President Berkey Discusses Common Goals, History at Mechanics Hall Annual Meeting

At the Worcester County Mechanics Association’s Mechanics Hall Annual Meeting, WPI President Dennis Berkey accepted the 2011 Master Mechanic Award and spoke of the common heritage and ongoing missions of both institutions. Read more...

Remarks at Mechanics Hall Annual Meeting 2011 on receipt of the Master Mechanic Award

Dennis Berkey, WPI President and CEO

Thank you, Joe [Stalberg], for your generous introduction; and thank you, members of the Worcester County Mechanics Association, for honoring Worcester Polytechnic Institute with your 2011 Master Mechanic Award.

It is my honor, as the 15th president of WPI, to accept this award on behalf of the WPI community. In so doing I would like to share some thoughts on the heritage common to our two institutions and the importance of our continuing missions.

We should share a great deal of pride, I would submit, that both institutions have over time done an excellent job of meeting the high expectations that the Mechanics Hall Association set for itself at its founding and during the course of its development. These include

  • providing people with access to great music and books, to political ideas and social reform issues, as well as to scientific thought and technological achievement,
  • infusing the culture of Worcester with a wider vision of human endeavor,
  • celebrating technological advance,
  • promoting innovative philanthropy, and
  • assuring the continuing growth and vitality of the region.”

Or, as it may all be summarized simply, “to promoting a culture of excellence.” This, as I have already suggested, is and has been the stuff of both Mechanics Hall and WPI.

Our common roots, of course, lie in the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War era. Much of it is told beautifully in the book commissioned by the Trustees of WPI on the occasion of our centennial celebration, written by Mildred Tymeson and entitled Two Towers, the Story of Worcester Tech 1865-1965. I shall borrow liberally and shamelessly from it in the following remarks.

The prologue to both of our stories begins in the 18th century, when, by the time of the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution was underway in Europe and beyond. To train the needed workforce, Moscow founded its first “industrial school” in 1763, and by the early decades of the 19th century the nations of Europe, especially France, were developing schools of “applied science” to produce graduates well prepared to staff their growing, mechanized industries. In the United States Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute became our first technological institute at its founding in 1834. By the outbreak of the Civil War there were scientific and technological programs and schools of varying types at Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Washington University.

Despite the huge national tragedy that was our Civil War, the excitement of industrialization was stimulating a high degree of inventiveness and innovation that far outpaced the productive capacity of both the labor force and the existing business structure, and especially so in Worcester County. About this, the London Times wrote, following the conclusion of the Paris Exhibition of 1855, that “The New Englander invents normally, his brain has a bias that way. He mechanizes as an old Greek sculptured, as the Venetian painted, or the modern Italian sang.”

In particular, for several years during this era, Worcester inventors received more patents than any other comparable section of the country.

A legendary figure of that time was Ichabod Washburn, who rose from humble roots as a blacksmith apprentice to become the owner of the world’s largest producer of metal wire. This Washburn contributed mightily to the founding for both of our institutions in the formation of our founding principles and the construction of our primary buildings.

But there was another Washburn, Emory, himself a distant relative of Ichabod, who also played a key role in the shaping this new aspect of higher education. A former governor of the Commonwealth, Emory Washburn made the case for technological education boldly, if not delicately, to the Massachusetts legislature, by noting that “there had always been schools in Massachusetts if anyone wanted to become a scholar, or, if he wanted to study divinity, or medicine, or law. There were schools for the retarded, the idiot, the farmer—but not for the mechanic. Scientific schools had been among the last to be created for a simple reason—they had not been needed.” (Two Towers, p. 12)

And so the Industrial Revolution had posed two interesting and important questions especially relevant to the heartland of the American Industrial Revolution here in Worcester: What should be the evolving role of the “mechanic,” the predecessor to the “engineer,” in society; and how best to prepare young men, and eventually young women, for this emerging “profession?” These questions were seminal to both of our institutions.

John Boynton, a longtime resident of Templeton, Mass., had a firmly-held view on all this. Boynton had made his fortune first as a producer of tin-ware, and later as co-owner of a hardware store in Worcester. He dreamed of founding a new school somewhere in Worcester County, one that would surely respond to the needs of the developing industries, but doing so by “elevating the position of the farmer, the mechanic, and the manufacturer, not [merely] teach him how to be one.” Boynton’s vision reflected personal regret at not having himself had an opportunity for formal education, and hence little capacity for appreciation of what he referred to as “the refinements.”

Boynton was prepared to make a substantial, but anonymous, gift of $100,000 to create a permanent endowment for the new school, and, on the advice of his cousin, David Whitcomb, to locate it in Worcester, on the condition that the citizens of Worcester would acquire the land and raise the funds required for a building.

As is customary in Worcester, Boynton sought the counsel of a number of community leaders, including Whitcomb, Emory Washburn, Stephen Salisbury II, and the Reverend Seth Sweetser. Their deliberations convinced Boynton that the new school needed to be more than just another struggling academy, and that before proceeding further they needed to engage Ichabod Washburn, who for some time had wanted to found a rather more practical school in Worcester, one that would lift the practice of apprenticeship to a more formal program of training of young men, mechanics if you will, for work in manufacturing facilities.

One might see extreme contrast between Ichabod Washburn’s intense and successful experience in drawing molten metal through a hole in a steel plate to produce wire, and John Boynton’s reflections on the relatively high social status experienced by his own forbears in his native England.

Engagement with Ichabod Washburn followed, and in the tradition that is so characteristic of the Worcester Community, compromise was achieved and a plan for moving forward was developed. Stephen Salisbury would donate the land; Ichabod Washburn would provide the funds to build a “shop” building, an actual manufacturing facility where the practical training in production would be take place; and funds would be raised from the community for the construction of an academic building, where science, technology, the humanities, and the arts would be taught.

As Tymeson observes, the month of April, 1865, was certainly dramatic, especially so for Worcester. General Lee surrendered on April 9; President Lincoln was assassinated days later; and before the month was out the Massachusetts Legislature received a petition for the incorporation of a school to be known the “Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science,” later WPI. The proposers, although strongly committed to the concepts of a technological institute to prepare young men in the mechanical arts, were no strangers to classical education. Both Washburns, Sweetser, and Salisbury had served together on the board of the distinguished Leicester Academy; and Sweetser, Salisbury, and Emory Washburn had also been, at various times, overseers of Harvard College.

But compromise does not always beget harmony, and the built environment of the new school reflected a continuing tension that became the seedbed of the new institution’s educational philosophy. Atop the hill on the property donated by Stephen Salisbury, the two original buildings, the academic building named after John Boynton, and the manufacturing shop built by Ichabod Washburn and Charles Hill Morgan, were situated with their backs to each other, and each with its own distinctive tower, which together formed the “two towers tradition” of WPI. Students took their academic coursework in Boynton Hall, and learned the art, craft, and technologies of production in the Washburn Shops.

Boynton had contributed the academic core; Washburn, the anchor to the practical worlds of invention, production, and commerce; and Charles Hill Morgan, eventually the founder of Morgan Construction in Worcester, initiated a tenure of distinguished service to, and leadership for, WPI that continues in its fifth generation today with the service by Philip R. Morgan, final chief executive of Morgan Construction in Worcester, as a member of the WPI Board of Trustees.

It is important to understand that the students’ work in the Washburn shops was more than simple “laboratory” experiences associated with academic courses. The Washburn shops actually produced commercial goods—from basic tools, drafting tables, etc., to the invention and production of the hydraulic elevator. The shops became a prominent commercial enterprise that generated significant revenue for the institution. Thus, both innovation and entrepreneurship were part of the WPI curriculum from its very beginning. It was not until the administration of WPI’s third president, Thomas Mendenhall, that both administration and faculty became sufficiently concerned with WPI’s commercial enterprise and its competition with area businesses, that the Institute withdrew from the commercial marketplace. But by then the very practical aspects of its type of education, embodied in the motto “Lehr und Kunst,” or “theory and practice,” were permanently engrained in the institution’s DNA.

With most substantial changes in direction come unavoidable losses, and the termination of the commercial activity in the Washburn shops brought the resignation of the legendary Milton Higgins, who had been the shops’ distinguished faculty director. An inventive genius and brilliant builder of organizations, Higgins soon thereafter became Worcester’s leading industrialist as well as a nationally recognized authority in technological education. Higgins was joined in his resignation by George Alden, his faculty colleague and close friend, and WPI’s first professor of mechanical engineering, whose fortune would later provide vital continuing support to many educational and cultural institutions, and which remains WPI’s largest source of philanthropic support to date.

Although Tech, the familiar shorthand for WPI, grew in prominence as a technological institution with a distinctive focus on the practice of engineering, its academic curriculum was as solidly rooted in the core principles of science, mathematics, and engineering theory as at the other top engineering programs. But at Tech you did more—more than just acquiring knowledge, and demonstrating mastery of it on formal exams, you learned how to put knowledge to work in important ways—to properly size up an important problem, marshal the necessary tools and the relevant knowledge, and find a solution whose value, if not self-evident, could be effectively demonstrated. Tech students prided themselves on their hard work, their demonstrated abilities, and their focus on “getting the job done,” as they still say today.

But there was more going on than technological education and training. Just as the great works of music, theatre, and literature were being celebrated in this hall, students on the hill were similarly attracted to quite serious and thoughtful engagement with the humanities, and especially with the performing arts. WPI’s men’s glee club, the campus orchestra and choir, and the theatre studies programs are among our oldest and most celebrated organizations.

Indeed, our theatre program produces the longest-running festival for new plays, called “New Voices,” in American higher education, spawning award-winning playwrights.  The extensive project work and jazz performances here by our own Professor Richard Falco and his students, and the very performance you heard earlier in this program speak for themselves.

Both of our institutions have experienced the ebb and flow of good fortune over time. This magnificent Mechanics Hall, designed by the same architect, Elbridge Boyden, who designed the Washburn Shops at WPI, opened in 1857, some fifteen years after the founding of the Mechanics of Worcester, in support of your vision and resolve

  • to foster excellence in mechanical arts,
  • to provide a forum to influence the community to aspire to greatness, and
  • to provide people with access to great music, literature, political ideas and social reform issues, as well as scientific thought and technological achievement.

Such a compelling mission was paramount in infusing the culture of Worcester with a wider vision of human endeavor. Both the facility and the organization served brilliantly to showcase Worcester industries and skilled labor, as well as being a source of inspiration for 19th and early 20th century Worcester.

By mid-century, however, the facility was in decline, as were the Association’s fortunes. But the important heritage and mission of the Mechanics of Worcester were not to be forsaken, and the great restoration work and fundraising, led initially by Julie Chase and later by Norma Sandison, accomplished a magnificent success by 1977.

So, too, have the fortunes of WPI ebbed and flowed. The Spanish American War and economic strife at the turn of the 20th century brought declining enrollments and operating deficits. But shortly thereafter a new crop of faculty broadened Tech’s curriculum and contributed inspired teaching and mentorship sufficient to right the ship. The mid-20th century is often referred to by our distinguished former dean and still active emeritus professor Bill Grogan as a “golden era” for campus life, no less than academic achievement, at WPI. By the late 1960s, however, decline had again set in, this time with the nation unsettled as well as much of higher education.  

The WPI faculty again rallied, this time to set a new course that would become a beacon for all of engineering education and with a redoubling of the commitment to the arts and humanities held so precious by both of our institutions.

The revolutionary development was called the “WPI Plan.” It was a radical departure from traditional engineering education, and a highly controversial concept on the hill. The proposed new curriculum de-emphasized formal courses, grades, rank in class, and competition among students. The new emphasis was to be on collaborative learning, and the centerpiece would be a set of three major projects that students would need to complete for their degrees, with achievement demonstrated through effective applications of relevant knowledge, ability to work collaboratively in teams, and measurable outputs, rather than inputs. Academic courses, not unlike library holdings, were viewed as available resources, not hurdles to graduation; results of project work were either acceptable or not, as no conventional grades were used; and a multi-day, comprehensive examination would have to be passed in order to claim a degree.

Of the three major projects, the first was accomplished in the humanities and arts as an integration and original commentary on what had been learned through rigorous study of several related subject areas. The second was to be an application of technology in a social setting to make a positive, lasting impact in the world. The third was to solve a significant problem in the area of the student’s major concentration.

The debate over the proposed new curriculum was understandably contentious and impassioned. It won faculty approval by a narrow margin, with proponents inspired to ensure its success. As with the decision to withdraw the Washburn Shops from commercial enterprise, some with dissenting views opted to leave the institution.

In the 40 years following its adoption, the WPI Plan has grown from strength to strength, taught by passionately devoted faculty and embraced enthusiastically by smart, creative students putting knowledge to work in collaborative pursuits, doing inspired work in the arts, especially theatre and music, as well as broadly throughout the humanities, and truly making a difference in the world. A strong and popular Global Perspective Program was added, with student project teams now pursuing projects at the intersection of technology and society at twenty-six projects centers around the world, projects as different as bringing drip irrigation technology to farmers in rural Thailand, building simple clothes washing stations and sanitation facilities in shanty villages in sub-Saharan Africa, or working to preserve the canals of Venice.

Whether in the undergraduate programs within the WPI Plan, MS, MBA, and PhD programs at the graduate level, the professional development programs of the Division of Corporate and Professional Education, or the extensive faculty research programs, the work of WPI remains true to the founding vision of an institution devoted to the development of the human potential in all of its capacities, with an important premium on what is important, not just interesting; helpful, not just distinguishing; and responsive to the needs of the community of which we are a part. We are as proud of the work that our undergraduates do for the City in the hundreds of projects undertaken in our Worcester Project Center as we are of the award-winning research of our faculty in such important areas as metals processing and novel materials, emergency-response technologies, tissue engineering, neuro-prosthetics devices, the learning sciences, mathematical modeling of the cardiovascular system, fuel cells, environmental engineering, and many others.

WPI continues to grow in size, complexity, and quality. This August, as has been the case for the past several years, we welcomed our largest freshman class ever, one that again set records for the number of female, minority, and international students. Over 40 pecent of the entering students had perfect 4.0 high school grade point averages, their average rank in class was 90 percent, and nearly 10 percent of them were either high school valedictorians or salutatorians. The most frequently chosen major remains mechanical engineering, although biomedical engineering and the relatively new robotics engineering majors are also highly popular, and many students add minors, or second majors, in the arts and humanities.

The robotics engineering major, the first such undergraduate program in any university in the nation, is an example of the increasing popularity of interdisciplinary majors, this one being offered jointly by the departments of Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Computer Science. Other such examples are the programs in Interactive Media and Game Development, joint between Computer Science and Humanities and Arts, and Environmental Engineering.

Our graduates, when not proceeding directly to graduate study, remain in high demand by employers, especially those in the high technology and life science industries, not just for their technical knowledge, but for their excellent communication and creative skills, and for their experience and understanding of working in teams, in collaboration with others, and in simply “getting the job done.”

Our undergraduate enrollment has grown in the past decade from about 2,800 to approximately 3,600; graduate enrollment has grown rapidly as well, with expansion of both the research-focused PhD programs and the more professionally oriented masters degree programs.

The recent elevation of our Department of Management to the status of a Business School, with its special emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation, and the important inter-relationship between engineering and technology, on the one hand, and business development on the other, was faithful to the vision of our founders and especially responsive to the employment and leadership needs of the high-technology industry of our region.

Similarly, our investments in the creation and expansion of Gateway Park, together with our partner the WBDC, with the focus on the life sciences and bioengineering, reflects our commitment to economic development in the region’s important life science industry. Indeed, our first building at Gateway Park houses several life science companies as tenants and an MBI life science business incubator, as well as our own graduate and research programs in the life sciences. Gateway II, now under construction, will bring a new WPI Education and Training Center in the bio-manufacturing space, as well as a new and expanded home for our nationally acclaimed Fire Protection Engineering Program, WPI Business School facilities, and additional space for commercial tenants in the life science industry.

Our organizational structure mirrors our commitments to education, research, and economic development in these critical areas. We value highly our strong relationship with the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which supports research collaborations, work by student project teams, and joint graduate programs. Similarly, our new Division of Corporate Engagement aims to foster comprehensive and mutually beneficial relationships with major corporations, moving us beyond such one-dimensional transactions as hiring our graduates or sponsoring faculty research.

WPI became coeducational in 1968, with the enrollment of the first two female undergraduates, even though John Boynton had intended that women be admitted from the founding. Our first president, Charles O. Thompson demurred, however, saying that if one female applicant were to be admitted he would have had to admit them all—which might not have been such a bad thing, in my opinion. Today we are proud that women comprise some 30 percet of our undergraduate students, providing outstanding leadership in all aspects of academic and campus life.

As they have throughout WPI’s history, our faculty and graduates are helping to build the economy of our city and our region through their inventions, their understanding and practice of entrepreneurship and business development, and our commitment to economic development. Our WPI community, and especially our students, is passionately committed to our role as being part of Worcester, not simply located in Worcester, through thousands of hours of community service, dozens of projects done by student teams in WPI’s Worcester Project Center, and a wide range of service to the Worcester Public Schools. Our PILOT agreement and earlier financial commitments that help fund the Worcester Public Library and the restoration of Institute Park among other needs of our city, as well as our investments beyond our own immediate needs in the emerging neighborhood of Gateway Park, all reflect our belief that “What is good for Worcester is good for WPI.”

I am exceedingly proud to be able to represent a financially strong, highly innovative and entrepreneurial institution that stands as an exemplar of what is best about higher education today and, like the Mechanics Association, is devoted to achieving the most prosperous and just future for our city and for the nation.

This is a time of great divides in our society, and of considerable angst, even despair. We need to remember, as Graham Allison wrote recently in the Boston Globe, that “American history… is a story of recurring, impending catastrophes from which there is no apparent escape—followed by miraculous recoveries. At one of our darkest hours,” he recalled for us, “in 1776 when defeat at the hands of the British occupying Boston seemed almost certain, the general commanding American forces, George Washington, observed: ‘Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.’”

We need to come together as communities and as a nation, to confront our seemingly overwhelming problems, both those of our own making and those imponderable, in the spirit of perseverance, tolerance, and collaboration, and in the celebration of community and of the human spirit as has been witnessed on so many occasions in this magnificent hall. May that be the consequence of our continuing work together and that of our leaders.

My deep gratitude and best wishes to you all.

September 27, 2011

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