How Institutions Survive and Sometimes Thrive: A Challenge to Ralph Waldo Emerson

by Howard Gardner

American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared, “Every institution is the shadow of one man.” Though this phrase may have sounded apt in the middle of the 19th century, it is clearly anachronistic today. One obvious point: women should be mentioned as well as men, or a neutral term like “person” should be invoked. But I suggest a different edit: Successful institutions do survive—and sometimes thrive—after their founder(s) have departed from the scene.

In recent months, I’ve had the occasion to ponder the course of two successful institutions within a university—the setting that I know best. Within that setting, institutions that lack an endowment need to secure support in order to survive—and in most cases, that means that the institutions are worth preserving. How that can be done—and what may prevent it from being done—is my topic.

Case #1 is Harvard Project Zero—the organization that I know as well as anyone. “PZ,” as it is widely called, was launched in 1967 by a philosophy professor, Nelson Goodman. Goodman was a lover of the arts, and he wanted to cherish and promote them as much as possible. In his view, that aspiration required effective education in the arts. (As he once quipped, shadowing President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what the arts can do for you, ask what you can do for the arts.”) Goodman knew that there is considerable powerful educational lore in and across the arts; but he also believed that there was little successful, communicable knowledge. And so, as a man who liked to play with words, he said, “We are Project Zero.”

After a few years, Goodman retired from the leadership of Project Zero, and he gave two young recent doctoral graduates—David Perkins and me—the opportunity to lead the Project. And so we did, for 28 years. After the turn of the millennium, we turned over the leadership to Steve Seidel (2000-2008), a long-time researcher at Project Zero; and Steve was succeeded by Shari Tishman (2008-2014), another long-time researcher. Since 2014, Project Zero has been ably led by yet a third long-time time researcher, Daniel Wilson. Promotion from within has clearly been the operative principle at PZ.

Case #2 is The Media Lab at MIT. The brain-child of Nicholas Negroponte, a professor of architecture and a pioneer of visionary man-machine interface design, the Lab was established in 1985 with the support of Jerome Wiesner, a powerful and charismatic former president of MIT. Negroponte ran The Media Lab until 2000. He was followed by Walter Bender (2000-2006) and Frank Moss (2006-2011), both for reasonably short terms; and the Media Lab has been headed since 2011 by Joi Ito, a polymathic entrepreneur investor who had no previous connection to the Lab and did not have an undergraduate or graduate degree. (He has since completed a PhD through Keio University, Tokyo.)

Both of these institutions have indeed survived, going through several leaders since the turn of the century. And they remain active, even thriving, despite multiple changes in the ambient cultures. What are some of the reasons?

Structure

Key at the university is the potential for raising initiating and directing projects. At PZ, housed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, over a dozen persons are Principal Investigators: these individuals have the right to seek funds from any legitimate donor—and funders can be the government, foundations, or private individuals with the means to support research. There are an equal number of project managers. Typically having worked at PZ for many years, managers can direct projects on a day to day basis but cannot themselves be “PIs” on a project.

The Media Lab (TML) was established and maintains a relation with a graduate academic program called Media Arts and Sciences. A much larger organization, TML hosts tenured faculty, ladder faculty, post-docs, and loosely affiliated Director’s fellows. Work centers around the interests of particular faculty members; these members have their own labs, in which researchers and their students and assistants work on specific projects. On occasion, labs collaborate and sometimes researchers move from one lab to another. But there is quite a lot of independence and autonomy—in an operational sense, it’s “every lab on its own bottom.”

Funding Models

The funding for these two institutions is quite different. TML offers sponsorship to corporations and other entities. In return for a yearly membership fee, sponsors (or “members,” as they’re called) have the opportunity to visit TML, learn what is happening, and make use of that knowledge for legitimate purposes without having the option of directing research programs. Beyond their share of the sponsors’ fees, investigators themselves may seek additional funds. And the University takes a certain percentage as overhead.

In the absence of an endowment, all who work at PZ are supported by grants or gifts. In some cases, PZ members also teach; but they are more likely to teach single courses, and be compensated for that teaching, than to have an official part-time or full-time position. It is possible to supplement one’s salary by taking on “gigs” elsewhere; but it’s expected—it’s the norm—that any significantly sized endeavor will be done through PZ, with the requisite benefits and overhead.

Purpose or Mission

This is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the comparison. From their names (Project Zero and The Media Lab), it is not at all possible—indeed it’s impossible!—to figure out what the workers are doing in their respective institutions. At PZ, all individuals are working on issues which are at least loosely coupled with education, but education can span from pre-school to life-long learning, within a school but also at a museum or corporation, or just about any other entity that seeks PZ’s services. And at TML, all individuals are seeking to develop projects or products or lines of thought that will be useful for individuals and society. But these can draw on any discipline, or interdisciplinary combination, or as leader Ito likes to say, on “anti-discipline.” And indeed, so long as the goal is something useful, it’s hard to delineate any kind of activity that would be clearly off-limits for TML. (If you are skeptical about this statement, just look at the range of initiatives detailed on TML’s website and note the intriguing tie between the arts and sciences, also characteristic of PZ, or look at this segment from the television program 60 Minutes.)

Still, one can discern trends. Much work at TML is now in biology, neuroscience, climate change, or artificial intelligence/deep learning—subjects that were not at the fore when it began. At PZ, the creation of online courses, the holding of institutes in Cambridge and around the world, and a focus on leadership training were not at all envisioned by the founding members.

Geography

Initially, nearly all of PZ’s work was conducted in the United States. Now well over half of it is conducted in other countries, across five continents. At TML, investigators have long been carrying out work in many societies; younger members speak about how they are focused inward, on their life in the Lab; while their mentors, like PZ’s principal investigators, are focused on speaking to and traversing the outside world. This sentiment could be echoed at PZ.

Institutional Culture

People come to PZ and TML as young persons; and if things work out—as they often do—they stay there for their entire working lives. And not just if they have tenure; at Project Zero, several project managers have remained in the organization for decades. People fall in love, get married, and have children while on the project—it happened to me!

Because of this continuity, the two enterprises have all sorts of unspoken norms and rules. Long-timers might not even have ever spoken about them overtly; but when these “understandings” are violated, it becomes clear very soon. And then the old-timers have a choice: either educate the violators, when possible, or ease them out of the organization, if deemed necessary.

Examples of norms (taken chiefly from PZ):

  • Individuals are expected to monitor their own time, put in their hours, and completing assignments promptly, but no one is overseeing them.
  • Individuals are expected to be polite to one another, to respond promptly to messages, and to explain why they may not be able to do something in a timely fashion and suggest alternative arrangements.
  • When mistakes are made, the person who makes the mistake takes responsibility. Supervisors and the rest of the team are not punitive, but the expectation is that old mistakes will not be repeated.
  • When work is shared, so is credit. Members of the organization do not take undue credit for work begun or inspired by others.
  • When a member of the organization gives a talk, or a distinguished visitor visits, others are expected to attend and participate—and that especially includes leaders of the organization. We call this “symbolic conduct.”

Examples of violations of norms:

  • Individuals repeatedly come in late, cannot account for their time, or pressure others to do more than their fair share.
  • Members do not respond quickly to messages or, even worse, “kiss up and kick down.”
  • The group leader takes undue credit for work done by others.
  • Members do not participate regularly in announced events and seem to find excuses to miss them or ignore them altogether.

Challenges

It is exhilarating (if hectic) when things are going well. But the risk is that each research group will go its own way, not connecting to others, not being aware of trends, and overlapping too much with others without being aware of it. It’s the special province of leaders to ensure adequate cross talk; but anyone involved with the organization for a significant part of time should play his or her part.

If a group has an ethos and a style of working, it is understandable that its members will look for newcomers who are consistent with these features. But there is the concomitant risk that the organization ends up reproducing itself with the same kinds of persons. This is neither good for the organization (which benefits from diverse perspectives) nor for potential members who are not considered because they seem not to possess the characteristics that happen to be valued by the current team.

Responsibility

Institutions do not survive unless there are individuals who care deeply about the organization and are willing to make efforts to keep it thriving. This is easier to do when the organization is small and the mission is clear and shared by all. As the organization gets larger, and the purposes become more diffuse, it is more difficult to feel responsible for the organization.

Recently, TML has grown very large, and some of its “trustees” (meant informally, not technically) are made uncomfortable by its size and wonder whether there should be a limit. (I remember hearing a talk by clothing designer Eileen Fisher—she said that when her company had 800 employees, she felt comfortable and in control; but when it reached 1200, she no longer felt that way.)

In a meeting of TML faculty which I had the privilege of facilitating, we began by asking the younger members of the group about the positive and negative aspects of working at TML. This exercise harbored the risk of younger members either feeling on the spot or believing that they had to accentuate the positive. Fortunately, the first person who spoke up—and also fortunately, it was a woman—talked about a problem about the lab and what she had done to solve the problem. Once the gate has been opened for frank discussion, other younger members followed suit.

The discussion could have ended there but, as the facilitator, I felt that if we did not talk more generally about the health and continuity of TML, it would be a missed opportunity.

Fortunately, we had a break scheduled—and during that break I reflected on what might be useful to the group. To avoid second-guessing, I deliberately did not share my plans with others.

When the group reconvened, I asked each member to answer the question, “To whom or what do you feel responsible?” In our major study of Good Work undertaken over two decades ago at PZ, we had found that this was the single most powerful question that we had posed to professionals—and, indeed, we published an entire book on the topic.

Members of TML were quite reflective. They spoke about responsibility to the planet, to the future, to their students, to their disciplines or problem spaces, and to themselves. (Interestingly, only one person spoke about responsibility to the past, to predecessors, or to mentors—perhaps that might be expected in a lab that is so future-oriented.)

Then I asked each person to respond to the question, “Who is responsible for The Media Lab?” Again, there were a wide set of responses—ranging from the designated leaders, to everyone who has ever passed through the Lab, even if they have not been back in Cambridge in decades.

As a final thought, I asked individuals to reflect on the relationship (or lack of relationship) between their answers to the two responsibility questions. In other words, how did they relate their own senses of responsibility to the responsibility for the overall welfare of TML? I suggested that if these senses are well aligned, that is a good omen. And so, for example, if a member of the Lab talked about being personally responsible to his students, and that the members of the Lab were collectively responsible for its welfare, those responses would be considered in alignment.

Concluding Note

With respect to institutions at colleges and universities, Emerson was more right than wrong. Indeed, within a higher education setting, most institutions either close down or are diminished when the founding member—usually intellectually and/or personally charismatic—leaves the scene. And sometimes, that departure is appropriate—indeed, those who lead colleges and universities may be relieved in cases where the once vibrant institution has outlived its usefulness. There are also scandals which may lead to the dissolution of the institution; at universities, these scandals are typically financial, sexual, or ethical in nature.

But some institutions are special, and it is worthwhile to keep them well-functioning, even when the original leadership and members are no longer on the scene. Such survival—and occasional rebirth—is worth considering and worth understanding. I have suggested here some possible factors: the attraction of capable successors to the founding leaders; willingness to pursue new directions without sacrificing core values and robust norms; alertness to shifting funding landscapes; honoring norms as well as regulations; and nurturing talent and providing a comfortable base of operation.

Doubtless, the phenomenon of institutional continuity is well worth probing. I hope that this modest case study of two long-lasting institutions stimulates further consideration.

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One Comment on “How Institutions Survive and Sometimes Thrive: A Challenge to Ralph Waldo Emerson”

  1. eductechalogy August 13, 2019 at 6:53 am #

    Howard Gardner Great post indeed.

    Though Emerson might have meant that in terms of institutional conscientious, that a conscientious institution is the product of conscientious individuals, and ‘man’ is not a genderist term. The euphemistic and incessant apologetic re-purposing of language in favor for gender equality as a result of ultra-feminism is creating a dilemma for masculinity and gender identity.

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