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Gray criticizes `scandal' of non-teaching professors

"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 Chuck Vest feels as strongly about it as I do."

Those blunt words are from MIT Corporation Chairman Paul E. Gray, who will end service as chairman next June at the age of 65 and resume teaching one of the required engineering courses the following September.

In an interview last week with MIT Tech Talk, 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."

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.

In the Fall of 1991, Dr. Gray resumed teaching undergraduates in Electrical Engineering 6.002, Circuits and Electronics.

"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 EE 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."

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 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.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 1996.

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