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Institute within MIT marks 50 years

There's a profit-making institute within the Institute that has its own array of course offerings, about 75,000 alumni/ae, and a 50-year history of what some consider to be the best connections with industry anywhere at MIT.

The Professional Institute, better known as the Summer Session for more than four decades, kicked off its 50th year last night with a reception at Endicott House. President Charles M. Vest addressed remarks to the assembled faculty and other guests.

"There can be little doubt of the enduring value this program has had for both the Institute and for the larger community we serve. One of the very first initiatives of its kind in the United States, it has often been imitated, but never excelled," Dr. Vest said.

"President Killian established this initiative at the same time -- and for many of the same reasons -- as he created the Industrial Liaison Program. Both proposals were deeply rooted in the basic values of MIT, and both were designed to help faculty into greater direct contact with senior leaders and decision-makers in industry and government."

President James R. Killian Jr. initiated the program of short summer courses for industry in 1949 as a "way to strengthen the interactions between MIT and industry and government," said current director Frederick J. McGarry, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering who has directed the program since 1983, when Professor of Meteorology James Austin retired.

Professor McGarry credited Professor Austin, who directed the program from its inception, with making the Summer Session "part of the culture at MIT. He really set it up in a very clever way. People who teach get supplemental income, as do the Institute and the departments. Everybody benefits."

Professor McGarry said the program, which now resides administratively within the Center for Advanced Educational Services (CAES), has turned a good profit from the start. About 1,500 people attend the 50 to 60 course offerings each summer.

"MIT has never acknowledged that this [the Professional Institute] is the primary vehicle for volume industry exposure to MIT," said Professor Edward B. Roberts of the Sloan School, who has taught in the summer program since 1962. His course and that of Institute Professor Daniel Wang of biology are among the longest-running of the program.


While the course content has changed dramatically in 50 years (reflecting current research), and the student body has diversified (it was mostly men for many years), the first day still begins much the same as it did 50 years ago. On the first Monday, students register in Lobby 7 from 8-9am under signs that declare the name of the course and last name A-L or M-Z. Then they head off to Rm 1-290 or another lecture hall, where they'll spend from two days to two weeks surrounded by their peers from around the world in an intensive professional course.

Students pay about $2,000 to attend most of the courses, which are designed and taught by individual faculty members who quickly develop a following of professionals in their field. Topics range from applied biology to leadership to engineering systems.

The mid-career professionals who attend come from all 50 US states and many foreign countries. Most have graduate degrees along with their industry experience, according to Professor McGarry, who first taught his course on composite materials in 1962.

"It's a bona fide intellectual exercise, because two-thirds of the students have advanced degrees; one-third have PhDs. They're not just Joe Six-Pack by any means," Professor McGarry said. "Teachers of the summer courses make a lot of contacts for consulting, research and other activities within industry and government.

"At MIT, the faculty member doesn't have to look for things to do. But teaching these courses provides some real intellectual and professional rewards aside from the monetary," he said.


Professor Roberts, whose course on Management of Research, Development and Technology-Based Innovations is the longest-running and biggest revenue earner of all the summer sessions, agrees with Professor McGarry. Every summer, 50 to 60 senior managers pay $11,000 each to attend the 10-day course featuring 15 MIT faculty members and researchers, including Professor Roberts, who has not missed a course in 36 years.

"Early on, it was kind of expected that you set up a summer course. It was your way of saying to the world of industry: 'Here's what we're doing. Come and look at it and respond,'" said Professor Roberts.

"My faculty get their ideas tested in a classroom of senior industry people. And sometimes, the first exposure of the research to these senior managers doesn't go over very well. They may say 'Baloney. This won't fly,'" said Professor Roberts, the David Sarnoff Professor of the Management of Technology, chairman of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center and co-chairman of the MIT International Center for Research on the Management of Technology.

"We know we've had impact because we've changed vocabulary. Before we were even teaching technology management in Sloan courses, MIT was turning up as number one in technical management in surveys. Why? Because senior management learned it in this summer course. For good or for bad, we've affected lots of people's thoughts about how to manage technology," he said.

The motto of this 50-year-old program, "Helping Experts Stay That Way," remains as valid today as when it began, said Professor McGarry. "There are no signs that the need is lessening or that competitive programs, of which there are many, are displacing it," he said. Most of those competitors are shorter -- often weekend seminars -- and don't offer the same intensity or faculty contact as the MIT summer courses.

"The drinking-from-a-fire-hose analogy so cherished by our undergrads really applies to this program. A tremendous amount of material is thrown at these people during their time here, much of it on paper or disk that they carry away with them. Then they have the rest of the year to study and learn it," Professor McGarry said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 30).

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