Harvey Mudd College at the Half-Century Mark
It would be nice to say that the college finds itself thriving at the age of fifty. But, in fact, the college finds itself in a state of crisis. The Dean of Faculty left at the end of the last academic year and the President will leave at the end of the next academic year. With a major fund-raising campaign beginning, the Director of College Advancement is also leaving. In fact, retention of senior staff has been very poor over the last decade. Meanwhile, relations with the Trustees have been tense throughout the same period and there is a definite trend toward Trustee micro-management of the institution. Nevertheless, the academic side of our institution seems to be fairly stable. HMC continues to attract and retain a distinguished faculty and the student body continues to meet very high standards.
Certainly, Harvey Mudd has succeeded in many ways; probably, in fact, it has succeeded well beyond our wildest imagination. We hold our own in competition for admissions with Cal Tech, MIT, and Stanford; and we are ranked 15th among the most prestigious liberal arts colleges of the country. The college has developed a strong technical core, and each department has a distinguished program of learning in its specific fields, including the humanities and the social sciences. Fifty years ago, we were entirely unknown and in possession of a funny name.
Nevertheless, recent discussions about the college have tended to suggest pessimism about our fulfillment of the college's mission itself. Whatever was intended in that mission, it does not seem obvious to many of us that HMC has developed a well defined, powerful, and unique approach to the social impact of science and engineering. There is little attention to general education or to goals that transcend the well defined special knowledge and skills offered by the departments. What is the undergraduate educational experience for? Most students, faculty, and administrators, today, would seem to answer, "career development."
Harvey Mudd's unique combination of technical and humane studies has been with it from the beginning. The mission statements that have been embedded in our Catalogs from the very beginning have all suggested that HMC alumni will carry with them a unique ability to understand the impact of their work on society. In fact, the distinguishing character of their leadership in science and engineering will be expressed in this breadth of understanding and scope of approaches to real-life problem solving. But has the college achieved what was intended? Most people seem to agree that we have merely scratched the surface.
Perhaps the appropriate place to begin this discussion, then, is with the original intention. Intentions, of course, are unique to the individuals who possess them, and it is clear that the college's founders were not all of one mind. Perhaps it is best to try to understand the historical grounding on which those intentions were founded. That, as a matter of fact, is pretty easy to do. If we take ourselves back into the mid-1950s and try to embrace the mental states of the college's original faculty, there is only one obvious and powerful fact and that is the role of science and engineering in research and development during and after the Second World War. The epitome of that situation, though by no means its only interesting issue, was the development of the Atomic Bomb. Virtually all of the individuals who founded Harvey Mudd College had been involved in wartime science and engineering in one way or another.
The students of today were born in the late 1980s and have no memory of even the Vietnam War, to say nothing about the Second World War. Faculty members, aged 40, were coming to the age of social and political awareness (ten or so) about the time that the Vietnam War was coming to an end. Most faculty now teaching at HMC never had to put their scientific or engineering skills to work for a war effort. It is profoundly difficult, therefore, for the college community to understand the central situation and themes of thinking that set HMC on its way with its specific mission of really understanding the impact of our scientific and engineering work on society.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to overemphasize the significance of the Atomic Bomb. It stands within the spiritual development of science and scientists like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in Genesis. It represents the primal loss of innocence; and innocence, once lost, can never be regained. Thousands of young scientists and engineers worked in the Manhattan Project to apply their skills and knowledge to the development and deployment of the Atomic Bomb. Then, at Hiroshima, at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, their work was realized in what will hopefully remain the most terrible moment in human history -- men, women, and children burned alive in seconds, people terribly mutilated, and ultimately, a whole surviving population set upon a gruesome path of slow victimization by long-term radiation sickness. In a relatively short span of time, theoretical physics and chemistry had moved from the realm of "disinterested inquiry" to the pathetic realm of "world wrenching violence to human life."
As much as we might wish, there has never been an avenue of retreat from this event. There are, of course, numerous rationalizations; there is also, of course, the contemporary phenomenon of a collective loss of memory. But will scientists ever really outlive the guilt? I do not think they will, nor do I think they should. It is even more essential today to understand the moment of the Manhattan Project's stunning success as the world-historical moment of science's "coming to age," as an irrevocable loss of innocence in a monumental experience of blood guilt. The mediocre and lifeless idea of "social impact" shudders in the radiation-soaked fire storm of this guilt and it was felt by all who had come close to it.
My rhetoric here will probably sound "extreme" to most readers but it really is impossible to over emphasize the importance of this event. It is really only the passage of time and the dulling of memories that has made it seem unimportant to most. Only a decade had passed when Harvey Mudd College was created. Among the original faculty, the president had developed radar during the war; the chair of chemistry had worked on the Manhattan Project at Berkeley; the chair of mathematics had served punitive time as a conscientious objector. The chair of physics was a former professor from the Harvard History of Science group and was well aware of all the issues. It was clear to all that science and engineering could no longer be learned in isolation from society and human values any more than they could be practiced in isolation. The works of science had become a part of human history, with a vengeance, and that meant that scientists and engineers must be educated to become intelligent contributors to human history, with all the rights and responsibilities entailed. One cannot simplistically live as merely a scientist or as an engineer; one acts fully in society as a responsible human being.
As time has passed, this mission remains but its urgency has become thoroughly dulled. The historical and ethical issues are simply lost from collective memory. When we look around ourselves to find other historical events to give the mission meaning, we are at a loss. In spite of anxieties or guilt, science and engineering have been intimately involved with the military-industrial complex in America ever since the Second World War. The development of weapons and delivery systems has built numerous careers. Research and development as well as education in science and engineering have attracted heavy funding from both governments and corporations. Meanwhile, really traumatic incidents have been few, especially if you are willing to ignore the major anxieties and psychological/sociological distress of the Cold War Era, the Arms Race, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. And our population has become amazingly adept at that. In the final analysis, the Bomb was never used again except as a threat. But the absence of trauma coupled with the normalcy of research and development leaves current faculty and students wondering what the mission is really about.
The actual mission of the college, today, would seem to be a matter of continuing to develop scientific and engineering skills that mesh well with the ever-expanding ambitions of global corporate enterprises. These corporations are the principal employers of scientists and engineers so learning how to satisfy their corporate thirst is the name of the game. But the gaping question left unanswered in this plan is where the college's mission of understanding the social impact of our work should actually be applied. The predominant expectation seems to be that governments and corporations will continue to take "responsibility" for whatever they do and that scientists and engineers just work for them and deliver what they demand. This simply takes us back to the "ground zero" of the Manhattan Project. Apparently, we have learned nothing from that experience.
Personally, I hope that the college's mission is not dead. But reviving it will require a very substantial reorientation of thinking on campus. I do believe that scientists and engineers must take responsibility for their works, and that may mean preventing governments and corporations from misusing them. It also means becoming "professional" in the same sense as physicians and lawyers and really living by the letter of the high-sounding codes of ethics that most of these professional organizations espouse. In the most basic respects, science and engineering should be practiced for the public good, and scientists and engineers must be well enough educated that they themselves can exercise judgments about the public good. We cannot afford, as in the past, to simply and naively assume that others will determine the "public good" for us. All of this implies setting in place, as a fundamental part of our educational program, a real attempt to teach students how to apply their understanding of society and human values to the issues of their work. This will often mean learning how to anticipate the impact of work well before it is a reality and, hence, long enough in advance to prevent damage to society and human life.
It is a great mission, I believe, and Harvey Mudd College was a courageous young institution to begin such an educational experiment. Now, I hope it will finish the job! I am very distressed by how little progress we have made in our first 50 years.