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Retiring UROP director reflects on ground-breaking program

When she came to MIT for an interview in 1976, Norma McGavern-Norland was looking for a job. She found a career.

The interviewer was Margaret MacVicar, who had founded the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) a few years earlier and who was later MIT's first dean for undergraduate education. Ms. McGavern-Norland, hired as an assistant director ("all the UROP staff were called assistant directors in those days," she said) shortly after that interview, will retire as director of the nationally recognized breakthrough program on July 1.

The intervening years have been interesting, challenging and fulfilling. Working with Margaret MacVicvar was unforgettable.

"I was impressed with Margaret MacVicar right from the start," said Ms. McGavern-Norland, who graduated from St. Lawrence University and was a member of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis's staff before coming to MIT. "She understood MIT intuitively. She worked people hard but rewarded those who passed muster. It wasn't easy to live up to her standards. She was always at least one issue ahead of us.

"She taught me more about organization than any management program could teach me. One phrase of hers I have always found particularly inspiring: 'Don't let what's urgent get in the way of what's important.' This is a far more profound statement than one might think. I have tried to make sure that Margaret's attitude and spirit infuse the way we think and act in UROP to this day."

During Ms. McGavern-Norland's career, UROP has grown into a major component of an MIT education, with virtually all undergraduates involved in at least one project.

When she joined UROP, it had a large off-campus sponsor program that required her to serve as a liaison to local corporations and teaching hospitals from 1976-80. She was named associate director in 1980, assuming responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the program, including the budget, approving proposals, and leading presentations and seminars. She has served as UROP director since 1992.

Originally a credit-only program, UROP for pay was introduced in 1973; the number of paid UROPs has steadily increased. Much of this growth was accounted for by UROP's ability to waive overhead on stipends paid from sponsored research, by far the largest portion of UROP wages paid to students.

However, the indirect cost waiver was eliminated in 1994, creating a minor crisis for UROP. It meant faculty would have to pay an additional 65 percent to sponsor students through their own research grants. In addition, the new regulations prohibited faculty from mixing their sponsored research money with UROP funds. After years of being viewed as a self-sufficient program that provided funding, UROP was needy.

"I saw this coming in 1993, but there were no clear answers about how this would affect UROP or even how this regulation would be interpreted," said Ms. McGavern-Norland. "Things did not look good at all, and interpretations of the new regulations changed month to month. In retrospect, I think the crisis became an advantage. It made us strengthen our ties with MIT faculty and administration, and with MIT's Washington Office."

The 1994 crisis also led to strengthened ties with the Office of Resource Development. The Paul Gray UROP Fund, established in 1997, has brought UROP up to nearly $5 million in endowment. The goal is $10 million.

"Endowment is crucial for UROP because funding for the long term is the only way to support long-term goals," Ms. McGavern-Norland said. "Right now, earning pay for UROP is paramount to many students. On the 1998 senior survey, 72 percent of respondents said that they would either not be able to do UROP if they could not earn pay, or would have to find a paying job in addition to their UROP. Also, data from this year's survey of faculty confirm that many prefer to pay their UROPers."

With the endowment growing and the budget stable, Ms. McGavern-Norland believes UROP now needs to reinforce its ties with academic departments and faculty. Plans call for a faculty member to serve as a half-time director for UROP in collaboration with its current full-time administrator. "We would like to hear from faculty who are interested in this position, or who might want to suggest other faculty for it, or who want to offer general comments and suggestions on the future evolution of UROP," Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams said.

"UROP will always need a spokesperson, a lobbyist at the highest level, someone who understands Margaret MacVicar's vision," said Ms. Mc-Gavern-Norland. "That, combined with UROP's current excellent staff, gives me a great deal of confidence about its future."


In addition to UROP, Ms. McGavern-Norland was also director of the Undergraduate Education Office from 1987-92, reporting to Dr.MacVicar, who was the dean for undergraduate education from 1985 until her death in 1991. At Dean MacVicar's request, Ms. McGavern-Norland formed the Educational Studies Working Group (ESWG) in 1988, bringing together representatives from Admissions, Financial Aid, Planning, Student Services, Information Systems and the Alumni/ae Association.

Ms. McGavern-Norland and Associate Dean Alberta Lipson conducted a study of student attitudes and behavior about cheating and responsible conduct after a 1991 cheating incident. A report was issued in 1993. "As recently as the early '90s there was little hard data on how undergraduates experienced MIT," said Ms. McGavern-Norland. "Policy was often based on anecdotal information."

The ESWG conducted MIT's first senior survey with the Class of 1994. The ESWG also conceived a long range plan where students would be surveyed every four years, and continue to be surveyed as alumni/ae. "We felt that it was important that MIT understand what its students are experiencing and that this be done in a coherent way," she said. "Of course, since then there have been many surveys and this seems to have subsumed this initial vision."

In recent years, Ms. McGavern-Norland has served on the Committee on Academic Performance, the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid, and committees for the Eloranta Summer Research Fellowships and Randolph Wei Research Awards. For several years, she taught a freshman advisor seminar on public speaking, and still serves as a premed advisor. She was also on the IAP Policy Committee for IAP 1999.

She's comfortable with her decision to move on.

"I've been here long enough," she said. "There are so many other things I want to do, I couldn't name them all. I want more time to travel in a more leisurely fashion. I had a serious interest in photography some years ago but haven't had time for it in ages. There are grandchildren -- one so far and two more on the way.

"There's a film documentary project that's come out of Lexington Oral History Projects, Inc., that I and other members of the steering committee and a Boston filmmaker are seeking additional funding for. MIT history professor Chris Appy is one of several contributingscholars to this project. The film treatment is tentatively titled Struggle for the Green and is based on the recollections of participants in a 1971 protest on the Lexington Battle Green that resulted in the largest mass arrest in Massachusetts history."

Once she says goodbye to UROP and MIT, there's no doubt that Norma McGavern-Norland will have plenty to do. Nevertheless, she doesn't plan to be a stranger. "I certainly plan to come back to visit for UROP's 30th anniversary," she said. It will be celebrated during the 1999-2000 academic year.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 23).

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