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Kenneth Keniston, pictured 2nd from right.

Remembering Kenneth Keniston


The Questions Keniston Brought to MIT

Kenneth Keniston, a founder and pillar of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and later of the MIT-India Program, passed away on February 14, 2020.  Sometimes the death of a colleague invites us to pause and reflect not only on the contributions of the individual but also on the institution in which those contributions were embedded.  This is one of those occasions.

A great university organizes itself around fundamental, important questions.  In the 1970s, MIT was reconsidering its core questions.  The life sciences were redefined around the promises and perils of recombinant DNA research.   The Department of Electrical Engineering renamed itself the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The School of Humanities and Social Sciences, as it was then known, took on “a broader educational mission”—a chapter title of the Lewis Report (1949) that called for the establishment of the School.  The calamitous first half of the 20th century had shown, in the words of the Lewis Report, that “The most difficult and complicated problems confronting our generation are in the field of the humanities and social sciences.”  This conviction was strengthened by the seismic shifts of the Sixties, which stirred the campus with political activism and educational innovation.

When Jerome Wiesner and Walter Rosenblith became president and provost of MIT in 1971, they believed MIT needed more than a new School to engage with the “most difficult and complicated problems.”  While the School gave MIT new capacities in the humanities, social sciences, and arts, the School needed robust connections to MIT’s existing strengths in science and engineering. Wiesner and Rosenblith wanted to create a College beyond and above the five existing schools, a College that would serve as a new model for interdisciplinary studies of sociotechnical change.

In 1975 Wiesner and Rosenblith invited Kenneth Keniston to play a leadership role in such a College.  Keniston was a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale Medical School and Yale College, well-known in the academy and beyond.  A decade earlier he had published The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society (1965), a widely reviewed and much discussed study of the social psychology of American college students.  He was serving as Chair and Executive Director of the Carnegie Council on Children, a major initiative which involved managing multiple scholars, staff, meetings, scholarly publications, and public outreach.

Both the book and the study asked big questions.  The Uncommitted asked: how could a society so wealthy and full of opportunities fail to attract the commitment of its privileged young people? The Carnegie Council on Children asked: how could such a society so wealthy and full of opportunities permit such inequities in life outcomes, most visible among its children?

Kenneth Keniston accepted the invitation to bring to MIT this research record, administrative experience, and focus on important questions.  His death brings sadness to his many friends and colleagues, while also reminding us of his decisive role in opening up “a broader educational mission” for MIT.

Founding Father of STS

Kenneth Keniston was born in 1930 in Chicago.  His otherwise conventional education was interrupted when his father, a professor of Spanish literature at the University of Michigan, was assigned to the American embassy in Buenos Aires in 1942 as a way of showing the North American flag there during the war.  For twelve-year-old Ken, who knew no Spanish, this brought an unanticipated education in international living, the first of many for him.

After the family returned to the United States, Ken was an academic star. He received his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude from Harvard in 1951; became a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford; and got a doctorate in Social Studies from Oxford in 1956.  He was also a star athlete. At Harvard Ken rowed on a famously winning team.  As a graduate student, he was the only non-British member of the Oxford crew team that won the 1952 Boat Race with Cambridge, which has gone down in sporting history as one of the most exciting races ever rowed.

Ken returned to Harvard as a junior Fellow (1953-56), lecturing there in clinical psychology.  He joined the Yale faculty in 1962 as an assistant professor of psychology; seven years later he was a full professor and director of the Behavioral Sciences Study Center.  In these years he published not only The Uncommitted but also companion studies [Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth (1968) and Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition (1971)].

An obvious research track would have involved following this generation as it aged, but this was not his style. Once Ken had mastered a challenge, he preferred to move to new ones.  By then the Carnegie project was underway, and Ken threw himself into it with intellectual energy and administrative savvy.

Similar to his studies of uncommitted youth, the Carnegie project drew upon philosophic as well as scientific literature and achieved a fusion of psychological and sociological perspectives.  Most of all, it advocated for the overlooked and marginalized.  The Council’s recommendations stressed two persistent concerns: the need to create upward social mobility for all children (especially the handicapped, poor, and minorities), and the wisdom of giving direct help to parents—getting them more income through full employment and tax credits–rather than indirectly through particular government services and programs.  In Ken’s words “[Parents] are the best thing we have…we don’t have any choice but to try to give the power and resources to parents.”

In Ken’s early years at MIT he was busy writing, editing, publishing, and disseminating the recommendations of the Carnegie Report on Children. In his own research he continued to work on issues related to children’s well-being and also began to do comparative studies of the education, development, and careers of engineers in the United States and in France– projects which took him to major French institutions such as the Ecole des Mines and the Sorbonne (University of Paris).

Most of all, Ken had to turn his attention to his new institutional home.  Along with that of Leo Marx, Ken’s appointment was intended as a first step in the realization of the Wiesner-Rosenblith vision of an interdisciplinary College with a broad focus on sociotechnical change.  The vision was not widely shared at MIT.  In later years, both Ken and Leo admitted that at times they felt they had walked into a “lion’s den.” Many faculty in engineering and science were skeptical that this broader mission was a good use of MIT’s resources.  Some faculty in humanities and the social sciences agreed with the goal but had different ideas about how and who to implement it.

By the late 1970s, the dream had been scaled back.  Rather than a College positioned outside of MIT’s already established Schools, the new unit emerged as the Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), a department in the School of Humanities and Social Science (now the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences).  Though considerably less ambitious than the original vision, even this department was insecure. There were contentious arguments about tenure cases.  As the 1980s wore on, MIT leadership was threatening to shut down the unit entirely.

At the beginning of 1987, Kenneth Keniston became Director of the STS Program. In a den of lions, Ken proved a skilled lion-tamer.  In the words of one faculty colleague, “I remember Ken as saving STS at its most desperate moment.”  Others recall that period as one of “circling the wagons” as the STS Program fought off a series of attacks. In Ken’s own, less dramatic words, most of his writing in those years “consisted of memoranda and grant proposals.”

Ken understood the MIT power structure and worked it well.  He participated in many Institute-wide committees concerned with the educational program.  He made sure that the STS Program faculty met face to face with the provost.  He understood that at MIT a world-class graduate program was essential for institutional respect, and so with other STS faculty he began organizing a doctoral program.

The original proposal presented to the SHASS Dean called for a graduate program in the history of science and technology; Ken urged that it be a program in the history AND social studies of science and technology.  This broader graduate program was launched in 1988, with the Institute providing one graduate student stipend. Along with other STS colleagues, Ken set about raising money to fund more students. He was able to tap foundation support, which provided not only more stipends but also more respect from the rest of MIT.

It had been years since Ken Keniston rowed crew, but he had not forgotten how effective teamwork can be.  He was a strong leader who was also a strong collaborator.  He was not promoting himself, nor even promoting STS in and of itself.  His commitment was to its mission. What he cared about—what had brought him to MIT in the first place—was developing institutional capacity to bring the humanities and social sciences to bear on the most difficult questions of the time.

In answering those questions, he advocated a broad understanding of the social sciences, believing that they could be rigorous without necessarily being quantitative.  His scholarly openness helped younger faculty find an institutional home here. Sherry Turkle, for example, felt that as a young scholar Ken understood her goals even more clearly than she herself did. He told her that her first book (Psychoanalytic Politics) had raised a universal issue: “There are revolutions of the heart and of the mind and of the economic system.  Sorting these out are eternal questions and you have made a contribution here.”  Ken encouraged her and many others to address such “eternal questions” and to build a scholarly home for them at MIT.

A Passage to India

Ken Keniston served in STS leadership positions for a decade, as Program Director from 1986-1992 and as Director of Graduate Studies from 1992 to 1996.  During this period he continued to collaborate with colleagues in teaching, while also collaborating with Leo Marx and Jill Conway on a major research project in the still-emergent field of environmental studies (resulting in the publication in 2000 of Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment, co-edited by the three of them).

In 1997 Ken traveled to India to attend a meeting sponsored by Microsoft about the challenges of developing software in a country with so many local written and spoken languages.  Ken became fascinated by this problem and more generally by the gap between technological and human development in India.  He had tried to understand this gap between promise and reality in American children and youth; now he was trying to understand this phenomenon in a dense, complex society on the other side of the globe.

How could a country with the capacities of India—its booming software industry, its accomplishments in space exploration and nuclear power, its large middle class – also suffer from severe shortcomings in human development (a third of the population going to bed hungry, a half of its population illiterate)?  In Keniston’s own words, “India does—or could—lead the world in creating both the technologies for reaching ordinary people and the grass-roots social experiments that could teach both India and other nations how to use those technologies for the common good.”

To understand these technologies and social experiments, Ken used methods he had well-honed through years of research.  He developed a network of support among Indians in key positions, serving as a visiting professor at leading Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) at Chennai, Mumbai, and Kanpur, and joining governing boards, notably that of the National Institute of Advanced Studies at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. He sought and received support from private companies and foundations such as the Ford Foundation and the Microsoft Research Center in India.

He also trudged through many a village to learn about facts on the ground. He was struck by the number of village projects in which technologies were used for information and communication—and by the dearth of studies of their impact on human development.  He wanted to know how the technologies were serving the causes of economic development, political transparency, and social justice.

To answer this fundamental question, Keniston identified around fifty such projects of community development and studied twenty of them.  He loved to interview, making sure to include everyone, in his own words, “from the outcasts to the Brahmins.” He reviewed the promise and performance of various projects with what one Indian colleague described as a “skeptical yet interested eye.”  For example, he noted the role of community information centers in putting land sale records on-line; this opened up land sales to those people previously excluded by lack of information, but it also enabled some canny operators to manipulate land sales as never before.  He also recognized early on that cell phones were a critical tool in creating agricultural supply chains and other marketing opportunities in rural India.

Keniston’s years of research led to empirically based conclusions about what types of IT interventions are useful in the larger context of how much they cost, and who pays, and who benefits.  These results were published in books such as IT Experience in India: Bridging the Digital Divide (2004), co-authored with Deepak Kumar; The State, IT, and Development (2005), co-authored with Rohit Raj Mathur and R.K. Bagga; and a comparative study of rural information projects for the Government of India (2006), authored with V. Balaji, as well as in dozens of articles, chapters, and lectures.

The most lasting effect of these many research visits, however, lay in the realm of human relations.  Ken’s personality made an indelible impression.  He was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Human Development at MIT who was also an engaging human being.  As one professor at IITBangalore explained, “He combined intellectual authority with a warmth and personal approachability and empathy in a manner that is rare.”

This mix of admiration and affection is shared by many of Ken’s Indian colleagues, some of whom describe him as “fatherly.”  They appreciated his collaborative manner, supporting and encouraging Indians engaged in village studies. Ken’s graduate student Richa Kumar, now on the faculty of the IITDelhi as an Associate Professor of Sociology and Policy Studies, says that he changed her life: “He picked me out from the villages of Madurai and got me to MIT!”

Conversely, Ken Keniston made it possible to send many MIT students to the villages of India.  From his earliest visits he made a point of meeting MIT alumni there.  In 1998, just one year after the Microsoft meeting, Ken founded the MIT-India Program as a component of the MISTI Program (MIT Science and Technology Initiatives).  MISTI was just at the take-off point from a small operation, with no central funding, to the much larger, more robust, and more broadly supported organization of today.

The MIT-India program started off modestly enough, with Ken recruiting MIT undergraduates to teach coding to Indian high school students. From the beginning, the goal was to provide MIT students with the opportunity of being at the forefront of India’s science, technology, and innovation activities, while also allowing them to experience the country’s history and culture. For this reason, before going to India, interns had to take a seminar introducing them to Indian history, culture, economics, and politics, as well as practical issues of travel, health, and hospitality. Ken taught this MIT-India seminar and also a Freshman Advisor Seminar which helped introduce new students to the opportunity.

The MIT-India Program grew rapidly under Ken’s leadership. In 1999 he visited intern sites in Bangalore, Bombay, North Bombay Poona, and Jamshedpur, in each location meeting with interns and their supervisors. The following year, eighteen MIT students interned in eight different sites. In the early 2000s the program expanded to include multiple internships for MIT students in Indian research centers, multinational companies, universities, start-ups, and non-profits, as well as other research and teaching opportunities.

In recent years, the program has sent forty to fifty students, both undergraduate and graduate, from all MIT schools, for summer internships.  In its first twenty years, MIT-India sent more than a thousand MIT students to India. The growth of this program is both cause and effect of a growing appreciation of international experience that has revolutionized MIT education in the last generation.

A Transformative Presence

When Kenneth Keniston came to MIT in 1975, it was not an obvious move for him or for MIT.  He had been educated at Harvard and Yale; he was not an engineer, and not a physical scientist. The only home he had at MIT was the one he was supposed to help create.  He was moving into an academic environment that was unfamiliar and not especially welcoming.

But Kenneth Keniston brought with him enormous gifts: he was sophisticated, accomplished, well-connected, well-read, urbane, witty, irreverent.  He was refined but also had a lively sense of humor and personal warmth.  In the words of STS colleague and former SHASS Dean Deborah Fitzgerald, whom he hired in 1988, “He tried hard to act like a regular person but it was clear he was not.”

MIT changed Ken.  He found ways to meld his research interests with the STS mission.  He learned to navigate his way in an unfamiliar academic terrain.  He collaborated with new sets of people from around the world.  He had to work with many people who did not see the point of an STS program or an international learning program. At MIT, Ken evolved in ways that he probably would not have if he had stayed on a more predictable track.

And because he did, Ken Keniston changed MIT too.  He was crucial in launching an STS Program with the highest standards in addressing “the most difficult and complicated problems facing humanity.”  Those problems have become only more numerous, difficult, and complicated, and MIT has come to understand that addressing them is a matter for the entire Institute.  If MIT did not now have an STS Program, it would be scrambling to create one.

The MIT-India Program too is flourishing, as is international learning more generally.  Much earlier and more deeply than many others, Ken understood that MIT’s long association with India is not a “technology transfer” relationship but a reciprocal, evolving relationship of people, cultures, and knowledge in the cause of human development.  Again, if MIT did not already have the MIT-India program, we would be hard at work to create something like it.

Kenneth Keniston played a major role in encouraging MIT to ask new questions that have significantly broadened MIT’s educational mission in the 21st century. His presence among us was transformative.  We will miss him deeply.

–Written by Rosalind Williams, Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology, Emerita (STS).