The two universities employ about the same number of people. MIT has 8, employees on campus, Cambridge has 7, excluding college employees. In Cambridge the spread is much more even. MIT see the breadth of Cambridge as its strength. We see the depth of MIT in technology as its strength. A fundamental difference between the USA and the UK is the availability of large private sources of wealth which benefactors are willing to give to good causes and particularly to the great American universities.
This will be largely uncommitted funding to improve faculty and student stipends, and build and renew laboratories and infrastructure. In contrast, industrial gifts usually come with conditions. What is done with the gift has to show perceived benefits for the donor. To that extent the continuous process of renewal and rebuilding is easier for MIT than it is for Cambridge. MIT can plan further ahead. Cambridge is driven by the wheel of fund-raising fortune.
And there are other differences. They stem from a different and more adventurous attitude to change. Professor Suh is Korean by birth and a specialist in engineering design. He sees the traditional mechanical areas as offering diminishing returns.
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Instead he encourages blue-sky speculative research in new fields or applied research working directly with industry. Research areas that are neither one thing nor the other are unlikely to bring major advances. Blue-sky work makes reputations, applied research brings in the money. And he is certainly successful at the latter. Last year I was present during the annual review of associate professors for tenure. A committee of senior faculty members attend presentations by candidates for tenure and afterwards decide who will be retained.
I was invited to join the committee for Mechanical Engineering. The tension during the presentations I attended was palpable. This was make or break time for the candidates, and for the majority of them it was break.
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MIT has a ruthless promotion procedure. The majority of young faculty members now fail to get tenure. Many have moved upwards from graduate student to research assistant to assistant professor to associate professor by their late 30s to find that it is time to move on. In contrast, Cambridge takes a great deal of trouble with recruitment but gives tenure at an earlier age. Promotion to a personal chair is a tough road, but most people who work hard are reappointed to the retiring age after a three- or five-year probationary period.
Paradoxically, having found the best people, even MIT may have trouble keeping them. While I was visiting, a front page article in the Wall Street Journal ran the headline Faculty dropouts escalate as high-tech employment beckons. The substance of the article was that more university professors are leaving academia to join computer and internet ventures. Universities, MIT and Cambridge included, have to respond to this changing situation.
Cornell and Stanford were quoted as allowing faculty members to take sabbatical leave to pursue their research interests.
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MIT has fairly strict rules, stricter than in Cambridge, that no faculty member can be an operating officer of a company. They can own companies and be non-executive directors or consultants, but they must make a return of how much time a year they devote to outside work.
The limit is one day per week but, as Nam Suh pointed out, the definition of a day 8 hours or 16? His view is that it is right that academics should not be operating officers because they are generally good on ideas but poor on business skills and it is much better to have skilled business people running companies than academics. Professor Suh is proud of his own company which sells design technology to the plastics industry and currently employs about 40 PhDs.
His experience is not greatly different from mine in Cambridge. Already this year, two faculty members of the Cambridge Engineering Department have resigned and another has requested leave. They all want to pursue their outside interests in communications and the internet. One senior professor is working half-time while he directs research for a rapidly-growing software company, other fulltime colleagues have major research or consulting roles in industry, several own spin-off companies, and some have become independently wealthy in the last few years.
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That is what is happening everywhere in the main engineering universities. One facet of that is educational programmes which directly address product development and commercialization. They are designed for practising engineers who have to complete about a dozen courses which are a mixture of engineering and management subjects, with leadership and team-working modules interwoven.
Courses are taken either as resident students or by distance learning classes. Some MIT courses are broadcast in real time to company sites by multipoint videoconferencing. Others are distributed by mailing videotapes and setting up video-conferencing discussion groups with the course instructor.
The challenges that face Cambridge are largely the same as those that face MIT. Tom Magnanti has a list. Emphasize scientific fundamentals and rigorous analysis, yet encourage creativity and make the curriculum broader. Give faculty members autonomy to pursue their own interests, yet ensure that they work together with common goals to innovate and respond to changing technological priorities.
Attract the brightest and best students and make engineering exciting for them by collaborative projects and creative activities. These are enormously difficult to manage, many of them completely contradictory. Yet we have to respond as imaginatively as we can, and it is certainly good to have the advantage of sharing problems and solutions where attitudes are more adventurous than we are used to and traditions less firmly ingrained.
Of course our collaboration is not nearly as one-sided as perhaps I may appear to have suggested.
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