3.4 Letter Four: 1955

Copy of a letter from Philip, Jr., on recent offer he had from M.I.T.

Feb. 1955

It all started at the big ASME meeting in New York the end of last November. Prof. J.P. Den Hartog, head of the Mechanical Engineering Dep’t at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) introduced himself to me right after I had presented my paper. I had never met him before, altho I knew of him by reputation of course. We talked together for two or three hours. He was trying to get a new man in Applied Mechanics for M.I.T., and his general attitude at that first talk was that the important thing was to find out if M.I.T. wanted me. I received the general impression that here was a guy I would hate to play poker with. However, as regards the actual subject, of our conversation, I felt on firm ground so I answered all his questions to the best of my ability and managed to sneak in a few of my own every once in a while. When he had first asked me if I would be interested I responded with words to the effect that I couldn’t afford to be uninterested in hearing about a place with the reputation of M.I.T. The net result of that conversation was that I was to send him a list of my publications and I would probably hear from him sometime soon and be invited to give a seminar at M.I.T.

All of this took place the day after I had had the offer from Minnesota which you know about. That I had turned down immediately because, at best, I was not ready for the responsibility that would have been involved. Perhaps sometime in the future I will want to go to a place that is just building up a department — but that time is certainly not now even under the most favorable conditions.

The end of that week I had a long talk with Nicholas Hoff, head of my department here (in fact our conversation started about 10 p.m. and finished after midnight — shades of college bull sessions). My opinion was and is that the proper way to play my cards with Nicholas was complete frankness. Certainly it paid off with regard to the offer from R.I.P (Rensselaer) last year. Anyhow, I told him about both my conversations and my feelings with regards to each and he indicated that he wanted to keep me here but that I should find out all I could about M.I.T.

So — as yet I didn’t know any details about M.I.T. and how I would like working there, or even if I’d get an offer. This state of affairs continued all thru December and the subject gradually faded in our minds. Then, on one of the first business days of the New Year came a letter from Den Hartog inviting me to come pay a visit to M.I.T. and bring the wife and family — all expenses paid; personal hospitality of the Den Hartogs. The same note of assurance was there as before — the reason for bringing the family was so that “Mrs. Hodge could get a look at the housing situation.”

This letter arrived on a Monday. The time of the visit was not specified but a strong suggestion was made for the forthcoming weekend, Saturday thru Monday. We saw no reason for delay so wheels started moving. I moved the final exam. of my Monday night class up a week and borrowed a graduate student to administer it. Thea quick joined up a baby-sitting agency and signed up a good one for the week-end. We made train reservations, called New Haven and arranged to take the gang to lunch Saturday.

As a vacation trip for Thea and myself the trip was perfect, but I shall not go into details here. I saw most of the members of the Applied Mechanics Division and several others from related departments. On Monday I gave a talk which seemed to be well received. I found out all I could about M.I.T. and they found out more about me. Just before we left Den Hartog asked me if I minded telling him my present salary. Since I was quite sure he would underestimate it otherwise, I told him. Judging by his expression my surmise had been correct (perhaps he wouldn’t be unbeatable at poker!). But he said I’d hear from him in a few days and we left Boston.

During the next week, while waiting for that all important letter, we had a chance to take stock of things. We thought of some of the items that go into making one job preferable to another. In no particular order these would include: amount and level of teaching; freedom of research; administrative duties; physical working conditions; salary and position; personal congeniality of associates; faculty members of similar interests, facilities for having routine work done (typing, drawings, computations, etc.); outlook for the future; reputation of the institution, students; and doubtless others. In addition, general living conditions have to be considered: housing, neighborhoods, schools, etc.

Most of these could be assessed without the definite offer. Teaching was definitely in the B.P.I. (Brooklyn Poly. Inst.) Here, I teach one or two graduate courses and undergraduate ones if at any time I want to. Further, they are just the courses I want to teach. There, the teaching load might involve some undergraduate engineering courses. Since I never took any such courses as an undergraduate I would have some doubts of my ability to judge the difficulties of learning the material. On the graduate level, an elasticity course was already offered in the Math. dep’t. and a plasticity one in the material division of the Mech. Eng. dep’t. Apparently I would either run into competition with these, or teach them occasionally in the other dep’ts. or not give them at all. None of those alternatives appealed to me very much.

Freedom of research, on the surface, would favor M.I.T. At B.P.I. contract work is obligatory — there it is voluntary. However, so far at least, I have been able to do exactly the type of research I wanted to do under my contracts so that I have freedom in effect even if not in theory. Conversely, depending upon the as then unknown factor of salary, I might feel financially forced to take on consulting or contract work there which would end up more circumscribed.

Administrative duties were a question mark. The general administrative set-up at M.I.T. is as follows: the Institute is divided into several colleges, of which Engineering is the largest. The Coll. of Eng. is divided into departments of which Mech. Eng. is one of the largest. The M.E. dep’t is further divided into 10 divisions, including Applied Mech. In general there is a one-to-one correspondence between full professors and division heads, altho there are a few exceptions. Den Hartog had been head of the Appl. Mech. division and had been recently promoted to head of the M.E. dep’t, thus leaving the App.Mech. division head position vacant. I thought it most unlikely that he would bring in anyone from outside with a promotion to be head of the division; and I was not at all sure I would have wanted it.

Physical working conditions would, in general, be better at M.I.T. I regard my night course here as a necessary evil, but certainly no advantage. Classrooms at M.I.T. are better than our present ones — but I don’t know about our new buildings.

Salary and position we had to wait for the letter for.

I like all my associates here very much. The group there seemed like nice people too. I doubt if I would ever feel as personally friendly to Den Hartog as I do to Nicholas, but I could be wrong.

Interests of the faculty are difficult to assess. My professional acquaintances here are almost all in one dep’t. There, they would include the Math., Aeronautical Engineering dep’ts. as well as at least one other division of M.E. Researchwise, I doubt this matters much one way or the other, but I’ve already mentioned it as a big drawback under teaching.

Routine facilities are much better here, due to our contracts. I have essentially my own secretary and all other facilities are very well handled. There, I suspect it would be more like U.C.L.A. — adequate but not near as easy.

Outlook for the future involves all the other points. In general I would be more confident of the status quo being maintained at M.I.T. due to their longer tradition. However, that status might include my own. I had no indication given of their promotion policy. At B.P.I. there is more question. Our present president is a good man in general and favorable to our dep’t in particular. But he is about to retire. And, whereas B.P.I. is celebrating its centennial, it is effectively only a score or so of years old as a major engineering institution. Thus it might not have the sense of tradition necessary to survive a poor administration. Of course, on the other hand, we may get an even better one.

The question of reputation needs to be more closely defined. Among the general public M.I.T. has a much more established reputation than the comparatively unknown B.P.I. And if my eventual goal were, say, to open my own consulting firm or assume a regular administrative post for an aircraft company, then a position at M.I.T. would be a logical stepping stone. However, among the particular group of men whose good opinion I value professionally, the answer is not at all clear cut. Nor is it as important. Certainly a man who writes good papers at any institution is better than one who writes poor ones at any other. In other words, since I intend to stay in academic life in the field of applied mechanics, I would say that the question of reputation does not, in this case, anyhow, really belong on the agenda.

Students are important both qualitatively, quantitatively, and relatively. I do not feel that I would have more or better students there than here. The reputation issue might pop back in here, and indeed on the undergraduate level it probably would. But not too much on the graduate. One can argue that any student with ability and means will probably prefer M.I.T. to B.P.I. But the role played here by means is so great that I question placing much stress on ability. Our evening classes provide a chance for good men who need to earn a living — and in many cases, support a family — to come to class. And the very fact that they come in the evening is a strong indication of a real drive to learn rather than just something expected of them. Finally, and this I regard as a big issue, I have just started work with three doctoral candidates. I regard it as both unusual and unfortunate that I have been teaching almost six years and am an assoc. prof. but have never supervised a doctoral thesis. I gave up a really brilliant student at U.C.L.A. to come here. If I move again I might have to wait another two years before even starting with someone.

With regard to general living conditions we are so fully satisfied living in the community of Stewart Manor and sending our kids to Garden City schools that we would have to be prepared for some comedown in any move. The commutation problems there would be just as great and would be likely to require two cars. Without going into detail I should say that the professional advantages of the move would have to be clear cut and considerable in order to move us to move.

As I read back over these pages I wonder to what extent I have been subconsciously trying to stack the evidence to support the decision already decided. I don’t think I have. Actually, some days before Den Hartog’s letter with a definite offer arrived, I had almost definitely decided that I would reject any offer he would be likely to make. So that the actual arrival of the letter the following Monday was almost anticlimactic. For it was an entirely reasonable offer and I had decided that it would take a quite unreasonable one to tempt me. The same rank (assoc. prof.) and a salary about halfway between my “academic salary,” based on 9 months’ work and my actual salary, based on 12. Thus, without summer contract or some type of consulting work my annual salary would have been lowered by the move. However, I probably could have supplemented it with sufficient additional work to result in a net raise. But in this case much of the advantage of freedom of research would have been lost.

So, we are staying here. Just what effect the offer from M.I.T. will have on my situation here I can’t say — but certainly it will not delay any promotions nor diminish any raises. I have no commitments from here because I knew myself that I would stay here without a raise. Since by nature I find it most difficult to bluff I felt my best technique was complete frankness and an “I know you’ll do the right thing by me” attitude with Nicholas.