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Moses reflects on his three years as MIT provost

The high points of Joel Moses's three years as MIT provost were delivering the good news to eight MacVicar Fellows and five Institute Professors, distributing 3,000 diplomas and shaking as many hands.

The low points? Saying no. This provost uttered the word more often than he would have liked.

Dr. Moses, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, will step down on August 1 after three years in the big, bright office in Rm 3-208. He will take a sabbatical leave before returning to teaching and research.

As provost, Professor Moses developed a scenario for surprising new MacVicar Fellows and Institute Professors. He would schedule a meeting with the professor in his or her office, knowing that the request would be greeted with foreboding. At best, the professor would think that he was going to be asked to serve on a committee, another commitment to fit into an already overloaded schedule.

Provost Moses would begin the conversation by saying he wanted to make a request. This was usually greeted with some trepidation. He would then present a letter announcing the appointment. Invariably, the professor would ask, "What is the request?" Provost Moses then would reply, "I would like you to accept a MacVicar Fellowship (or an appointment as Institute Professor)." This usually resulted in a laugh.

Provost Moses has a special relationship with the MacVicar Fellows, who are honored for their commitment to excellence in undergraduate teaching. He attended their luncheons frequently, discussing and explaining internal issues. It was no surprise that the MacVicars devoted their last luncheon of the year to an appreciation and gentle roasting of the outgoing provost. It was one of the best attended lunches of the year.

Dr. James H. Williams Jr., the Septa Professor of Mechanical Engineering and a 1993 MacVicar Fellow, noted that Professor Moses was the only provost or president during his 28 years on the MIT faculty about whom Professor Williams had not publicly written. It was a compliment.

Speaking for himself while expressing a sentiment that appeared to be shared by his fellow Fellows, he welcomed Provost Moses back to the faculty. "The best job at MIT is one whose title begins 'Professor of���������������������������'" Professor Williams said.

Among the highlights of Professor Moses' tenure as provost:

  • MIT has seen a dramatic increase in partnerships with industry, including significant grants from Amgen, Merck and Ford. The amount industry gave to MIT increased 25 percent between fiscal 1996 and 1997, from $120 million to $150 million.
  • A new interdisciplinary Systems Design and Management graduate program was introduced. The provost, who has advocated such a program for many years, has delivered several lectures in the new program. "It's been very exciting to teach in this program," he said.
  • Environment-related research now comprises 10 percent of MIT's total, involving faculty from all five schools. Professor Moses chairs the Council for Environmental Initiatives (CEI).
  • Classroom 2000, providing for technological updating and renovation of undergraduate classrooms, is underway. Space for Building 20 occupants was found in 16 different sites around campus.
  • Seventy-nine faculty members accepted an incentive for early retirement, providing many departments with "a unique opportunity" to appoint new faculty, Provost Moses said. In turn, a number of the retirees "find themselves teaching in the international arena," he added, "providing much more contact (for MIT) with industry and universities in foreign countries."
  • Distance learning has been introduced. "We need to do a lot more in this area," Professor Moses said.

Dr. Moses, appointed provost in June 1995, came to MIT as a graduate student in 1964 to pursue a PhD in mathematics with Professor Marvin Minsky. After completing his graduate work, he joined the Department of Electrical Engineering as an assistant professor in 1964 and was promoted to associate professor in 1971. He became a full professor in 1977.

He headed the Mathlab Group in the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) from 1971-83 and was associate director of LCS from 1978-81. Professor Moses served as head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from 1981-89. He was named the F. Dugald C. Jackson Professor in 1989 and appointed dean of the School of Engineering in 1991, serving in that position until he became provost in 1995.

In 1979, he and Professor Michael Dertouzos, director of LCS, edited The Computer Age, a book that looked ahead to 20 years of computer development. In his essay, Dr. Moses predicted the development of computer-based research libraries, spell-checking, games, educational programs, home offices, electronic banking, e-mail, home shopping, niche advertising and custom news, including sports statistics and stock transactions. "Ah, but videophone service is not as far advanced as I predicted," he said.

Dr. Moses, who earned the BA and an MA in mathematics from Columbia University, was on track to attend medical school before he became fascinated by the field of artificial intelligence.

As a computer scientist, he is known for his work on the theory of algebraic algorithms in the areas of simplification and integration. As a computer systems engineer, he applied his theoretical results to the development of MACSYMA, a system that enables computers to carry out exact differentiation and integration of complex expressions as well as symbolic solutions of equations. Phonetically, MAC-SYMA "is closely related to a Hebrew word that means magical -- wondrous," noted Dr. Moses, whose family emigrated to Brooklyn from Israel when he was 12 years old.

In the future, he hopes to play a role in interdisciplinary research that leads to a better understanding of how the human brain works, biologically and chemically. This research will involve scientists from the fields of biology, chemistry, brain and cognitive science, artificial intelligence and linguistics. Using these findings, he hopes to work on how one designs complex systems other than brains.

Before that happens, Dr. Moses will hand out about 1,000 degrees at Commencement on Friday, unflustered by the babies thrust in his direction or the occasional cartwheel. In the process, he will shake 1,000 hands. Some of the handshakes will be memorable. "The Sloan School graduates really squeeze your hand," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.

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