Spring 1997

Enough People Who Cared

For these factors of uniqueness - the constant inquiry into identity, the contact with the workaday world, the reconciliation of the practical with the scientific, the community sense of belonging - there has been a price. There have been contributions of time and funds and effort far beyond the accounting. Nerves have been rubbed raw with abrasive argument, careers have sometimes been mistakenly shattered. There has been an astonishing number of persons willing to be hurt in order to keep faith with self and society, and the integrity thus given to the Institute is its proudest claim to distinction.

Today, the Institute stands solidly atop its rounded hill, still overlooking the City and reaching toward the sky. It stands there for more than any other reason because - by some strange and wonderful supply - there have always been enough people who cared.

Concluding words of Two Towers by Mildred Tymeson Petrie

In this issue of the WPI Journal, we conclude our two-part series on the history of the WPI Plan, the university's project-based undergraduate program. In part one, "A Miracle at Worcester" (October 1996), we told the remarkable story of the Plan's birth. In the second installment (beginning on page 17), we chronicle the monumental effort involved in uprooting WPI's traditional engineering curriculum, replacing it with a radically different approach to technological education, maintaining that new program in the face of a host of internal and external threats, and now, three decades later, re-evaluating what has happened to the Plan and debating, once again, how to craft an undergraduate curriculum suitable for the challenges of the decades ahead.

But more than the history of an academic experiment, the story of the implementation and evolution of the Plan is the tale of the many people who made it happen. It is the record of their actions, their debates, their triumphs, their defeats. They are the people who put so much of their hearts and souls into making the Plan work, and it is because of their devotion and endless energy that it survives today. Like the people Mildred Petrie wrote about 32 years ago in WPI's centennial history, they cared enough about the Plan to be hurt, to have their careers shattered or indefinitely put on hold, and to put their ideals, their hopes and their dreams ahead of their own gain. They are the heroes of WPI's recent history.

Nathaniel Hawthorne had this to say about heroes: "The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one's self a fool; the truest heroism is, to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it ought to be resisted, and when to be obeyed." Over the past 30 years, WPI has seen many examples of this kind of heroism and of this kind of wisdom. There has been no shortage of doubters - within and outside the community - during those decades, and always an ample supply of those ready to question every detail, to call for retreat at every chance, and to look for opportunities to uncover fools. It has taken courage to stand against this tide of doubt, and keen insight to know which battles were worth fighting.

There are other heroes in this story. They are the ones who have been driven not by the desire to tear down the Plan, but to keep it whole and to zealously guard its integrity. They, too, have had many battles to fight. In response to changes in society and in college students, in reaction to pressure from accreditors, and as a result of the experience the university has gained from living with this unique program, the Plan has changed many times during its history. Some changes have been incidental; some have profoundly altered the structure and outcomes of the Plan. The profound changes were not made lightly, and they sometimes left in their wake bitterness and a terrible sense of loss.

In a way, everyone who has lived and breathed the WPI Plan these many years must be seen as a hero, for the Plan demands so much more of faculty members and students than does traditional technological higher education. Though the program has lost some of the sense of openness it possessed in its early years, students must still take on a great deal of the responsibility for shaping their own curricula and for getting the education they need and desire. Faculty members must devote more of their time to interacting with students than do instructors at many schools and, as advisors of the Interactive Qualifying Project, in particular, take on the burden of learning about issues and techniques far beyond their own fields of expertise. Too often, there are no concrete rewards for the time and energy faculty members devote to students at WPI, but there are other dividends that keep them doing it.

The sheer energy faculty devote to the Plan is one of the program's great strengths, but it is also a weakness. The most innovative of programs become mundane in time unless continually infused with new ideas. But truly revolutionary ideas require time for reflection, and the Plan has left little extra time for such strategic thinking. Now, though, as the end of the millennium and the 30th anniversary of the Plan's passage approach, WPI believes the time has come to make the time to critically appraise its undergraduate program and to decide whether it will meet the needs of the students of tomorrow as well as it serves the students of today.

Already, a large group of faculty members, administrators and students have devoted hundreds of hours to developing a strategic plan to guide WPI well into the 21st century. They have looked at what has been learned, what has been gained, and what has been lost in the last few decades of WPI's history, and have extracted from these lessons the beginning of a vision for the decades ahead. But the process has just begun. Much work remains. No doubt, there are battles yet to be waged, time, funds and effort far beyond the accounting yet to be expended, and new heroes yet to be discovered.

If history is any guide, WPI will emerge from this process a better institution. It will sit, perhaps a bit more solidly, atop Boynton Hill, and reach, no doubt with a bit more surety and grace, toward the sky. And it will do so, for more than any other reason, because there are still enough people who care.

Michael W. Dorsey

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