MIT Names 3 MacVicar Fellows, Recognizing Outstanding Teaching


CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Three faculty members whose names have been synonymous with outstanding teaching for many years comprise the 1996 class of Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellows at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. President Charles M. Vest and Provost Joel Moses announced on Thursday, Feb. 1, the appointments of:

  • Rick L. Danheiser, the associate head of the Department of Chemistry.
  • Michael F. Rubner, the TDK Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
  • Robert J. Silbey of the Department of Chemistry.

Selection as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow recognizes outstanding classroom teaching, major innovations in education and dedication to being an apostle of teaching, helping others achieve teaching excellence.

The appointments were announced at the annual MacVicar Fellows reception and luncheon hosted by Dr. Vest and his wife, Rebecca Vest, at the President's House.

Alan Spoon gives address

The main address was given by Alan G. Spoon, president and chief operating officer of the Washington Post Co. Mr. Spoon received the SB and SM in management from MIT in 1973 and also has a law degree from Harvard.

The MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program was established by MIT following the death in September 1991 of Margaret L.A. MacVicar, MIT's first dean of undergraduate education. Its goal was to create a small academy of scholars committed to fine teaching and innovation in education, and, in so doing, to honor the late dean's unrelenting efforts--at MIT and nationally--to enhance undergraduate education. Dean MacVicar was 47 when she died.

The luncheon guests included Dean MacVicar's mother, Elizabeth, the late dean's two sisters, Anne and Victoria, and Victoria's husband, Robert Howell. Also introduced by President Vest was Raymond Walsh IV, vice president of the Class of 1968, the first class to support a MacVicar Fellow. A $500,000 gift from the class was announced at its 25th anniversary reunion.

Also attending were Dr. Paul E. Gray, chairman of the MIT Corporation, and Priscilla Gray, his wife; many MIT deans and vice presidents; and most of the earlier-named MacVicar Fellows--now 30 in number.

Speaker lists goals

In his luncheon remarks, Mr. Spoon cited three educational goals "that existed in my time and are even more important today" and which need to be addressed "across the full range of undergraduate study."

He listed: 1) the ability to communicate effectively; 2) cultivation of wide-ranging curiosity and intellectual flexibility; and 3) developing and nurturing leadership skills.

Turning to communication, he said the majority of the Washington Post Co.'s enterprises--the newspaper, Newsweek magazine, television stations, an educational arm--"would not exist but for their success in winning the attention of readers, viewers, students, who have an overwhelming number of alternatives for news and information. World class fact gathering and reporting have no visibility or impact if they are not well organized and communicated with clarity and zest."

Students, he went on, "must also appreciate the premium the world outside places on their ability to crisply convey their thoughts. Such packaging should take second place to sound underlying work," he continued, but the need for effective presentation is vital, "especially in an ever more crowded world of ideas."

He suggested the use of "oral and written engagement throughout course work across all subjects as an opportunity to polish communications and to stress their importance. I'm convinced that MIT's already large contribution to our society would sharply expand if its graduates were ever better advocates and raconteurs for their views and labors."

Turning to curiosity and intellectual flexibility, Mr. Spoon linked these to coping with and shaping change, traits especially valuable in a "world changing faster than ever before."

People whose curiosity and flexibility of mind make them "willing to try lots of different approaches" also learn to "suffer setbacks resiliently," he said. Those who demonstrate flexibility and curiosity "are most frequently the ones who make breakthroughs to that new paradigm." The characteristics of those who have this ability "include tolerance of ambiguity and unanswered questions" and the ability to "detach themselves from conventional paradigms, and even [from] their own experience."

It is fair to ask, he went on, how students "can be made more comfortable while functioning in the periods of uncertainty and transition they will certainly face." One solution, which Margaret MacVicar embraced, he said, "is to expose science students to research as early as possible so as to avoid the narrowness and rigidity of the text and problem sets of reigning paradigms."

Setting the stage for his thoughts on nurturing leadership, Mr. Spoon recalled a question from a student at a recent informal seminar that turned to career paths. "One young woman startled me with her only question: 'Why do MIT alums usually end up working for Yale and Harvard graduates?' I was at a loss for words.. I really didn't tackle the question, but as you can tell it continues to haunt me."

MIT contributes its "fair share of leaders," he said, but why does the university "rely so heavily on the students' own natural selection of leadership roles and experiences? I honestly don't know of any broad-based leadership development programs in the nation's best undergraduate school, other than the excellent but passive filtering in the admissions process. Can the Institute do more to encourage and groom leadership skills?"

He concluded by saluting the "uniquely valuable and substantial talents" of MIT students which the world outside the university "eagerly seeks to tap."

"In our increasingly technological world, the market for the acumen of MIT students is fast growing. I also believe that communication skills and adaptability will go a long way in preparing MIT students confidently for the leadership responsibilities ultimately thrust upon them."

Fifth group of fellows

MacVicar Fellows, of which this is the fifth group, serve 10-year terms. The fellowships provide an annual scholar's allowance to assist each Fellow in developing ways to enrich the undergraduate learning experience.

When the program was announced, the then provost, Professor Mark S. Wrighton, said that MIT would ultimately commit at least $10 million in endowment to support it. MIT's goal is to have 60 to 80 MacVicar Faculty Fellows when the program is fully implemented.

The program has received important support from the Exxon Education Foundation--Dean MacVicar had been an Exxon Corp. director for six years at the time of her death--and from Cecil Green, the extraordinarily generous MIT benefactor and Life Member Emeritus of the Corporation who supported many of Dean MacVicar's initiatives.

Appointments as MacVicar Fellows are made by the provost with advice from a committee appointed after consultation with the chair of the faculty. The advisory committee for 1996 consisted of students Alison Walters, a graduate student in management, and Pooja Marria, a junior in biology, and faculty members Rosalind Williams, dean for undergraduate education and student affairs; Irene Tayler, literature; Wit Busza, physics; Ole Madsen, civil and environmental engineering; and Mark Schuster, urban studies. Dean Williams was the committee chair.

After announcing the name of each 1996 MacVicar Faculty Fellow at the luncheon, Professor Moses read excerpts drawn from communications he had received supporting each nomination.

Rick Danheiser

He has brought dedication and excellence to the teaching of every subject for which he has had responsibility. . . . In countless ways, though visible innovation and quiet example, he has raised the educational standards within the department. . . . His service on key Institute committees has helped sustain and further the quality of undergraduate education throughout MIT. . . .by the demanding standards of the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program, he is an exemplary teacher and educator. . . . Rick's most impressive achievement has been his teaching of Chemistry 5.13, the second term of undergraduate organic chemistry. With an enrollment that has recently grown to roughly 300, this can be a fractious, daunting class to teach, and Rick's success with it speaks to his tireless efforts to perfect all elements of the subject as well as his unique teaching distinction. . . . In achieving popularity, he has not sacrificed rigor. . . .There are four essential qualities for a great teacher: a flair for presentation, a concern for the learner, a scholarly command for the material, and a constant striving to improve on what one has done before. Rick has all of these. . . . I have never met a professor who put so much care and thought into his daily lectures, who literally lays out an intellectual feast for the enjoyment of his students. . . . His institution of "Robochemist," a source of help for solving problems which uses electronic mail, demonstrates his desire to reach out to his students. . . .

Michael Rubner

He ranks as one of the best educators we have here at the Institute. . . .In 1990 he was the winner of both the Baker Award for undergraduate teaching and the Graduate Student Council Teaching Award. How often does that happen?. . . .He is held in the highest regard as teacher, researcher and colleague. . . .Clearly one of the best teachers in Course 3, the School of Engineering and the Institute. . . A premier teacher in undergraduate and graduate classes and in undergraduate laboratories. . . . He played a key role in revamping the undergraduate materials laboratory from four different materials-specific laboratories to a single materials-general laboratory. The new subject is truly a model of a 21st century materials science education, teaching broad principles common to all materials classes while drawing upon examples from specific materials. . . He takes time with his students and he takes time with the junior faculty in our midst. He is a role model for us all. . . .His impact includes sustained, high-quality undergraduate teaching. . . . His teaching evaluations [by students] are often the highest of any in the department, and invariably near the top. . . . there is a real feeling of rapport between Michael and his students . . . . He does a lot of work one-on-one, and in small groups, centered around office hours for his classes. . . .He cares genuinely about all his students. . . . Strong approval of his teaching is widespread among students. . . .

Robert Silbey

Bob Silbey's lectures are electric with his excitement about the material and his enjoyment of the act of teaching. . . . He is simultaneously entertaining and serious, larger than life and approachable, spontaneous and focused. . . .He has an uncanny ability to find simple ways to explain complex ideas, and to lead his students to discover for themselves the answers to their own questions. . . .When my mathematical limitations began to handicap my performance, he was very understanding of my distress and would always go the extra mile to help me. He would meet with me outside class and take the time to explain each topic in a way in which I could understand it. Often this took repeated efforts and a great deal of time, neither of which Professor Silbey ever begrudged me. I owe him a debt of personal gratitude. . . . I clearly remember his first lecture in Quantum Mechanics. What struck me first was how comfortable he was with the material. He seemed to have the answers to our questions ready immediately, without any sign of doubt or hesitation. . . . His proficiency as a teacher is beyond question, but more important is the respect he earns from his students. . . . He was my first professor at MIT and was successful not only in communicating the subject matter, but also in projecting his enthusiasm for the field of chemistry. I was considering many majors then, and it is in no small part due to Professor Silbey that I am currently working towards my PhD in chemistry.


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