Launching the WPI Plan

Launching the WPI Plan

For Dean Emeritus Bill Grogan ’46, WPI is more than an alma mater and more than the place where he built a long and distinguished career as a teacher and scholar. For Grogan, WPI represents years of planning and persuasion, of anxiety and creativity, of conflict and great collaboration, all aimed at taking a respected college that had been focused on the past and transforming it into one of the most innovative and forward-looking science and engineering universities in the nation.

As part of the six-member faculty study committee appointed by President Harry Storke in 1967 to review the WPI academic program, Grogan helped develop the WPI Plan, the university’s groundbreaking curriculum that combines theoretical study with project-based problem solving. As WPI’s first dean of undergraduate studies, Grogan was assigned the enormous task of implementing every element of the WPI Plan—the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), Major Qualifying Project (MQP), Humanities Sufficiency, and Competency Exam, a new four-term calendar and grading system, and new degree requirements. For a period, he ran two colleges as the new program was phased in. “It was the most interesting job in the world.”

Two of the most innovative components of the WPI Plan were—and still are—the IQP and MQP. Project work itself wasn’t unique then, Grogan notes, just as it isn’t now. However, he says that making two disparate projects of equal weight—one in the student’s major (MQP) and one integrating science and technology with social concern and human values (IQP)—universal degree requirements was an entirely new concept in science and engineering education.

Defining and locating challenging, quality projects along with soliciting faculty advisors, especially for off-campus—and later international—venues were two of the biggest challenges for Grogan as dean. With an average population then of 625 students per class, Grogan had to accommodate 1,250 project registrations per year. Project teams of three students and seven-week terms helped ease the burden. Faculty had to change from classroom lecturing to also working with students as project mentors. Grogan also rallied support from alumni who generously provided real-life industrial project opportunities and sites.

"It was one wild circus to run," Grogan recalls, "but we did it."

WPI and the war effort

Grogan’s passion for the university is obvious, so it’s a little strange to hear him say he had no intention of coming to WPI as a student. He wanted to be a writer and had been accepted at Columbia University’s School of Journalism when he was still in high school in Lee, Mass., a small town nestled in the Berkshires. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II.

The chief engineer at the local paper mill, a WPI graduate and chairman of the local draft board, visited Grogan’s father and said if Bill went to Columbia he’d be drafted in October. But if he went to WPI, the Navy had a program that would allow him to finish the year. Grogan took the advice. He came to WPI and graduated as part of the Navy V-12 training program, which allowed him to serve at sea as an electronics officer in World War II (and again during the Korean War). He returned to WPI, earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering and began teaching in the Department of Electrical Engineering in 1946.

For the next 20 years, Grogan taught at WPI, working his way up to the rank of professor by 1962, while consulting and developing patents for the U.S. Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C., and General Electric in Pittsfield, Mass., every summer. In his teaching, Grogan was already experimenting with project work with his students, having them do engineering projects with the companies of local alumni.

"That’s what led me to see how high-quality project work could be such a highly effective tool in reinforcing engineering education."

The WPI Plan

The faculty group that President Storke and dean of the faculty Lawrence Price appointed to develop a new academic program for WPI “decided that if we are going to make significant change at WPI, let’s first see what broad possibilities are out there in the world,” Grogan recalls.

He and his colleagues studied educational models in such places as Cambridge and Oxford in England, Ecole Polytechnique in France, and ETH in Zurich, along with the numerous new ideas that were then emerging around the United States. In the end, Grogan says, “WPI went from being one of the most traditional to one of the most avant garde science and engineering universities in the country. To others, having a graduation requirement like an IQP was ‘off the wall’ and a flexible engineering curriculum was an oxymoron. We just happened to be 30 years ahead of their thinking.”

In addition to the IQP and MQP, the Plan included the Humanities Sufficiency, another required project. This was intended essentially as a minor in the humanities that required students to explore the human condition, its values, culture, and history. While the Sufficiency was recently replaced with a humanities requirement, the humanities and arts continue to be an important dimension of a WPI education. The Plan also included a Competency Examination—a weeklong examination in the major field. But after 15 years, it was dropped and replaced by distribution requirements.

“It not only proved very difficult to design and evaluate fairly, but also formed an undesirable ‘learn for the test’ syndrome that started to drive learning priorities that ran counter to Plan objectives,” Grogan says. “My only regret is that we were not then in a position to learn more from this unique experience.”

Persuasion and projects

As dean of undergraduate studies, Bill Grogan had his work cut out for him. Though the WPI Plan passed on May 29, 1970, by a strong vote of 92 to 46, that meant one-third of the faculty didn’t support it. According to Grogan, department heads in general disliked the WPI Plan since much of their once-powerful curriculum authority was moved to faculty committees. The level of resistance varied from topic to topic and required every ounce of Grogan’s persuasion to get things done. It was especially challenging for him since he had never been a department head himself.

Students liked the WPI Plan and, on the whole, were very supportive of the Institute’s new direction, both as students and as alumni. As the project program grew, Grogan sought ways to give students more international experiences. He had always been an internationalist, starting an exchange of high school yearbooks with schools in England and Australia when he was a sophomore back in Lee, all ended by World War II. Grogan and his colleagues could see globalization on the horizon and knew it would complement the Plan to provide the opportunity for WPI students to experience different cultures through the project program. He helped develop WPI’s first off-campus project center in Washington, D.C., in 1974 and its first international Project Center in London, along with exchange programs with City University of London, ETH in Zurich, the Royal Institute of Stockholm, and Darmstadt TH in Germany. He retired from the WPI faculty in 1990 and, since then, as dean emeritus, he has helped with the development of WPI’s Global Perspective Program, advised students, and helped set up some of the early global project centers. WPI now has 25 project centers that span five continents, each year providing about 60 percent of the student body with life-changing learning experiences as they work to solve problems with local people.

It worked

As if Bill Grogan hasn’t been generous enough to WPI in gifts of talent and creativity, countless hours, and boundless energy, he has also been generous with his financial support.

"The student body that we had and, in general, still have is not overall a wealthy student body," Grogan says. "And for the type of premium education that WPI provides, we have to find new ways of closing that gap."

Looking back on the early days of the WPI Plan, Grogan still marvels at all that was accomplished by brave, dedicated, and overworked faculty members. They performed miracles during those challenging years, Grogan says, even sacrificing some of their own professional research to move WPI in an entirely new and uncharted direction. Their effort involved not only faculty, but staff, trustees, students, alumni, and foundations, all of whom helped the WPI Plan achieve its goals beyond all expectations.

“Skeptical faculty at other universities used to greet us saying over and over that WPI’s program couldn’t work, it wouldn’t work, and, of course, we would never be accredited,” Grogan says. “It worked in spades as a powerful contribution to innovative education in our country, and, incidentally, it has always been accredited.”

WPI received a major grant totaling $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation to help implement the WPI Plan. Grogan was the NSF Project Director. With the grant came an outstanding NSF-WPI Advisory Panel, which visited WPI twice a year for seven years. The late David R. Reisman, Henry Ford Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard, was the de facto chairman. In the conclusion of his final report, he wrote:

"Above all, there is Dean William R. Grogan, who has maintained an extraordinary control over all the details of the Plan intellectually and an emotional hold alike on old and new faculty at WPI. I hope he will not mind my making public the phrase I used for him at our first meeting, namely WPI’s Harry Truman. I explained that I belonged to that small minority of liberals who did not regard the succession of Harry Truman to the presidency with dismay, but rather with instant admiration for the extraordinary abilities and courage of a man who had seemed so ordinary to many of his fellow, more sophisticated Americans. Dean Grogan helped father the Plan and saw it through; and, while willing to make realistic concessions, was unwilling to surrender its dramatically essential significance."

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