Back to top

Message from the Chair

The MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing

Susan S. Silbey

On October 15, 2018, MIT announced a gift from Stephen A. Schwarzman to create a college of computing. Eleven months earlier, in November 2017, President Rafael Reif began discussing with the faculty officers the possibility and prospects for a School of computing. He sought our advice about how the proposal from some members of the computer science faculty might be explored with the faculty at large. We recommended extensive conversations across the Institute to gather the faculty's collective wisdom and hear their worries. In my role as Chair of the Faculty, I accompanied Rafael, Provost Martin Schmidt, and Engineering Dean Anantha Chandrakasan during the spring semester 2018 to meetings with all School councils and several large departments. I also joined conversations in Rafael's office with several department heads and program directors. The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing has now been created; it has not yet been designed.

A vision for the College evolved over the course of these conversations. Most importantly, faculty beyond EECS wanted any new structure to be porous with unfettered collaborations across its boundaries, so that faculty using the computational methods which have become commonplace within most disciplines would be in more regular conversation with the computer science faculty enabling adoption, and adaptation, of new methods. Equally, faculty across the Institute wanted to engage computer scientists on the substantive disciplinary problems appropriate for computer analytics, as has been the case, for example, in computational biology. In addition, faculty across several departments offered to share the burden of teaching some basic courses in areas that involve computing and computational methods. The significant increase in undergraduate enrollments in these courses are stretching and diluting existing resources for making fundamental advances at the frontiers of computer science. Faculty consistently said that, whatever was proposed, the plan should permit more flexible collaborations for teaching, degrees, and research while providing increased manpower and material resources.

This semester, I have been accompanying Marty and Anantha on another tour of School councils, departments, and labs as they have been presenting a vision for the College, again seeking feedback and suggestions on how to enact this bold and challenging concept of a new college for MIT. The Provost's presentation is presently a sketch of what might be put in place after further consultation and design.

The task before us now – to develop and propose designs for the College – is daunting because the College is envisioned to have the status of a School, similar to the current five MIT Schools, but with a broader mandate: to be the nexus actively connecting across the Institute those who advance computer science, those who use computational tools in specific subject fields, and those who observe, analyze, and write about digital worlds.

There are certainly observable tensions pulling and pushing the vision of the College in competing directions. Some expect the College to be a bigger and better extension of the existing Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science with auxiliary research labs and centers. Others want the College to be a different kind of organization devoted not only to advancing computation and computer science but to fully accept – by making visible, rather than tacit – the inescapable human preferences embedded within digital technologies, both the unintended as well as predictable consequences of these technologies. To his credit, the Provost has publicly acknowledged these tensions that we must now embrace and mediate.

Facing this daunting mission, I am reminded of Admiral Rickover's cautionary advice concerning academic designers, if not specifically about designing academic organizations: "The academic [nuclear reactor] designer is a dilettante. He [sic] has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of 'mere technical details.' The practical [reactor] designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solutions require manpower, time and money [1953 letter]."

There is much that needs to be researched and decided in a short period of time if the College is to open in fall 2019, demanding manpower, time, and money. We have not specified what opening looks like, other than perhaps a web page. We should investigate historical and contemporary examples here and at other universities with respect to, for example, component units (shall there be departments as well as labs and centers?); roles and responsibilities (shall a member of the new College sit on each of the existing School councils and in turn members of the five Schools sit on a governing council of the new College?); distribution of resources (how shall College funds be distributed for computational teaching across the Institute, for support staff, and for hardware?); decision-making processes for faculty appointments and student degrees (how shall faculty be appointed, evaluated, and promoted if they sit in more than one department or School; what degrees shall be offered; how shall graduate students be admitted and funded?).

In active collaboration with the faculty officers and the new Dean, the Provost plans to create a task force comprised of multiple working groups to generate recommendations on the design of the Schwarzman College of Computing, a process successfully implemented during the 2008 financial crisis. Each working group will have a charge designating the central topics for its inquiry to culminate in a set of proposals and recommendations. The Provost has already created a search committee with five School representation to identify candidates for Dean of the new college; a second committee will interview the identified candidates.

We currently expect to stand up working groups (in canonical MIT fashion with representation from the five Schools) to consider and address the following issues. The particular charges and compositions are in process:

  1. Organizational structure: to explore organizational configurations or structure with two tracks. One subcommittee will consider what kind of organization will provide agility while ensuring stewardship of key elements such as degrees, graduate student supervision and mentoring, faculty hiring and promotion. Should there be project-centered interdisciplinary labs? How will the internal structural elements relate to departments in the other Schools? A second subcommittee will explore the preferences and expectations of the faculty who will reside within the College.
  2. Faculty appointments: to specifically consider how bridge appointments will be structured, hired, mentored, promoted. What are the categories of appointments in the College, and how are these the same or different from appointments in the current Schools? What are the rights and responsibilities of faculty appointed in more than one unit? How are they hired, mentored, promoted? How are transitions managed as faculty may move from one unit to another within the College and in other Schools? Might we consider some appointments with limited terms?
  3. Landscape of available models: to gather intelligence about similar colleges and schools around the nation and globe. What has been tried elsewhere and how is it working? What might we envision as distinct for MIT?
  4. Social Implications: to explore the social implications of computing. The College aspires to integrate thinking, research, and teaching about the social implications of computing into everything it does, in education and in research. How might this be instituted?
  5. Curriculum and degrees: to conduct a census of all courses offered on or about computation. What degrees will be offered by units in the College? How will the courses be coordinated within the College and with the existing departments and Schools?
  6. Computing infrastructure: to identify best practices with respect to sharing common resources. How does the College ensure that everyone has access to hardware and professional staff?

Clearly, the topics of these working groups intersect. The multiple groups will provide greater opportunity for faculty, staff, and student participation and feedback than would a smaller set. The chairs of the working groups will meet to coordinate and communicate across the groups and with the new Dean (or Acting Dean) and Provost. We expect the working groups to be in place by December 2018 with recommendations in June 2019, following interim reports during the spring semester.

From the many conversations over these two semesters, we have generated a set of questions that seem to represent the central concerns and multiple goals we have heard. In developing proposals and recommendations, we hope that the working groups will be guided by their charge and these questions, which can function as a kind of "catechism" for the design of the College.

  • Will the recommendation facilitate collaboration and promote integration across MIT departments and other units in curricular planning and research?
  • Will the recommendation acknowledge and maintain respect for the demonstrated expertise of colleagues with regard to computing arts and sciences?
  • Will the recommendation ensure that faculty with appointments in more than one unit have clearly defined responsibilities that do not impede the normal progression of an academic career?
  • Will the recommendation create an unusual burden on any unit, benefit one group at expense of others, or disenfranchise anyone?
  • Will the recommendation increase MIT competitiveness with regard to faculty and student recruiting and retention?
  • Will the recommended administrative structure sustain these principles for fair and appropriate allocation of resources (space and funding), appointments, teaching and related assignments within the College and with respect to the five MIT Schools?
  • Will the recommended design of the College incorporate flexibility to accommodate the possibility that some current trends (e.g., in enrollments) might shift dramatically so that changes will be appropriate?

We are eager to take up this challenge and enthusiastically support the Provost's commitment that the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing be our next step toward a better world through more socially responsible and yet even more adventuresome computing. We commit ourselves to the work of realizing this bold vision.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXXI No. 2, November/December 2018