea that was just too far ahead of its time."

"To dream the impossible dream, to reach the unreachable star."
-- Joe Darion, from Man of La Mancha, 1969
Following closely on the heels of the third report was a second all-campus Planning Day. The committee also called for the establishment of nine subcommittees, made up of 74 faculty members and 90 students, to explore various aspects of the proposed model. With considerable input from the community, the committee spent the better part of a year hammering out "The Future of Two Towers, Part IV: A Plan." The suggested reorganization of the college was dropped, but the model academic program was fleshed out into a dramatically different, but highly functional plan -- one that encapsulated the philosophy of education the committee had been refining.

The degree requirements were formalized into a Major Qualifying Project (MQP) -- a significant design or research experience in the student's major field; a second project, later dubbed the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), which encouraged students to understand how technology affects society -- for better or worse; the Comprehensive Exam (later renamed the Competency Exam to identify more clearly its real intent); and the Sufficiency.

The advocacy of Dean "Cookie" Price, left, and newly inaugurated president George Hazzard proved crucial to the Plan's passage and success.

The Sufficiency was the culmination of the committee's deep-seated desire to transform the role of the humanities in a WPI education. "When I arrived, the humanities program was quite limited and the department was really a service department," Heventhal says. "Occasionally we'd have a student who would have done well at any liberal arts college, who enjoyed the humanities courses so much that he was ready to transfer to another college. I felt as though these cases were really failures for WPI, because there was a potential to define a humanities and arts program that would accompany these technical people in their careers, and not merely stamp out English majors."

The Sufficiency greatly elevated the role of the humanities in the undergraduate curriculum (in fact, the humanities component of the Plan was to be given the same academic "weight" as the MQP and IQP combined). No longer could students of engineering and science regard the humanities courses as meaningless credits to be acquired. Consistent with the idea of giving students responsibility for their own learning, students chose a theme, explored it through five related humanities and arts courses, and then synthesized what they learned in a final project that could take the form of anything from a research paper to a play to a musical performance.

The committee also proposed a new academic calendar made up of four seven-week terms. The terms were designed to be conducive to project work, but were also meant to be short enough to force the faculty to break out of their traditional approach to teaching. There would be an "intersession" during the winter break, an opportunity for community members to teach brief courses on any topic that interested them or in which they had some expertise. (The first year, 440 mini-courses were offered. For the six years of its existence, Intersession would be one of the liveliest and most exciting elements of the young Plan.) Finally, there was a grading system with just three grades -- Acceptable, Acceptable with Distinction, and No Record (there was no failing grade, as the committee believed failure should be seen as an opportunity to learn and grow, and not a stigma permanently attached to one's transcript). The grading system represented a compromise between those, like Boyd, who preferred that there be no grades at all, and those, like Grogan, who feared the lack of a more traditional system would be problematic for students going on to graduate school.

"Two Towers IV," the last in the series, was published in April 1970. Unlike the previous three volumes, which had been bound with maroon covers, this one was wrapped in green. "We called it the 'Go Volume,'" Heventhal says. The publication kicked off an extraordinary series of 13 faculty meetings -- one every week -- to discuss and amend the final report, section by section. The meetings were boisterous, volatile and contentious. Strong feelings were voiced as the future of the Institute -- and the very foundation of education -- were debated in eloquent and passionate fashion. Remarkably, the discussion managed to stay focused on the issues, and rarely strayed into nastiness or personal attacks. "Voices were raised and tempers flared, but mutual respect was never breached," Boyd says. "Lifelong friendships were forged in that heat."

In between meetings, the discussion continued all over campus, especially at the daily 10 a.m. coffee hour in Salisbury Laboratories, a longtime ritual that provided a means of campus communication unrivaled by even today's wired campus, and at the Goat's Head Pub in the basement of Sanford Riley Hall, a popular place for faculty members, administrators and students to gather and socialize on Friday evenings. Two critical changes were made in the Plan: the inclusion of a physical education requirement and the stipulation that students achieve 12 units of credit before taking the Competency Exam (an amendment offered by Chemical Engineering Professor Wilmer Kranich to give the Plan a better sense of structure).

"It was difficult for the committee to listen to some of the criticism and there were times when we felt a bit discouraged," van Alstyne says. "But there were positive moments, too. I remember one meeting not long before the final vote when a senior member of the faculty, Professor Dick Cobb of the Math Department, rose to speak. I could see the smiles on the faces of the traditionalists, but those smiles quickly faded. Cobb, in his own well-reasoned way, supported the Plan as the best way for WPI to improve its standing and educational opportunities."

At another critical point, when a faculty member asked pointedly, "Who would hire a graduate of a program like this?" Howard Freeman '40, a WPI graduate, a recently elected member of the WPI Board of Trustees, and the founder and chairman of Jamesbury Corporation, a successful Worcester manufacturer of valves, ended the discussion by responding in a calm, quiet voice, "I would."

On May 29, 1970, the time came for a vote. The committee had asked that there be one all-or-nothing, up-or-down decision, to avoid the piecemeal recasting of their vision. While their reading of the faculty told them that the odds were in their favor, the tension was still high as the faculty filled out their written ballots. When the counting was done, Professor James Hensel, the secretary of the faculty, announced the tally: 92 in favor, 46 opposed and 3 abstaining. After the vote, the victors retired to Putnam and Thurston's restaurant for a real blow-out, a celebration party few will ever forget.

Some of those who voted against the Plan left WPI in the weeks and months that followed, unable or unwilling to go along with this fundamental shift in the Institute's course. Some stayed and resisted the changes -- some for decades. Some stayed and did their best to adapt -- a number of them became some of the Plan's greatest boosters, and others became some of its most adept practitioners. In the end, nobody was left unchanged by the educational earthquake called the WPI Plan.

But when the shaking stopped, WPI was still there, strengthened from the experience, and in many ways a better institution than it had ever been. The earthquake completed the crumbling of the Institute's top-down organization, leaving in its place a faculty in awe of its newfound power. "At the end of that period, we really had a faculty," Boyd says. "They trusted each other and they were terribly interested in faculty governance, which was new to them. They saw the power of it and the need for it. I don't suppose you can maintain that forever, but it was nice to be in on it when it happened."

"The outpouring of energy and creativity on the part of the entire faculty during the early years of the Plan's implementation was incredible," Grogan says. "The dedication of the faculty to the Plan was just remarkable."

Go on to section 4 of 4

[WPI] [Contents] [Back] [Top] [Forward

Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:50:09 EDT 1999