May/June 2022Vol. XXXIV No. 5

Leadership, Management, and Education at MIT (redux)

Thomas W. Eagar, Alex Slocum

This article is based on Professor Eagar’s original 2004 article (MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XVI No. 5, April/May 2004) with new thoughts added by Professor Alex Slocum. Both are senior faculty with extensive real-world real-engineering experience; both are passionate about where MIT came from and where MIT might head to help create a better world for all. Their combined nearly century-long experience at MIT as students and faculty is described here. Please accept us as the old good guys .

The world looks to MIT for leadership. And this leadership is not limited to science and technology, as was demonstrated forcefully nearly 25 years ago when an MIT freshman overdosed on alcohol two months after he arrived on campus. His death became front page news, not only in Boston but across the country and around the world. How could such a “gifted” person do such a thing asked one article; even though dozens of college students at other universities do the same thing every year? An MIT student doing such a thing is national news; the world holds MIT to a higher standard.

These expectations are not new. In a newspaper interview on December 17, 1911, Thomas Alva Edison was quoted, “There is no question but that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the best technical school in the country. . . . I have found the graduates of Tech to have a better, more practical, more usable knowledge, as a class, than the graduates of any other school in the country. . . . The salvation of America lies in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” For a number of years, I have reflected on how such grand expectations have developed, and what makes MIT unique.

One answer is that the faculty and students who have preceded us have accomplished much; but the same can be said for other notable universities. Our students have very high qualifications, but other schools’ students have equal or even higher test scores. Our faculty is distinguished; but again, several other schools have faculty who are our equal or better depending on the various yardsticks used. There must be some distinguishing attributes of MIT that cause others to look to us for leadership. We should determine what these attributes are, and we should nurture and cherish them as our fundamental strengths.

Over the past few years I have identified five distinguishing qualities that make MIT unique.

1. MIT has one class of students/faculty
2. MIT is intense
3. MIT has a culture of creativity
4. MIT has unusual breadth for an Institute of Technology
5. MIT displays integrity

1. One class of students/faculty

MIT admits only one class of students: scholars. Other elite schools proudly note that they admit three classes of students: scholars, athletes, and “legacy” students. MIT gives no honorary degrees; anyone with a degree from MIT has earned it. Only MIT and Caltech can claim such “purity” of scholarship among their alumni. The world equates admission to MIT or Caltech as certification of “genius” status. MIT undergraduates are in the top 3/10,000 of the populace in native intelligence and our graduate students are probably another factor of five even more select.

Equally so, the faculty are exceptional in scholarly abilities; in part because MIT confers tenure not just at the School level, but at the Academic Council level as well. At other schools it only takes a Dean to tenure a faculty member for some reason other than true scholarly achievement, but then that same person may become a drag upon the School for the next 30 years. Although MIT’s Academic Council is an expensive use of administrative resources, it provides an extra quality filter on faculty promotions that is often lacking at other universities.

2. MIT is intense

When Paul Gray stepped down as president of MIT 30 years ago, he stated that one of his disappointments was that he had not been able to reduce the “pace and pressure” of MIT. For many of us, this intensity is part of the essence of MIT, that only becomes more intense as our graduates step into leadership roles where industry asks them to address the most pressing needs of industry and government.

As a young faculty member, one of us met a distinguished engineering professor from another school at a technical conference. When he saw “MIT” on the name badge, he said, “MIT has the highest thermodynamic temperature in the universe. It’s a great place to visit for a few days, but how do you stand it all the time?” Dick Simmons (namesake of Simmons Hall and a former MIT Corporation member) said that “MIT taught me to work hard.” I tell students that “MIT will take you to your limit – whatever it is.” But MIT is a “no praise” zone.

When I presented these latter quotes to Professor Bob Brown (now President of Boston University) as he became Dean of Engineering at MIT, suggesting that as a leader he should praise the students and faculty more, he responded “the MIT faculty and students are reasonably bright, but insecure. That’s why they work so hard. If they received praise, they wouldn’t be so insecure and would not feel the need to work so hard.” Working hard and learning to fail is a good experience, but failing to praise one another is a harmful by-product of our intense culture. As Pogo Possum said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We need to remember that 90 percent of the pressure on both students and faculty at MIT is self-inflicted. It would not diminish our culture if we learned to praise one another more often. But we must not confuse giving praise with reducing intensity. We must never stop asking ourselves as leaders “How will reducing intensity weaken the very process that has made us so strong and respected?” We must always be wary of social pressure applied by some who want to use the MIT name but not share the intense hard work that has gone into making MIT what it is today. Our goal should be to leave MIT better and stronger than we found it.

One valuable by-product of the intensity of an MIT education is the opportunity to fail. Most of our students never experienced academic failure prior to coming to MIT. It was a shock for me as a student to experience a class average of 60 on an exam, but it was an even greater shock personally to be 30 points below class average.

It is good to learn humility early in life, especially if it occurs in an environment where the long-term consequences of failure are not great. We should explicitly acknowledge that one purpose of an MIT education is to learn humility through the opportunity to fail. At MIT, every person learns that they cannot be the best at everything; teamwork and openness for both praise and criticism are essential. One of our greatest strengths is that our intensity helps us learn to respect the abilities of others.

3. MIT has a culture of creativity

A senior executive once asked Professor Ed Schein, “What is the difference between the MIT Sloan School and the Harvard Business School?” Ed replied, “Harvard is like the West Point of Business Schools; whereas the Sloan School is sort of the Bell Labs.” Ed also notes that “MIT is an iconoclastic society.” As a student at MIT, I learned to question the assumptions behind nearly everything I heard. This skill was not taught so much in the classroom; but came across strongly in my living group and in the research laboratory. MIT students and faculty delight not only in tearing down outdated or incorrect images, but in creating new ways to view the world around us. It is a sport which tends to infect all of us; and it is a highly valuable and somewhat rare characteristic in the rest of the world.

4. MIT has unusual breadth for an Institute of Technology

We often repeat Jerry Wiesner’s phrase that “MIT is a University polarized around science and technology.” While this may be true, and our roots were certainly as an Institute of Technology, over the past 75 years, MIT has broadened considerably. We may focus on technology, but we do far more than “just technology.” The breadth of the scholarly pursuits at MIT never ceases to amaze me; I often say that “there is something at MIT for everyone.” This is true in music, the arts, economics, linguistics, archaeology, history, and many other fields, for which the general public does not often acknowledge MIT’s participation, but in which fields MIT has significant scholarly leadership. When we consider the ability of the arts, for example, to help the world realize the value and potential of technology to improve lives, and the ability of technology to enable ever more new and creative forms of art, thus spreading MIT’s influence ever more broadly.

5. MIT displays integrity

When Chuck Vest announced that he would step down as President of MIT, the former president, Paul Gray, and Dana Mead, Chair of the MIT Corporation at the time, both used the word “integrity” to describe Chuck’s tenure as president. In his essay on “Twelve Qualities of a Leader” Norm Augustine (a former member of the MIT Corporation) notes “. . . the worst of all worlds results when an individual endowed with other leadership qualities lacks the most fundamental quality of all: integrity.” MIT has shown integrity in the past: when Paul Gray defended the education of international students before Congress; when MIT stood alone against the Department of Justice in defense of need-based financial aid; when Bob Birgeneau, Dean of the School of Science, admitted that women faculty at MIT had not been treated equally; when MIT reacknowledged the need for Institute involvement in the daily life of freshmen (by requiring all freshmen to live in MIT dormitories); and when MIT resisted numerous assaults on academic freedom, academic honesty, university accounting, merit-based research funding, and free speech. MIT is not pure in each of these areas, but MIT has displayed much more integrity than most other universities in sharing these leadership qualities with the world.

These are some of the reasons why the world holds MIT to a higher standard. We are acknowledged as intelligent, hard working, creative individuals working on a host of complex problems that affect the lives of people around the world. But most importantly, the public sees us as having integrity. The world wants to believe what we say. If we disappoint them, they judge us more harshly, as has been the case in some notable recent lapses in our integrity that were based on the love of money and the influence of donors who were using the MIT reputation to advance themselves.

The True Value of an MIT Education

While the experiences of hard work, learning to fail and the resulting humility that failure engenders are essential aspects of an MIT education; the true value of an MIT education is learning to learn independently. Perhaps it is due to the habit of questioning the hidden assumptions, or of quizzing students on topics found in the reading that were not covered in the lecture, but most MIT students learn how to educate themselves.

As Robert M. Hutchins, former President of the University of Chicago, stated: “The object of a liberal education is not to teach the young all they will ever need to know. It is to give them the habits, ideas and techniques that they need to continue to educate themselves. Thus, the object of formal institutional liberal education in youth is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”

We subscribe to this philosophy at MIT, but we often fail to appreciate another maxim of Hutchins, viz. “The mind is not a receptacle; information is not education. Education is what remains after the information that has been taught has been forgotten.” How often have I sat in faculty meetings where it is stated that “we must cover [such and such]; otherwise our students will not have what they need to succeed.” Given that their quiz scores indicate that they only absorbed 60 percent on average of what we expected to have taught them; most of them succeed quite admirably, in spite of having a receptacle that is only 60 percent full. One of the things that makes an MIT education so valuable is concepts that are taught in the context of state of the art information so students see how what they learn can be used in practice; this catalyzes the students’ own ideas and cements learning at MIT. MIT is able to do this because so many faculty professionally practice what they teach. Mens et Manus is at the core of all here.

A Primary Deficiency of the MIT Education

A number of years ago in Tech Talk (the former MIT weekly newletter) an MIT student asked, “Why do MIT alums usually end up working for Yale and Harvard graduates?” In response, the article quoted Alan G. Spoon, an MIT alum and COO of The Washington Post, “I’m convinced that MIT’s already large contribution to our society would sharply expand if its graduates were even better advocates and raconteurs for their views and labors.”[1] In our opinion, first of all, what is wrong working for a graduate from another school, if that relationship enables the MIT person to realize their full potential to do great things? A brilliant design engineer should focus on creating amazing creations and their “boss” from another university, may be good at politics or finance paving the way for the MIT idea to become reality. Indeed many large companies have realized this and have equal pay promotion paths for both creative engineers and scientists as well as managers.

Second of all, the “problem” is we do not engender enough of a feeling of self-confidence in our students; this gets back to the praise issue. People should not get praised for breathing, but there should be praise for those who try, fail, and then pick themselves up, learning from their experience and striving to do better the next time.

Several studies, which the administration continually tries to downplay, report that MIT seniors felt less confident when they graduated from MIT than they did when they entered as freshmen. This is hardly surprising. By admitting a class of only exceptional scholars, MIT students live for four years in an unnatural environment. Nearly half of our freshmen were valedictorians in their high schools. They learned to compare themselves with their peers based on academics, because they always came out at the top. But when students enter MIT, they quickly learn that “on average they are average.” It is a cultural shock. Most MIT students soon learn to compare themselves with themselves rather than with others, and they learn to work hard; to reach the limit of their abilities.

This is a valuable lesson; but we must remind them often that the MIT environment is not reality. In reality, they are the top 3/10,000 and they should leave MIT with the knowledge that they are not just average; they are the best. They should believe that it is their destiny to lead the world. I do not believe we praise them enough or remind them enough that they are truly exceptional. As a result, they must relearn their intellectual rank in society after they leave MIT. I believe we can challenge them, teach them to work hard and to feel good about themselves at the same time. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” MIT students (and faculty) are first-rate intelligences and they can understand that they are the best, while learning that there is much that they do not understand. We must learn to embrace the contributions of others, both within MIT and outside MIT. Our students (and faculty) need to improve their skills of interaction, learn to depend on and trust others, and work as part of a team.

MIT Leadership and MIT Management

While the world looks to MIT for leadership, we look within MIT for our own leaders. There are many types of leaders. Thousands of years ago, Lao Tsu noted: “The wicked leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people revere; the great leader is he who the people say, ‘we did it ourselves’.”

As Norm Augustine noted, “True leaders motivate people to pursue worthwhile and lofty objectives.” With faculty and students of the caliber of MIT, true leadership should not be difficult to find; but management is often mistaken for leadership.

As Admiral Grace Hopper said, “No one ever managed men into battle.” As an example of the conflict between leadership and management, I remember as a young professor, my contract officer in the Office of Sponsored Programs was particularly helpful in negotiating a significant new contract. Out of gratitude, I wrote a letter to his supervisor outlining my pleasure with his service. A few months later, in a conversation, I told him that I had written a letter of appreciation for his help. He told me that he had seen the letter; his manager had turned it into a letter of condemnation with the statement “your job is not to help the faculty; your job is to control the faculty.” This anecdote illustrates the difference between a leader and a manager. “A leader seeks to help others; a manager seeks to control others.” This difference was reinforced by Hugh W. Nibley in a Commencement address at another university over 35 years ago entitled “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift.”

“The Generalstab tried desperately for a hundred years to train up a generation of leaders for the German Army; but it never worked, because the men who delighted their superiors; i.e. the managers, got the high commands, while the men who delighted the lower ranks, i.e. the leaders, got reprimands. . . . Leaders are movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace. For the managers are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organization men and team players, dedicated to the establishment. The leader, for example, has a passion for equality. . . . For the manager, the idea of equality is repugnant and even counterproductive. When promotion, perks, privilege, and power are the name of the game, awe and reverence for rank is everything,  . . . In short, while management shuns equality, it feeds on mediocrity. On the other hand, leadership is an escape from mediocrity. The leader being simply the one who sets the highest example….True leaders are inspiring because they are inspired, caught up in a higher purpose, devoid of personal ambition, idealistic, and incorruptible.”

From Nibley’s insights I determined that the primary problem with business schools is that they teach management or control of others, rather than true leadership, which involves service to others. I also learned that one can determine whether one should work for a company even before walking through the doors: just look for the number of assigned spaces in the parking lot. It is interesting how such a simple concept generates agreement among my friends in industry.


When summarizing leadership for my students, we use the following seven points:

      A Leader:

  • Gets the Right Things Done
  • Does More Than is Required
  • Balances Professional and Personal Responsibilities
  • Respects the Contributions of Everyone
  • Provides Praise When Deserved and Helps Learn from Failure
  • Contributes to the Community
  • Follows Others When Not Leading

The first is from Peter Drucker, who notes that leaders not only get things done, but they spend their time on the “right” things. Two other points deserve special note. Students (and faculty) need to understand the need to balance their professional and their personal lives. I have met many people who could not function effectively at work because they had so many problems at home. If one cannot lead one’s spouse and children and help them find joy and happiness, it is unlikely that one can lay the foundation for true leadership at work. The second item of special note is respect for the contributions of everyone. Everyone at MIT can contribute to the strength of the Institute, whether their job be great or humble in the eyes of others. In fact, the groups whose efforts are most immediately noticed if left undone are the custodial staff and the food service staff. Covid taught us that their work is essential to the health and safety of all of us. Without their efforts, MIT would be a much less pleasant place to work; yet we rarely praise or acknowledge these people.

As MIT searches for a new president, we should require our next leader to exemplify the same levels of integrity and leadership as many of our previous leaders. We should use this time of change as an opportunity to reflect on what makes MIT unique; what can be changed without sacrificing what has made us unique.

Our mission is education, and as David O. McKay once summarized: “Character is the aim of true education . . . and science, history, and literature are but means used to accomplish this desired end. True education seeks to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also honest people with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love. It seeks to make men and women who prize truth, justice, wisdom, benevolence, and self-control as the choicest acquisitions of a successful life.” Moving forward, we need to focus on these fundamentals. If we do, the rest will take care of itself.

In final summary, this collection of words in a specific rhyming pattern and shape is provided here to help cement the thoughts rendered:

Leaders Educate All Dimensions

Great leaders must be on the front lines
Directly helping build great minds
Not afraid to experiment
Immune to any vent

High on their list of druthers
hands on working with others
At all levels of the organization
Immersion is key to idea creation

Working in the trenches
Helping turn the wrenches
learning what causes neglect
building solid mutual respect

Identify many a tough situation
apply research & education
and creative reciprocity
thus avoid mediocrity

Be not shy with worthy praise
Talent and spirit it will raise
Of failure do not be afraid
Its learning being made

Reports are for the past
For good thoughts to last
Redefine leaderships’ part
Communicate results with art

Never just mollify
or seek to pacify
illustrate a path
do the math

[1] Further emphasis on the need to teach students to communicate effectively, an area in which MIT has made significant improvement in recent years.