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MIT's Paul Gray Decries 'Scandal' of Non-Teaching Professors

CAMBRIDGE, MA--"One of the scandals of education is this idea you reach out and body-snatch professors with promises that they won't have to teach. That is outrageous, and there is a long list of offenders. It is a perversion of the process. We haven't done that for many, many years, and (MIT President) Chuck Vest feels as strongly about it as I do."

Those blunt words are from Dr. Paul E. Gray, who will end service as chairman of the MIT Corporation (the Institute's board of trustees) next June at the age of 65 and resume teaching one of the required engineering courses the following September.

In an interview with MIT Tech Talk, the official MIT newspaper, he talked about teaching, one of his passions. Before he became chancellor of MIT in 1971, he held the Class of 1922 Professorship, which recognizes excellent teaching.

At MIT, he said, "We don't appoint research professors. We don't appoint professors who do only teaching. You have to do both. In a science and technology-based place, research and what you learn are pretty tight."

An interviewer remarked to Dr. Gray that he was probably the only chairman of the board of a $1.2 billion organization who is ending his service as chairman to take up teaching and advising undergraduates. "Well, that's probably right," Dr. Gray said with a grin. Why do you continue to teach? he was asked.

He replied: "In 39 years around here as an employee, I have done a lot of things--teaching assistant, instructor, assistant professor, associate dean of student affairs, associate provost, dean of engineering, chancellor, president, chairman. Of all those, the ones that have given me the most satisfaction are teaching and advising. I would not want to be a classroom teacher and not have any advising responsibilities.

"As a teacher and advisor, you are in contact with this extraordinary set of young people, so able and committed, and you have this grand chance to see them grow. They come in as late adolescents and they leave four years later as professionally competent, mature young men and women. That's what makes it so satisfying."

He was asked to respond to the widespread skepticism about teaching, that professors don't teach anymore, particularly in research universities.

"There's too much truth in that, overall. It is not, I submit, true around this place. The freshman physics core is taught by faculty; freshman chemistry is also. Essentially all the teaching in the humanities is done by faculty. All freshman math is taught by postdocs who in any other place would be assistant professors, but we call them instructors. There are Nobel laureates teaching freshman biology. Sophomore classes and higher are taught almost without exception by faculty. We do use TAs (teaching assistants who are graduate students) in labs and grading," he said.

Why is MIT different? he was asked.

"MIT is different, in part, because this is a place that grew up as an undergraduate institution. There were not very many graduate students until the Second World War," he said.

Dr. Gray said when he returned to teaching undergraduates in 1991, "People asked me, how can you do it, coming back to teaching after 20 years out of the field? Well, circuits and electronics is the first professional course for electrical engineers. It is where you learn to play the scales. In truth, it's not too much different, except for the examples of applications, from when I taught it 27 years ago or when I studied it 45 years ago.

"I don't intend to do this particular course forever. In a couple of years, I may go to an upper level subject in the same general area of electronic devices and circuits. I'll have to do some learning there because the field of semiconductor devices has gone through several revolutions since I did research in that area."

Did you teach from 1980 to 1990, while you were president? he was asked.

"I taught one year--1986--the first semester, when enrollment in electrical engineering was so heavy, and Gerry Wilson, then the department head, asked me if I could take a section.

"I didn't do it so much to lighten the load as I did it to shame some of my administrative colleagues into doing it also. But with my schedule as president, I couldn't have done it without a backup. Art Smith and I started out as faculty members, sharing an office. In 1986, we had back-to-back sections, so he agreed to take my section if I couldn't be there. Art ended up teaching about 25 percent of my classes when I had to be away, which is not a satisfactory arrangement for the students or the professors."

Dr. Gray has seen huge changes in MIT since he entered as a freshman in 1950. Then, the student body was about 5,400, three-quarters of whom were undergraduates, almost all male; the faculty numbered about 450, and the endowment was $50 million. Today, after Dr. Gray's years at MIT, including 16 years as president and chairman, the student body is a very diverse group of roughly 10,000 students, including 3,000 women and 2,600 U.S. minorities. Undergraduates number 4,500 (of which 44 percent are U.S. minorities and 38 percent are women) and graduate students total 5,500 (of which 12 percent are U.S. minorities and 24 percent women). The endowment is more than $2.1 billion.

Dr. Gray, who in the 1960s served as chairman of the Freshman Advisory Council and associate dean of student affairs, helped establish MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). He left teaching in 1971 to become chancellor of MIT, serving with the late president, Jerome B. Wiesner. In 1980, he became president. In October 1990, Charles M. Vest became president and Dr. Gray became chairman.

Dr. Gray in 1969 wrote a textbook, Electronic Principles, with fellow MIT Professor Campbell Searle. It's been out of print for about 10 years in the United States but it is still available abroad and has been published in Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, Spanish and Polish.

"About once a year, I get a question from some international student, 'Will you explain this?'

"They always get an answer," said Paul Edward Gray, teacher.

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