Brief History

MIT pioneered in providing an education that combines technology, science, the humanities, arts, and social sciences. MIT'S SHASS mission focuses on research with a global impact, and on a core part of an MIT education: the School's faculty help all undergraduates gain critical thinking and communication skills, cultural and historical perspectives, and understanding of the human condition — all capacities that enable MIT graduates to serve the world well, with expertise and wisdom.

Nine Deans have served the School.

Edwin Sharp Burdell 1937-1938
Robert Granville Caldwell 1938-1948
John Ely Burchard 1948-1964
Robert Lyle Bishop 1964-1973
Harold John Hanham 1973-1984
Ann Fetter Friedlaender 1984-1990
Philip Shukry Khoury 1990-2006

Deborah Kay Fitzgerald 


Melissa Nobles 

2015–August 2021

Interim Dean
Agustín Rayo      August 2021 - January 2022 (estimated)


Growth Over The Decades


Roots of MIT SHASS trace to the Institute's founding
wtih courses in English, modern languages, psychology, and political science

The roots of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (MIT-SHASS) date to the earliest days of the Institute, which was founded in 1861 and opened in 1865. In the Institute's first catalogue, founder William Barton Rogers indicated that a primary goal of the Institute was “to furnish such a general education, founded upon the mathematical, physical, and natural sciences, English and other Modern Languages, and Mental and Political Science, as shall form a fitting preparation for any of the departments of active life.”

MIT pioneered by combining technical training with a liberal arts education. Classes in literature and languages, psychology, politics — as well as participation in musical groups — were offered at MIT from its earliest days. By mid-20th century, the Institute had created a dedicated school for the humanities, arts, and social science disciplines. Today, SHASS teaches every MIT undergraduate, is home to research that has a global impact, and to superb graduate programs, all recognized as among the finest in the world. For a tour of MIT's SHASS disciplines, visit Fields of Study.


Organized music groups appear at MIT

The first organized music groups, which appeared in 1884, have evolved over time into MIT's Music program, which contains a conservatory level track, and is a major part of the MIT experience and education. The first MIT Tech Orchestra appeared on campus in the 1890s, along with the Banjo and Glee Clubs. The orchestra disbanded and re-appeared several times over the years that followed until 1947, when Klaus Liepmann, MIT's first full-time professor of music and founder of the Music program, became director of the Symphony, as well as the Choral Society and Glee Club. (Photograph: MIT Banjo Club, circa 1893, Courtesy of the MIT Museum)


First MIT theater production is Eugene O'Neill play

Dramashop’s first production “The Hairy Ape” by Eugene O’Neill launched the co-curricular student theater group that is open to all members of the MIT community.


Elevating the Humanities and Social Sciences at MIT

During the administration of President Karl Taylor Compton (1930-1949) work was done to improve the status of humanities and social sciences at MIT. On 9 March 1932 the MIT Corporation adopted a new plan of administration, creating three schools (Engineering, Science, and Architecture) and two divisions including the Division of Humanities. The Division of Humanities differed from the schools in that it offered no programs leading to degrees. Aside from academic instruction in the fields of English, history, economics, and language, the division was also "responsible for instruction in such fields as sociology, labor relations, government, international relations, law, philosophy, psychology, literature, music, and fine arts for both undergraduate and graduate students."

The Department of Economics and Statistics, the Department of English and History, and the Department of Modern Languages were brought into the Division of Humanities in 1932. The division also had supervisory responsibilities for some extracurricular activities, such as drama, music, and museum exhibits. The administrative head of the division, originally to be called the director, but actually called the dean, reported to the vice president and the president.

Until the first dean, Edwin S. Burdell, was appointed in 1937, the duties of the director were divided among the deans of the three schools. Dean Robert Granville Caldwell was appointed in 1938.


Four-year Program in the Humanities Created 

In 1944, a four-year program of required courses in the humanities and social sciences for undergraduates was adopted by the faculty. The Committee on Educational Survey, also known as the Lewis Committee, whose report was published in 1949, called for the establishment of a School of Humanities which could grant degrees.


School of Humanities and Social Studies Formed 

The School of Humanities and Social Studies was established in December 1950 with John Ely Burchard as the first dean. The Center for International Studies was founded and placed within the School in [1950] as an extra-departmental organization.

The psychology and political science sections were established in the Department of Economics and Social Science in 1951 and 1956 respectively. In 1954, a Department of Humanities was created within the school. The new department incorporated the Department of English and History and other areas of related academic interest.

In 1955, Course XXI was begun so that students could major in humanities or social sciences in combination with science or engineering. The students received the degree of bachelor of science without specification of a science or engineering department. A graduate program in political science was introduced in 1958, and in 1959 the name of the school was changed to School of Humanities and Social Science (SHSS).

In 1952, Elspeth Rostow, assistant professor of economic and social science, becomes the first woman to hold a professorial rank at MIT. After her time at MIT, Rostow served for many years at the University of Texas, where she served as dean of both the LBJ School of Public Affairs and UT’s Division of General and Comparative Studies. As dean, she recruited professors such as Barbara Jordan. About teaching Rostow said, "I enjoy the simple act of teaching. It's not transmitting information, it's enticing people into the world of ideas."


New Sections and Departments Created 

The early 1960s saw the establishment of history (1960), philosophy (1961), music (1961), and literature (1962) sections within the Department of Humanities. Graduate programs in psychology (1960), linguistics (1961), and philosophy (1963) were developed in addition to the well-established graduate program in economics. 

Dean Robert Lyle Bishop was appointed in 1964. The same year, the psychology section became a department. In 1965 the Department of Economics and Social Science (Course XIV) was terminated, and economics and political science achieved separate departmental status. Economics remained Course XIV while political science became Course XVII. Also in 1965 the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics superseded the Department of Modern Languages, and was in turn superseded in 1969 by the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics. In 1967 the undergraduate major in humanities was added. By 1968 the SHSS consisted of five departments (Humanities, Economics, Political Science, Modern Languages and Linguistics, and Psychology) and one research center (the Center for International Studies).


Revisions to the Core Curriculum

In 1971 the Commission on MIT Education began reevaluation of both the general structure and the specific content of the General Institute Requirements in the humanities and social sciences. In October 1971, Dean Bishop appointed a subcommittee of the School Council to examine various plans for revision of the core curriculum in humanities and social science.

Dean Harold John Hanham was appointed in 1973. During his tenure the SHSS stated its mission as comprising three elements: to provide highly developed graduate programs in economics, linguistics, philosophy, political science, and psychology; to enable students to satisfy MIT's humanities requirement (viewed by the SHSS as a general education requirement); and to maintain undergraduate subject majors in economics, philosophy, political science, humanities, and science and engineering. In 1973 the Technology Studies Program was developed to relate the humanities more directly to science and engineering.

In 1974 the freshman and sophomore core program was abolished, and a new form of the Institute requirement was approved, now titled the Institute Requirement in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS), designed to specify the distribution and concentration of subjects taken in the humanities. Under the HASS requirement students had to take at least three subjects in three separate fields from a list of humanistically oriented distribution subjects, at least three of which would be taken in a given field in order to achieve some degree of depth in that field. The requirement was administered by a faculty committee composed of members from all schools at the Institute (previously the humanities requirements had been administered solely by humanities faculty). The new Institute Requirement, which came into full operation in academic year 1975-1976, led to a greater range of choice for freshmen and sophomores.

In 1975 the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics was discontinued as a separate course (Course XXIII), and the subjects of foreign languages and literatures and linguistics became part of the humanities department. In 1976 the Department of Philosophy was combined with linguistics to form the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy (Course XXIV). A new undergraduate program called Language and Mind was established within Course XXIV. That same year, cross-registration and cross-teaching between the SHSS and Wellesley College language faculty began. In 1977, the Technology Studies Program joined forces with the newly founded Program in Science, Technology, and Society.


A Broad and Cohesive Exposure 

Ann Fetter Friedlaender was appointed dean in 1984. During her tenure, the Women's Studies Program was founded (1984), the Department of Psychology formally left the SHSS (1985) to become a part of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and the Statistics Center moved to the SHSS from the School of Science (1986).

In 1985-1986 an Institute-wide committee chaired by Professor Pauline Maier (history) recommended a new HASS-D (distribution) requirement and the restructuring of the current Hum-D requirement. The new HASS-D requirement, approved by the MIT faculty in 1987 and implemented over three years beginning in 1988-1989, was developed to ensure that students receive a broad and cohesive exposure to the humanities, arts, and social sciences. These goals were to be accomplished by imposing more structure on the distribution component of the HASS requirement and substantially reducing the number of subjects offered.


Growth in the Arts at the Institute 

Philip Shukry Khoury became acting dean as of 1 July 1990 and was appointed dean in 1991, in which capacity he continued until 1 July 2006, when he became Associate Provost for the Arts at MIT.   



Advancing International Education, MIT CAST, Curriculum, and Communications

On 1 July 2000, the name of the school changed — from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences to the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences — to recognize more fully the breadth and contributions of the arts at the Institute.

Deborah K. Fitzgerald, associate dean of the school, became interim Dean as of 1 July 2006, and was named the Kenan Sahin Dean in January 2007. Under Fitzgerald's leadership, MIT SHASS became an increasingly important contributor to the Institute's overall capacity for innovation in teaching and research. Fitzgerald strengthened the core undergraduate education requirements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences; catalyzed the restructuring of several academic units; helpled launch the MIT Center for Arts, Science, and Technology (MIT CAST); and supported the growth of MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives). Invented and organized by MIT-SHASS faculty, MISTI is the Institute’s international education program, which prepares students to collaborate and lead around the globe.

To share ideas and raise the profile of MIT research and achievements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, Fitzgerald also established the School's first professional communications program, leading to a feature-rich website; a monthly online digest, Said and Done; the Listening Room for MIT Music; a permanent MIT SHASS exhibition in Building 14N; an active editorial program publishing news and feature stories, profiles, and interviews; social media channels; an annual TOUR de SHASS event introducing students to MIT's humanistic fields; and many other communication works and projects.   



Making a Better World

Deborah Fitzgerald continued to serve as Dean until June 30, 2015.

On July 1, 2015, Melissa Nobles, Professor of Political Science, and former Head, Department of Political Science, took office as the Kenan Sahin Dean.

Upon her appointment President Reif said, “To tackle our global challenges — from water and food scarcity and climate change to digital learning, innovation, and human health — we need ambitious new answers from science and engineering. But because these challenges are rooted in culture, economics, and politics, meaningful solutions must reflect the wisdom of these domains, too. Dean Nobles offers us a vision of the humanities, arts, and social sciences as the human stage on which solutions have purpose and meaning. We are fortunate that she brings to the deanship such an expansive worldview.”

Nobles notes that the research and teaching within SHASS are integral to all of MIT’s work, and envisions a SHASS that is “in keeping with MIT’s ethos of addressing the world’s great challenges,” and that frequently produces research applied to current-day problems. She also expects that SHASS will remain committed to producing first-class basic research.

“MIT SHASS is so important," she notes, "because all the rest of the endeavors at which the Institute so excels — science, engineering, business, and architecture — exist within social, political, cultural, and economic contexts, and those are the realms that MIT-SHASS researches and explores."

She adds: “We also have to be mindful of answering the question: To what ends are our technological and scientific endeavors being put? Will the future be humane and livable? What knowledge and values will guide and sustain us? Many of the answers to those kinds of questions rest in MIT's SHASS departments and courses. Our faculty and students address some of largest, most consequential human questions of our time."



Making a Better World

2021 Melissa Nobles continued to serve as the Kenan Sahin Dean through August 18, 2021, when she became the Chancellor of MIT.  Story at MIT News 

In a letter to the School Community Nobles described the advances in the School during her six year tenure. The following excerpt from her letter includes some highlights:

"It is this allegiance and sustained effort, across every sector of our School, that has allowed us, together, as a community, to accomplish so much over these past six years. There are too many significant advances to name in this letter, but I want to recognize a few:
— We launched the Digital Humanities Lab, which enables faculty and students to ask questions never before possible. A success right out of the gate, the lab is now hosting the largest number of UROPs of any lab on campus.

— We created a marvelous new theater building, a performing arts space that has ushered in a new era for MIT Theater at a time when the program is experiencing exponential growth in stature, scope, and student engagement.

— We developed the pioneering “MIT & Slavery” research class, by which our students are building a more complete history of MIT and contributing to a national conversation on the relationship of higher education to the institution and legacies of slavery.

— We have articulated the ways that our SHASS fields contribute to solving the crucial economic, political, ethical, and social dimensions of climate change, and are integrating our School’s climate-related research into many of MIT’s climate efforts.

— We launched new initiatives and labs, among them: the Global Diversity Lab; the Music Technology Lab; the King Climate Action Initiative in J-PAL that focuses on the nexus of climate change and poverty; and the non-partisan MIT Election Data and Science Lab which contributed significantly to the secure, safe administration of the 2020 election.

— We have encouraged MIT students to “Be Your Whole Self at MIT” by exploring their passions via our HASS fields — and celebrated the MIT bilinguals, the burgeoning group of students who study deeply in both STEM and humanistic fields.

— We gained new support for graduate students, post-docs, and professorships — including the Shapiro Graduate Fellowship in the History of African American Experience of Technology; the Siebel Chair in the History of Science; and the Diamond Chair in Economics, as well as fellowships that support new classes on ethics and technology.  

— In collaboration with the School of Engineering, we introduced Course 6-14, which allows MIT students to integrate the powerful toolkits of computer science and economics.

— We produced multi-disciplinary publications on AI, computing, and ethics that further the integration of MIT’s humanistic perspectives into the Schwarzman College of Computing.

— We provided leadership for the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing group and for the MIT Work of the Future Initiative.

— We created an interdisciplinary "Computing and Society Concentration,” which introduces MIT students to critical thinking about computation and its technologies, enabling them to develop perspectives that are valuable for career success and for generating technology in the public interest.

— And we have secured a home (hooray!) for MIT Music, a forthcoming building designed as a state-of-the-art performance and rehearsal space, worthy of the profound affinity and talent that MIT students and alumni have for music making. 
These and many other efforts will have an enduring influence, and none of them was possible without the collective intelligence, vision, and dedication of our community. I am deeply and forever grateful.


Agustín Rayo, Professor of Philosophy, begins serving as the Interim Dean of MIT SHASS on August 18, 2021.  Story at MIT News

MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt has named professor of philosophy Agustín Rayo PhD ’01 as interim dean of MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), effective Aug. 18. The appointment comes in response to the announcement that SHASS Dean Melissa Nobles will become MIT’s Chancellor later this summer.

Schmidt also appointed a 10-member advisory committee chaired by Caspar Hare, professor of philosophy, to select the next SHASS Kenan Sahin Dean. The committee members are Stephanie Ann Frampton (Literature), Malick Ghachem (History), Jonathan Gruber (Economics), Sabine Iatridou (Linguistics), Graham Jones (Anthropology), Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga (Science, Technology, and Society), Janet Sonenberg (Theater Arts), and Kathleen Thelen (Political Science).

“Agustín is an experienced, thoughtful, and engaging leader who values excellence and carries with him a sincere respect for the SHASS community,” says Schmidt. “I am grateful to him for accepting this interim position during this time of transition. I am confident that the advisory committee members are well-positioned to identify a slate of top candidates for this important post. On behalf of our community, I thank them for their service to SHASS and look forward to the results of their work.”


Highlights from the 50th Anniversary of MIT SHASS
For a look at more historic faculty achievements and highlights between 1950-2000, visit Soundings, Fall 2000.

Based on a history prepared by the Institute Archives, MIT Libraries
December 1995; updated September 2000, August 2006, January 2007, July 2015, September 2017, August 2021