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Meant for Each Other

After 31 years, the MIT/WHOI Joint Program is going strong

It was 1968. On university campuses, the Beatles blared from dorm-room stereos, and VW Beetles (the original ones) infested parking lots. The times were a-changing, and they were ripe for bold initiatives.

Few initiatives are as bold as an unorthodox marriage—especially in the halls of academia. So it was a bit of a maverick master stroke when two eminent scientific institutions—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—announced in 1968 that they had joined forces to create a joint program for graduate studies in oceanography.

At first blush (and even thirty years in retrospect), the union seemed made in heaven. MIT was among the foremost American centers of higher education in science and engineering, but it did not offer a full range of ocean sciences and was threatened with becoming literally and figuratively landlocked from an exciting, important and rapidly emerging field of science. WHOI, on the other hand, literally and figuratively faced the sea, launching research ships and ocean expeditions from its active port in Woods Hole. But it had no shore-based provisions for teaching fundamental science courses and spawning new generations of oceanographers to continue seagoing research.

“Woods Hole had a vast laboratory, which was the ocean,” said Howard W. Johnson, who became president of MIT in 1966. “We had the classrooms and the students who were interested in that laboratory. So the connection was natural.”

But if the idea made so much common sense, why hadn’t it been done before? The primary reason was that, well, it had never been done before. It was an unprecedented venture in higher education: Two proud, independent institutions joined themselves, as the Memorandum of Agreement between MIT and WHOI said, “in a cooperative arrangement in which each institution… will participate as an equal partner.” This was no merger or acquisition, but a marriage—one that is still going strong after thirty-one years.

Like all relationships, the MIT and WHOI partnership didn’t occur in a vacuum; forces brought them together. First, a thunderous scientific revolution had just occurred. Between 1966 and 1968, two decades of intense post-World War II oceanographic and geophysical research had culminated in confirmation of the plate tectonics theory, which revealed a fundamentally new framework for understanding the Earth.
Much of that research was led by pioneering geophysicist Maurice Ewing at Columbia University. Ironically, in 1948 MIT had offered Ewing a professorial position and an estate in New Bedford to launch a geophysics and oceanography program. But Columbia countered with its own offer of an estate in New York. Ewing and his fledgling group of graduate students toured both estates, put it to a vote, and decided to stay at Columbia. If they hadn’t, MIT may well have turned out to be WHOI’s rival, rather than its subsequent spouse. The decision also derailed MIT’s ambitions in marine geophysics, and, as a result, MIT essentially sat on the sidelines during the plate tectonics revolution. Now it wanted to get into the game.

Heightening that desire was an impending report by the Stratton Commission—comprising academic, governmental, and business leaders, and established by Congress “to give serious and systematic attention to our marine environment and to the potential resources of the oceans.” Named after its chairman, Julius Stratton, the commission was wrapping up two years of deliberations and was poised to recommend sweeping steps “to stimulate marine exploration, science, technology and financial investment on a vastly augmented scale.”

Adding urgency and political clout for ocean research was a germinating environmental movement in the country, which would blossom two years later in the first Earth Day and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile at WHOI, Director Paul Fye also had been keeping a keen eye on these forces and their potential effects on his Institution. Established in 1930, WHOI originally conducted research primarily in the summer and did not put out to sea in the cold months. But World War II instantly ratcheted up operations and WHOI became an energetic, year-round research center.

By the mid-1960s, the field was shifting. Until then, oceanography was concentrated at a handful of institutions, such as WHOI, with the ships to support the research. Now many other institutions, including MIT, became more interested in ocean science.
“Some of us began to see that the young blood and new ideas in oceanography would come through academic institutions,” recalled Arnold Arons, the last living member of a WHOI Trustees’ Education Committee appointed in 1964 to review WHOI educational activities and deficiencies.
Arons knew firsthand the importance of this transfusion of youthful energy and brain power. As a young Harvard graduate student, he came down to WHOI a few months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to take part in what soon became the Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory. The group’s work clarified much of the then little-known physics of underwater explosion phenomena and helped test and optimize various experimental explosive compositions for the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare effort.
“It was perfectly obvious to Fye and others that if nothing were done, the bloodstream of fresh young minds would be diverted from WHOI, and it could become nothing more than a ship station,” Arons said.
“Fye feared that the Institution’s lack of academic offerings would reduce its opportunities for growth. He also understood that WHOI was not equipped to do the work alone. We didn’t have the structure and time to do introductory courses. So he began to think in terms of joint operations with academic institutions.”
Fye’s model for a new educational program was Rockefeller University, a graduate university that was affiliated with nearby hospitals in New York City, said Robert Morse, who joined WHOI in 1971 and served as third dean of the young MIT/WHOI Joint Program from 1973 to 1979. Just prior to that, Morse was president of Case Institute of Technology and had helped engineer a momentous, but more traditional, academic merger with Western Reserve University to create Case Western Reserve. Unlike those academic institutions, WHOI sought to gain educational advantages without giving up its independence.

So WHOI went a-courting, first to two obvious potential partners, both 65 miles away in Cambridge. “We hoped to set up a connection with Harvard, through biology, but they weren’t interested,” Arons said. “MIT was ambivalent; there was both desire and opposition.”

Imagine a proud and able sea captain returning to shore after years of freedom and adventure on the high seas, and then imagine an urbane, aristocratic young woman, well-ensconced in her family mansion. Now imagine these protagonists contemplating marriage. They may have had much to offer each other, but they came from such different worlds, with different rules, and they both feared having to make unsavory compromises. And then there were all the objections from the families.

“At Woods Hole, the Joint Program wasn’t universally accepted,” said Charley Hollister, who succeeded Morse and served as WHOI dean of the Joint Program from 1979 to 1989. (Hollister died in a hiking accident Aug. 23. See page 19.) “Some of the staff had come here to get away from students,” he said. They preferred to conduct their research without the burdens of teaching and advising students or the constraints imposed by academic bureaucracy, committees, and rules.
MIT faculty members had their own qualms, Morse said. For starters, the idea of sharing its prestigious degree with another institution was new and not something to be entered into lightly, he said. In addition, some academic curmudgeons deemed the young science of oceanography a playground for yachtsmen or a bastard science unworthy of the same degree given to students of more classical fields like physics, biology, and chemistry. To stem the hemming and hawing and bring MIT and WHOI to the altar required the strong intervention of two visionary matchmakers.

The first was Frank Press, who had recently been lured back East from the California Institute of Technology to head MIT’s Earth Science Department. Press was a seismologist, but he earned his degree and began his career under Ewing at Columbia. In fact, he was among the cadre of graduate students who had come close to moving with Ewing to MIT in 1948. Press, who had made several cruises aboard research ships including WHOI’s Atlantis, knew the value of oceanographic science. He made no secret of his view “that an integrated approach to the earth sciences, including the oceans and land, was the way to proceed.”

And at WHOI, Fye was rounding up support for the partnership among trustees and gathering funds from private donors to ensure that WHOI could hold up its end financially. J. Seward Johnson gave two gifts totaling $8 million, and Mr. and Mrs. W. Van Alan Clark donated another $5.25 million to launch the new education program.

With this dowry promised and a nuptial agreement hammered out, WHOI and MIT were formally wed on May 8, 1968, at a signing ceremony aboard WHOI’s research vessel Chain. The Memorandum of Agreement signed by Howard W. Johnson and Fye made patently clear that, in this marriage, the partners would maintain separate residences and checkbooks: “…each institution retains full autonomy in appointment of faculty and staff, awarding of degrees, and in all other matters involving that institution alone,” the memorandum said.

At the same time, the document declared a respectful full-fledged commitment to make all decisions affecting the program “through mutual consultation” and “with the common consent of both institutions,” and it established a vehicle for doing that: “a joint education committee with equal representation from each institution.” Each institution contributed a co-leader. Press became the first MIT Director of the Joint Program, retaining the position over the program’s first decade. K.O. Emery became the first WHOI Dean of Graduate Studies for six months until H. Burr Steinbach assumed the position from 1968 to 1973.

“The truly unique thing about this program is that every decision—from the time students are admitted to the time they get their degrees—is made by joint faculty committees whose members have to come to a consensus,” said A. Lawrence “Jake” Peirson III, who has been associated with the program from its beginning, retiring in 1996 as WHOI Associate Dean and Registrar.

Collaboratively, WHOI and MIT faculty oversee every facet of the program—including admitting students, establishing curriculum requirements, assessing academic performances, and conducting thesis defenses.

“Students have to be acceptable to both institutions and feel welcome at both institutions,” Peirson said.

During the honeymoon period, however, a large percentage of the scientific staff at WHOI didn’t exactly welcome students with open arms. They remained suspicious about having to assume teaching responsibilities and harbored resentment that the Joint Program had been imposed on them.
The endowment funds were critical. The program would never have succeeded without them, Morse said, because “they allowed us to provide fellowships to students, particularly in their first one or two years, without being burdens to research projects.”

Critics could not complain that institutional funds earmarked for them were being diverted to support students. And since teaching was voluntary, they could not complain that the program was eating up their time.

But then a curious thing happened. “Four or five years later, some of those people who criticized the program had turned around and were teaching courses,” Peirson said.

Soon, “a lot of the people who had been unhappy retired,” said Carl Wunsch, an MIT faculty member from the beginning of the program, who succeeded Press as MIT Joint Program Director. “As WHOI hired new faculty, it used the existence of the Joint Program as a carrot.”

Today, though some WHOI scientists prefer to devote their entire time to research, many of them enthusiastically advise students and teach classes. Students permeate WHOI labs and ships. They take classes taught by faculty of both institutions, on both campuses—or sometimes presented on both campuses simultaneously via teleconferencing. A shuttle bus provides transportation between campuses, making it easier for students to take advantage of each of them.

Marriages, as we all know, don’t always work out. So it’s nice to find one that is thriving. “After 31 years, we have become aware that our strength lies in being joined,” said Paola Rizzoli, the current MIT Joint Program Director.

MIT and WHOI both not only got what they originally wanted out of the relationship, but they also received a bonus: “In my experience, I don’t think any other graduate oceanography program got students of such high quality,” said Morse, “and it isn’t clear that either MIT or WHOI could have gotten those students themselves.”

In 1998, an External Review Committee composed of elite scientists and educators from other institutions assessed the program and concluded:

“The Joint Program is the top graduate program—or arguably one of the two top programs—in marine science in the world. It consistently draws the most outstanding applicants from both the US and abroad, and the program has managed to recruit a consistently high fraction of those admitted. The students encountered by the Review Committee were articulate and highly motivated. The variety of areas of research and training that they represented was laudatory, as was the quality of their research. The more than 500 alumni and alumnae include many of the scientific leaders of oceanography.”

A total of 576 graduates have earned joint degrees from MIT and WHOI. (An additional four have earned Ph.D. degrees from WHOI alone.) They have flourished in academia and oceanography, but their contributions and career paths are surprisingly diverse.

We invite you to meet some of the fruitful children of this innovative marriage between two proud, independent, scientifically top-notch institutions.

—Laurence Lippsett

Originally published: October 1, 1999