A Widening Sphere
Alexander examines how early MIT leaders shaped the Institute
The first nine presidents: Rogers to Compton
The men who drove MIT's early development were "charismatic, diverse, quirky, sometimes tragic individuals," says Philip Alexander, a research associate in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. In A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT, his new book honoring the Institute's 150th anniversary, he describes how its first nine presidents, from William Barton Rogers to Karl Taylor Compton, shaped much of its first century.
From polytechnic institute to major research institution
MIT was founded in 1861 as a polytechnic institute in Boston's Back Bay; the early MIT trained men (and a few women) from all parts of society as engineers for the nation's burgeoning industries. Over the years, MIT expanded its mission and ventured into other fields—pure science, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. In A Widening Sphere, Philip Alexander traces MIT's evolution from polytechnic to major research institution through the lives of its first nine presidents, exploring how the ideas, outlook, approach, and personality of each shaped the school’s intellectual and social cultures.
Alexander describes, among other things, the political skill and entrepreneurial spirit of founder and first president, William Rogers; institutional growing pains under John Runkle; Francis Walker's campaign to broaden the curriculum, especially in the social sciences, and to recruit first-rate faculty; James Crafts, whose heart lay in research, not administration; Henry Pritchett's thwarted effort to merge with Harvard (after which he decamped to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching); Richard Maclaurin's successful strategy to move the institute to Cambridge, after considering other sites (including a golf club in Brighton); the brilliant, progressive Ernest Nichols; Samuel Stratton's push towards a global perspective; and Karl Compton’s vision for a new kind of Institutee.
Through these interlocking yet independent portraits, Alexander reveals the inner workings of a complex and dynamic community of innovators.