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A Widening Sphere

A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT

Philip N. Alexander
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 520
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  • Book Info
    A Widening Sphere
    Book Description:

    MIT was founded in 1861 as a polytechnic institute in Boston's Back Bay, overshadowed by its neighbor across the Charles River, Harvard University. Harvard offered a classical education to young men ofAmerica's ruling class; the early MIT trained men (and a few women) from all parts of society as engineers for the nation's burgeoning industries. Over theyears, MIT expanded its mission and ventured into other fields -- pure science, social science, the humanities -- and established itself in Cambridge as Harvard's enduring rival. In A Widening Sphere, Philip Alexander traces MIT's evolution from polytechnic to major research institution through the lives of its first nine presidents, exploring how the ideas, outlook, approach, and personality of each shaped the school's intellectual and social cultures. Alexander describes, among otherthings, the political skill and entrepreneurial spirit of founder and first president, William Rogers; institutional growing pains under John Runkle; Francis Walker's campaign to broaden the curriculum, especially in the social sciences, and to recruit first-rate faculty; James Crafts, whose heart lay in research, not administration; Henry Pritchett's thwarted effort to merge with Harvard (after which he decamped to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching); Richard Maclaurin's successful strategy to move the institute to Cambridge, after considering other sites (including a golfclub in Brighton); the brilliant, progressive Ernest Nichols, who succumbed to chronic illness and barely held office; Samuel Stratton's push towards a global perspective; and Karl Compton's vision for a new kind of Institute -- a university polarized around science and technology. Through these interlocking yet independent portraits, Alexander reveals the inner workings of a complex and dynamic community of innovators.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29540-6
    Subjects: Education, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. “A future full of promise” William Barton Rogers, 1804–1882
    (pp. 1-46)

    The Massachusetts State House, Beacon Hill, Boston—hub of the solar system, declared Oliver Wendell Holmes. When Governor John Andrew showed up on April 10, 1861, to tackle his daily pile of papers, he signed one without giving it much thought. “An Act to incorporate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…. William B. Rogers, James M. Beebe, E. S. Tobey, S. H. Gookin, E. B. Bigelow, M. D. Ross, J. D. Philbrick, F. H. Storer, J. D. Runkle, C. H. Dalton, J. B. Francis, J. C. Hoadley, M. P. Wilder, C. L. Flint, Thomas Rice, John Chase, J. P. Robinson, F....

  5. “Sailing seas not well charted” John Daniel Runkle, 1822–1902
    (pp. 47-100)

    Following his collapse in October 1868, William Rogers chose John Runkle to fill in as president. Runkle had been his trusted right hand, a reliable, organized attendant to detail, while Rogers concentrated on the larger picture—relations with the state legislature, fundraising, faculty and student recruitment, the creative side of educational policy. They had bonded, too, on a personal level. Rogers depended on Runkle’s readiness for duty day or night, but also on his loyalty as a friend. Runkle had been there from the start: secretary to the founders’ group in 1861, aide in mapping out the school’s inaugural curriculum,...

  6. “All that we hold true and manly” Francis Amasa Walker, 1840–1897
    (pp. 101-148)

    Tech’s leadership vacuum was not easy to fill. An ailing William Rogers stepped in, guilt-ridden over having pushed John Runkle into a position that came close to destroying both himself and the Institute. Rogers expected to serve briefly, but this second term stretched to three years. His wife Emma and brother Robert urged him to bow out quickly. Tech’s financial situation, meanwhile, kept deteriorating. The Institute was on edge, in crisis mode. While Rogers favored trying to get by with modest adjustments, the Corporation insisted on draconian measures: cuts in salaries, layoffs, departments merged or eliminated. He let them take...

  7. “Uneasy lies the head” James Mason Crafts, 1839–1917
    (pp. 149-174)

    Francis Walker’s death could not have come at a worse time, with the spring semester just about to open. The faculty met in emergency session on January 5, 1897, elder statesman John Runkle in the chair. They shared out duties. The department heads, Runkle, and faculty secretary Harry Tyler would take charge for a week. Davis Dewey, Arlo Bates, and William Sedgwick would prepare memorials and resolutions. James Crafts, Gaetano Lanza, and Tyler would handle all official correspondence, while Sedgwick and Tyler attended to everything else. The faculty resolved to appoint a chairman pro tem whom the executive committee could...

  8. “Into touch with the world at large” Henry Smith Pritchett, 1857–1939
    (pp. 175-220)

    Tech wanted a resonant, charismatic figure to replace James Crafts, the quiet, withdrawn scholar. Word went out that there was no hurry, that the Institute would bide its time, but the rumor mill churned just the same. Outgoing Massachusetts governor Roger Wolcott removed himself from consideration early—“the duties,” he said, “would be too confining, and the position would not be congenial … in other respects.” Columbia University president Seth Low’s name also came up. Low’s experience in public life as mayor of Brooklyn, before he went to Columbia, and his skill in orchestrating the university’s move from midtown Manhattan...

  9. “Thoroughly sure of himself” Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, 1870–1920
    (pp. 221-280)

    Arthur Noyes agreed in June 1907 to serve as acting president on condition that a replacement be hired soon, preferably within a year. Besides wanting to get back to his research, he considered himself less than ideal for the job. “I have no hesitation in saying that I would rather be president of the Institute than to hold any other position in the country, provided I felt myself well fitted to fulfill the duties of the place. I have, however, clearly recognized that this would not be for the true interests of the Institute; for it needs at its head...

  10. “Not the man for us” Ernest Fox Nichols, 1869–1924
    (pp. 281-294)

    Richard Maclaurin’s death sparked confusion. Its suddenness, and the sense of loss, left the MIT community wondering which way to turn. In February 1920, a three-man administrative committee consisting of Henry Talbot, head of the chemistry department; Edward Miller, head of mechanical engineering; and (as chair) William Walker, head of chemical engineering and the new Division of Industrial Cooperation and Research (DICR), was appointed from the faculty ranks to carry out routine tasks. There never was a plan for an acting president. But when legal counsel advised that diplomas and other official records must be signed by an acting, Elihu...

  11. “Shaping things in orderly fashion” Samuel Wesley Stratton, 1861–1931
    (pp. 295-354)

    A new presidential search began two or three weeks after Ernest Fox Nichols resigned on November 3, 1921. E. B. Wilson and Francis Hart nominated candidates that some viewed as bold choices, others as desperate last resorts. Hart went to bat for Sir Auckland Geddes, British ambassador to the United States, who had withdrawn as principal of McGill University in order to join the diplomatic service. Wilson thought Robert John Strutt, 4th Baron Rayleigh, worth considering—“a physicist by no means so eminent as his father, but of entire respectability,” who the year before had resigned his faculty post at...

  12. “All knowledge his sphere” Karl Taylor Compton, 1887–1954
    (pp. 355-430)

    By the fall of 1929, with support for president Samuel Stratton dwindling, a small MIT Corporation group—Gerard Swope, Everett Morss, and Edwin Webster—set out in search of a replacement. A long list of candidates was quickly winnowed down and the brothers Karl and Arthur Compton, both well-known physicists, rose to the top of the short list. Karl came highly recommended by Corporation member Frank Jewett and by the core group at Caltech—Robert Millikan, George Hale, and Arthur Noyes—who shared Karl’s views on the role of university science. In 1927 Karl had written a piece forScience...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 431-458)
  14. Sources
    (pp. 459-474)
  15. Index
    (pp. 475-508)
  16. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)