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MIT dean to create university with no majors or lectures


Christine Ortiz is setting out to break the mold with a radical approach to higher education.

The dean of Graduate Education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced that she’s taking a (minimum) one-year leave of absence to start a nonprofit, residential research university for undergraduates on up.

And, get this — there will be no majors, lectures or classrooms.

The school, still in the early stages of planning, will structure itself totally “outside of the degree system,” says Ortiz. Instead it will create a space where people can see a project from inception to completion.

We spoke with Ortiz about her new model of learning.

Q: What was the main impetus behind this idea?

Christine Ortiz: The university is this engine that drives the progress that we have in the country. There’s been so much that’s happened in the last 10 years that’s making some things very obsolete. … We know now that the disciplinary boundaries are essentially artificial and that science and technology doesn’t fall into these artificial systems, and there’s opportunities to create new scientific fields. … There are so many more waiting to be discovered.

(Add to this) the fact that all these huge, complex research areas have emerged — health, water, climate — that require interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary thinking. And (finally, there’s) globalization. Now you can collaborate globally and leverage collective intelligence.

So no majors, no lectures, no classrooms. How will learning be structured?

(Each student) would have an integrated project throughout the time they were in the university. … They could come in and choose a project they wanted to work on — it could be with a faulty member, it could be in basic research, applied research, a start-up. Their mentoring would be different for each of those pathways.

What’s an example of the type of project you hope to see?

I think we’ve drawn inspiration from many different areas and synthesized a lot of things that I’ve seen in different places. I’d say one big inspiration for me is the MIT media lab. They are a trans-disciplinary structure. … But we’re also thinking of how do you really change the fundamental structure of the curriculum. We obviously will draw a lot on graduate education, but also there’s a lot of great work that’s being done on project-based learning at the undergraduate level that we’re drawing on.

We’re also building a platform that will enable what we’re calling “computationally assisted curriculum design,” where students can design their curriculum at a very precise level.

What’s the No. 1 goal you have over the next month in regards to the new university?

We’re basically establishing the founding principles and infrastructure, and thinking deeply about about all the different aspects of the university, from the curriculum to the research structure to the financial model. This summer we’ll start fundraising and start the process in place for legally establishing the university.


USA Today