Plans for academic entity move forward

New grad, undergrad curriculum in socio-technical systems, statistics

Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 announced last week plans to move forward to create a new institutional entity at MIT. The entity will incorporate values from several programs, including the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) and Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), to create a new center focused on complex and socio-technical systems, information and decision systems, and statistics.

In his most recent email to the MIT community, Schmidt said that the final proposal for the new entity was the result of deliberation across four committees over five months. Professor Munther A. Dahleh, currently the acting director of the Engineering Systems Division (ESD), is the entity’s director-designate.

The original proposal, released in May, stated that the new entity hopes to have a substantial impact on critical societal systems, defined in the report as engineered or natural physical systems, social behavior of people interacting with these systems, and institutional behavior of organized units governing these systems.

The core mission of the entity addresses two main points in setting up an infrastructure to make these goals a reality. The first is to create a research and educational environment that enables analyzing, predicting, designing, and controlling complex societal and technical systems. Secondly, the proposal suggests creating an Institute-wide focal point for advancing MIT’s research and educational programs related to 21st century statistics.

The formation of the entity will create several new interdisciplinary graduate programs. The two core programs will be the PhD in complex systems and the PhD in statistics. The complex systems PhD is slated to rely on research driven by “systems-level issues that arise in various engineering and societal domains.” The PhD in statistics is meant to be a unique degree track, covering probability theory, modern statistics theory, and data analysis.

The report on the entity also proposed a masters in statistics, a refocused version of the masters in technology and policy (TPP) program, and an undergraduate minor in statistics.

The report also noted that the development of the statistics programs would not come until after a senior faculty member in statistics is hired. While the proposal committee entertained the suggestion of spinning off the Data Science and Statistics degrees as an individual program, Schmidt mentioned in his email that “further discussions since the report have led to stronger support for proceeding along the proposed path.”

The proposed structure of the entity is similar to that of MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering & Science (IMES) — an entity able to support academic programs and hire faculty like a department, but with the faculty will holding primary appointments in an established department. The entity will be led by a director, Dahleh, three assistant directors, and a steering group containing the director, assistant directors, and additional faculty members.

Dahleh said in an email to The Tech that the new program would initially house 30 faculty members. The core faculty members will initially be drawn from ESD (which will be dissolved as part of the transition in building the new entity) and LIDS (the director of LIDS will become an associate director of the entity, but its present structure will remain largely unchanged).

The School of Engineering, Sloan, and The School of Science have committed to hiring a total of 16 faculty members over the next three to five years to support the expansion of this entity. The committees assembling and reviewing the comments on the proposal did consider assigning dedicated faculty positions within the entity, but felt that maintaining the entity’s “strong alignment with relevant departments” merited moving forward with the proposed structure.

The next steps to form the new entity will be to reorganize the existing programs. Schmidt said that President L. Rafael Reif and Professor Steven R. Hall ScD ’85, the Chair of the Faculty, will form a committee to get started on this process. Schmidt estimates that this phase of the process will take “a couple of months.”