The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Colleges run by anti-college people

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, 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.

Just sayin’.


You’ve nailed this completely on the head, Tim. Economically worded to boot.

Yes—good analysis all around. In particular, I like the bit about the assumption “that talented VCs can just run everything through the sheer power of their awesomeness.” Sheesh, so true.

The old theory of general intelligence is still alive & well in some parts of our society: mostly investment banks, consulting firms, VCs, and certain tech/engineering companies. Too bad it’s wrong.

“But then it’s helpful to have somebody who knows and is comfortable with university culture to run interference and camouflage”

You sort of touch on it here, but what I wonder is this: how is someone who dropped out of college twice supposed to convince students not to drop out of grad school, even indirectly? In my experience that is one of the most important roles of a graduate department chair or graduate school president, especially at a technical institute where shiny jobs often beckon the scholars from just outside the ivory tower. He or she is often the person of last resort when a prized student is thinking of quitting, the one who pulls together a committee or the resources to shift a research plan so the student feels they can finish produtively, and that the pain will be worth it. And a key ability is the ability to say at least semi-credibly, “You know, I was in your shoes once. I sat in that chair and I wanted to quit and just go get a job. I know how hard and alienating grad school can be. But I stuck it out, and it worked out for me, and I believe it will work out for you.” And that’s just the extreme case. In general, a director of a grad school is supposed to be an advocate for his or her students–by knowing what their needs are, they advocate for them in the wider university and in the world. That includes at least a passing familiarity and empathy with all the ephemeral inconveniences of being in school. Now maybe this director is not supposed to actually dirty his hands with the angst and life problems of students, but that to me is a sign of a much bigger leadership problem.

All valid points. All points that I’ve thought of and mulled over.

I think the Media Lab is unique. If I had attended the Media Lab, I probably wouldn’t have dropped out. I have extreme respect for academics and would never suggest that everyone should drop out and do a startup. The reason that I’m interested in the lab is that while the startup scene is risk-taking and agile, it’s not long-term.

I LOVE the Media Lab because it can be creative, agile and long-term if it wants to. The students and the faculty are forced to paint inside a box – they’re encouraged to break borders and rules.

I think that my yearning for the Media Lab style of creativity combined with the Media Lab’s “you can do anything you want” culture is a unique fit. I don’t think it generalizes to “It’s a good idea for VC’s to run universities.”

Having said that, we’re in our honeymoon period and so far it’s love at first sight. We’ll let you know how it turns out, but I’m optimistic. 😉

Okay, if you can bother to track down critical blogposts about your appointment and acknowledge the pitfalls, it seems fair to give you the benefit of the doubt that you might make it priority to track down students and listen to their trials and tribulations (which, btw, will take a lot of ice breaking and trust building precisely b/c right now you’re so enthusiastic and in love with the institution) and turn around and advocate for them.

If I had attended the Media Lab, I probably wouldn’t have dropped out.

This seems key. This seems like the way to turn around the danger. Concrete and credible narratives around this sentiment–“I wish I could have been sitting in your chair. I wish I had started my career here,” might, in theory, be an incredible morale booster. Counterfactual stories can be incredibly convincing ways to reinvent the future.

Anyway, what would a courtship be without its attendant naysayers and PDA-disdaining-eyerollers? Congratulations and good luck.

Tim Carmody says…

I do really like the point about long-term thinking. Totally jibes with the conversations my co-blogger Matt Thompson & I have nearly every time we see each other.

I didn’t mention this in my post, but the other thing that I hope for you and for the Media Lab is that the folks you’ll have to answer to give you enough room to do that kind of exploration and long-term, strategic thinking — that they don’t say, “hey, let’s get that guy from Silicon Valley, he’ll raise a ton of money and turn this place into a smoking startup incubator!” That the expectations that they have of you match the best expectations that you have for yourself.

Chris Raymond says…

Having a PhD and having worked in the non-academic and academic worlds, my sense is that as creative as academics in semi-autonomous MediaLab-type places might be, one thing they all need is some level of “middle-management” with people who actually understand how to manage projects and people to get things done.

There needs to be someone between the grad students and professional staff and the academic directors to make sure that the nuts and bolts of making things work are addressed, and that issues of personnel management are handled with aplomb.

It is all too easy, without ill intent, for the academic faculty in these centers to unconsciously view professional staff in the same category as a grad student, and that’s a recipe for disaster, human resources wise.

My two cents.

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