MIT’s Media Lab recently tapped angel investor Joi Ito to be its next director. This was met with a ton of applause from my Twitter feed and folks in the tech press — and everyone zeroed in on the fact that Ito, rather unusually for head of a top university center, doesn’t have a college diploma.
Silicon Alley Insider’s response sorta sums it up:
It’s a brilliant move, because Ito is not an academic: he attended two colleges but dropped out both times. Instead, he’s an entrepreneur, angel investor (in companies like Flickr, Last.fm and Twitter), open source software activist and generally highly regarded tech visionary.
This is obviously a great career move for Ito — there are few more prestigious jobs in tech than the MIT Media Lab — but it’s also a brilliant move from MIT. It recognizes that you don’t have to be an academic, or even a college graduate, to be a great innovator and leaders of other innovators.
I’d definitely agree with the last sentence, and Ito might absolutely be the right pick to run Media Lab. Another story I read talked about his unique ability to enable other brilliant people, arguing that it was rare for people his age, who tend to be focused on their own career. I honestly don’t know enough about him to judge.
But I think it’s weird that the lack of credentials are, paradoxically, being seen as a credential. Universities are freaky places. They don’t work like startups or big businesses, for good or for ill. Maybe MIT Media Lab needs to work more like that. But then it’s helpful to have somebody who knows and is comfortable with university culture to run interference and camouflage what’s happening in terms that the people who still are products of universities (and who, you know, completely outnumber you) will understand.
I’m surprised nobody writing about Ito’s appointment to MIT has referenced John Maeda’s appointment a few years ago as President of the Rhode Island School of Design. Maeda also came from the tech world, outside the academy. He had a PhD, although that wasn’t his selling credential. In fact, he actually came from MIT’s Media Lab!
Maeda, too, was super-admired by working tech and creative people all over the place. But since taking over at RISD, he’s had a supremely difficult time trying to push change or even handle ordinary business, facing votes of no confidence from faculty, and generally trying to find the right balance between innovating and respecting the existing balance.
President of a college is a much more closed, university-admin-style position than director of a semi-autonomous technology lab within a college setting. Maybe the difference between the two positions will make all the difference. But I’m not sure. Nobody is.
And even if Ito turns out to be a smashing success, we should be careful about assuming that this is universally generalizable — that talented VCs can just run everything through the sheer power of their awesomeness. It’s not so simple. It depends on the institution, the personality of the new person brought in, and what the leader and institution are able to build together.
Likewise — (COUGH) — it would be nice if this whole “hey, the skills you need to be successful in the technology world and the skills you need to work really well in the academic world aren’t so different!” sentiment worked the other way, too. People who got those credentials weren’t just wasting their time when they “should have been starting companies.”
Instead of spending their twenties doing body shots, chasing money, or trying to find themselves, people with PhDs were busting their ass working sixty-hour weeks, learning multiple languages, mastering research tools, and learning how to write, edit, and think.