Faculty share opinions on College of Computing in meeting, forum

‘This is not the Institute of AI,’ one professor says

The faculty met twice last week to discuss the new College of Computing: once at a monthly meeting held Wednesday and again at a forum gathered specifically to hear faculty opinions on the college held Thursday.

At the monthly meeting, Dean of the School of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan said that the structure of the new college is far from finalized and that faculty will work on it in working groups.

Opinions on the messaging of the college’s purpose and mission were mixed.

Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering Ian Hutchinson asked at the meeting how creating a college that elevates computing is going to help solve the overload of students in the EECS department. “We need to de-escalate the trend of students to flock into CS because there are so many as important things,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson also commented that the focus for the college seems to be on the “fashionable” parts of computing.

“This is not the ‘Institute of AI,’” EECS Professor Jacob White ’80 said at the forum. White is currently an instructor for 6.036 (Introduction to Machine Learning).

“The world is not just digital but also physical,” White continued, recommending that the engineering undergraduate curriculum should be revisited.

EECS Professor Randy Davis, on the other hand, liked the college’s messaging, praising at the meeting the choice to name it the “College of Computing” rather than of “computer science.” “We all think that’s the right title,” Davis said.

Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Heather Lechtman said at the forum that there was only one charge that president and provost should give to the new college: to save the planet. “We have a time limit on whether or not this species is actually going to persist,” Lechtman said.

EECS Professor Vladimir Bulović said at the forum that MIT must first determine what would make up the “intellectual glue” of the college — before selecting the dean. Discussion of the dean was a popular topic at the faculty forum.

Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88 explained at the forum that the bridge faculty would likely be people who would get a “chance of success at this institution perhaps in a way that they might not have at another institution.” In particular, Schmidt said they might be junior faculty.

“I sit on the bridge” between computing and other fields, Professor of Physics and EECS Isaac Chuang ’90 said at the meeting. “And I’m waiting for the bridge to collapse.”

Chuang said he was concerned about how bridge teaching and the college’s academic mission would work, noting that a college it is different from labs and centers that cross departments.

White also said that he thought the main challenge in creating the new College will be figuring out how the bridge faculty, who would have “two allegiances,” would work.

Professor of Physics Krishna Rajagopal said at the faculty meeting, “I don’t like the phrasing that the core is about advancing computing and the bridge is about advancing other disciplines.” He said it should be the other way around, and continued that MIT currently has many professors who bridge departments — for example, there are many professors in the mathematics department who advance physics, and many professors in the physics department who advance math.

Stephen A. Schwarzman, who donated 350 million dollars for the creation of the college that will be named for him, will have “no voice in how we structure this [college] academically,” Schmidt said in response to a question at the faculty forum.

MIT has not yet decided on the site for the new building for the college, but is considering five sites on the main campus, Schmidt said at the faculty meeting.

Schmidt acknowledged that some faculty were concerned about the speed with which the college has been announced at the faculty meeting. He said it was “important for us to declare where we want to go and then see the process that gets us there.”

The college has support in letter form from all five school deans, EECS and CSAIL leadership, the MIT Turing award recipients, and the IDSS and Quest for Intelligence directors and ORC co-director, Chandrakasan said at the faculty meeting.

Jessica Shi and Kaitlyn Hennacy contributed reporting.

Update 10/25/18: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that Jacob White said Ian Waitz's vision for the college was at odds with his. In fact, White was responding to a comment from Ian Hutchinson. In the interest of maintaining continuity in the article with Hutchinson's previously quoted comments, the sentence has been removed.