MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

The Mid-Century Convocation at MIT
March 31, April 1-2, 1949

The MIT Campus at Mid-Century | MIT, the United States, and the World
The Truman Mystery | The Inauguration of James Rhyne Killian
Winston Churchill Address and Video Clip

MIT Museum and the Institute Archives collaborated on a 50th-anniversary exhibition celebrating this event in the Museum's Compton Gallery, June 28 to August 20, 1999. The exhibit, "On the Edge of the Future: The Mid-Century Convocation at MIT," featured historic photographs and video. Some of the photographs are reproduced here, as well as a clip from the video.

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Thousands of MIT alumni/ae, along with members of the Institute administration, faculty, students, and guests from education, industry, and government invited by the MIT Corporation, paused for three days in 1949 to appraise the state of the post-war world, to consider the progress of scientific enterprise, and to ponder the future role of MIT as an institution of scientific and engineering education.
Photo mural in Boston Garden
MIT photo service staff retouching the mural which served as the backdrop in Boston Garden during the appearance of Winston Churchill. Mural is an enlargement of a 5x7 inch serial photograph from the MIT News Service.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum.

MIT leaders generated great excitement and media attention about "Mid-Century" by securing the colorful Winston Churchill, prime minister of war-time Great Britain, and the newly elected U.S. president, Harry Truman, as the convocation's two principal speakers. President Truman's last-minute cancellation and replacement by Harold Stassen, president of the University of Pennsylvania and former Republican politician, did not dim enthusiasm. Six discussion panels of distinguished guests rounded out the program.

Radio coverage of Mr. Churchill's address was extensive, with British, French, and Canadian broadcasting systems carrying the address live along with U.S. radio networks. His address was the first national television hook-up to originate in Boston.

As a finale, on day three, the presidents of more than 200 American and international universities joined MIT faculty and Corporation members in a formal academic procession and celebration inaugurating James R. Killian, class of 1926, as the tenth MIT president.

The MIT Campus at Mid-Century

The late 1940's were a time of renewal for MIT after the disruption of the war years. It was important to establish the primacy of teaching and research by rapidly rebuilding the undergraduate and graduate schools. The MIT faculty appointed the Committee on Educational Survey in January 1947, chaired by Professor Warren K. Lewis, to study the curriculum and review the state of education at the Institute. The now classic "Lewis Committee Report," issued in December 1949, emphasized renewed concern for undergraduates and a broader definition of engineering education, recommending a School of Humanities and Social Science on equal footing with the Schools of Science, Engineering, and Architecture.

The new interdisciplinary research model of MIT's war-time Radiation (radar) Laboratory continued in 1946 with its civilian successor, the Research Laboratory of Electronics. The interdisciplinary research model would flourish at MIT.

After the economic distress of the 1930's and a war-time hiatus, there was a renewed focus on the physical facilities of the Institute. Rockwell Cage was built for athletics and construction began for a new library. A welcome contrast to a "Rad Lab" building, which housed 600 returning veterans in 1946, was the new dormitory (W7, now known as Baker House) designed by Alvar Aalto, which opened for the first time especially for convocation participants.

The MIT Corporation's 1947 Survey Committee made a thorough study of the financial state of the Institute and its future needs. It recommended a Corporation standing committee, the Committee on Financing Development, with a goal to raise $20,000,000 to carry out the new vision of MIT. The Mid-Century Convocation was the lead-off event for the fundraising campaign.

MIT, the United States, and the World

The spectacular advances in applied science, including the testing and use of the atomic bomb in 1945 and its continuing threat, led many to question the role of science in the post-war years. The United States government created the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946, with David Lilienthal as chairman, to put atomic research under civilian control. There was still considerable disquiet, however, particularly in the academic community, about the military "takeover" of scientific research. Mr. Lilienthal was invited as a convocation panelist but sent regrets.

World War II had ended in August 1945, but world political affairs were still in turmoil. Western governments feared communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and rising communist strength in China. The United States was working to restore the economies of Europe and Japan devastated by war. The first steps to end colonial rule in India, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa began as independence movements took hold. The Mid-Century Convocation panel "Men Against Men" addressed issues of colonial rule.

MIT President Karl Compton and his associates maintained close ties with British scientists after the war. Sir Henry Tizard, who had delivered the cavity magnetron and its secrets to the U.S. in 1940, jump-starting research at the secret radar Rad Lab on the MIT campus, was a convocation panel speaker for "The Problem of World Production."

After World War II, leadership in science continued to shift from Europe to the United States. MIT had many friends in government, particularly former MIT Vice-President and Professor Vannevar Bush who had headed President Roosevelt's Office of Scientific Research and Development. Bush's 1945 report to the president, Science, the Endless Frontier, is credited with shaping the role of post-war science and the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950. With ties to both Europe and the U.S. government, MIT was in an optimal position to take up a leadership role and to benefit from government support of scientific research after the war. At MIT, special summer research projects would lead to the formal organization of MIT's Lincoln Lab in the early 1950's. New government agencies, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Office of Naval Research, immediately became major sponsors of research on campus.

The Truman Mystery

Why did President Harry Truman at the last minute cancel his April 1st appearance at the Mid-Century Convocation, after agreeing in February to speak? MIT was notified by a telegram from the White House at 4 p.m., March 21st, barely a week before the convocation was scheduled to begin. A more formal letter followed from Washington stating that "The situation in the Congress is a delicate one and I have to be available every minute from morning until late at night to accomplish the program which I believe of vital importance to the country." The large press contingent covering convocation plans loved this mysterious story and gave the Truman cancellation a lot of attention.

A common opinion was that Truman, scheduled to speak on the second day after Churchill spoke the first, was afraid of being upstaged by the popular Winston Churchill. Some felt this had been the case three years earlier when Churchill gave his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in Truman's native Missouri with Truman in attendance. However, the MIT administration did not hide the Churchill invitation from President Truman. On the contrary, Karl Compton, the chairman of the MIT Corporation met personally with him in December 1948 to invite him and to ask Truman's assistance in putting the invitation to Winston Churchill.

Records in the MIT Archives and the Truman Library do not have clear answers to the mystery. Truman's appointment book shows nothing extraordinary on the president's schedule on April 1st, the day he was supposed to be at MIT. Interestingly, President Truman's 12:45 appointment April 1st was with the CEO of the Screen Actors Guild and future president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who was there to discuss the "unemployment situation in the Motion Picture Industry."

President Killian of MIT was left with the task of finding a last-minute substitute speaker. In his memoir, Education of a College President he recalls that since he knew Harold Stassen, a major political figure and then president of the University of Pennsylvania, he called him and was able with that one telephone call to end this convocation crisis. Perhaps President Truman was impressed by President Killian's smooth handling of the affair -- the following year Killian was named by Truman to be a member of the President's Advisory Committee on Management Improvement in Government.

The Inauguration of James Rhyne Killian
Rockwell Cage, April 2, 1949

Killian became the tenth president of MIT, following his friend and mentor, Karl T. Compton. Having gained the S.B. degree in Business and Engineering Administration he worked at the Technology Review until 1939 when he became executive assistant to Compton and then, successively, executive vice president and vice president. Killian was the first alumnus to become the Institute's president.

Inauguration of James Rhyne Killian
Inauguration of James Rhyne Killian as President of MIT, with his predecessor, Karl Taylor Compton. Behind left, J. Thomas Toohy, president of the class of 1949.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum.

Killian's inaugural address focused on the "obligations and ideals of an institute of technology." He believed that technical universities, such as MIT, should not only carry out pioneering research and teaching in the sciences and technology but must also educate their students broadly in the social sciences and humanities. He also emphasized the importance of universities remaining independent in their funding, research, and education. This was particularly relevant to MIT which, at the end of World War II, was the nation's largest non-industrial defense contractor, with 75 separate contracts worth 117 million dollars. The issues surrounding MIT's independence from government and the military would be of considerable concern to Killian and others during the founding of MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in 1951.

Killian was president of MIT until 1959. However, Julius Stratton was acting president from 1957 to 1959 when, three weeks after the launching of Sputnik in October 1957, Killian went to Washington to become Science Advisor to President Eisenhower.

August 1999



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