Hixon Forum Background

When, in September of 1956, Joseph Platt approved copy for the initial Bulletin sent out to recruit students for the Class of 1961, the copy included the following mission statement:

The college is founded in the belief that a special need exists for physical scientists and engineers sufficiently broadly trained in the social sciences and the humanities to assume technical responsibility with an understanding of the relation of technology to the rest of our society.

Two years later during a Fund for the Advancement of Education supported curriculum study the relationship of the humanities and social sciences curriculum to this mission was articulated by consultant Iredell Jenkins, chair of the philosophy department at the University of Alabama in the following way:

Scientists and engineers are the masters of the techniques of control through which humankind dominates the physical environment -and, to an ever increasing extent, the human and social environment. As this power of control increases, its effects on the lives of everyone grow more pervasive…Hitherto, the questions facing scientists and engineers has largely been that of what they could do: now it is more a matter of what they should do….This requires that they no longer confine their attention to concepts of feasibility and efficiency. They have now got to be concerned with ends, with values, and with the total contents and conditions of human well-being. To deal with these effectively they must have an appreciation of humanities past achievements, a sense of the possibilities that lie before them, a realization of human limitations and a sympathy for human differences, the ability to balance alternative values, and the informed courage to make the sacrifices and compromises that life and the world demands.

This statement reflects well the approach which Harvey Mudd has taken for almost all of its history to the social responsibility of scientists and engineers in ways that highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of that approach. It claims that what we might call liberal education in the humanities and the social sciences forms a critical precondition for the informed and responsible exploration of values implicated in the development and deployment of new knowledge and technological systems; and the humanities and social sciences curriculum has consistently been guided by this assumption. But it also assumes that the transfer of knowledge and attitudes from traditional liberal educational settings to applications regarding scientific and technological activities will be automatic and unproblematic; and we all know from the problems that students experience in transferring technical knowledge across disciplinary boundaries that such an assumption is counterfactual. Indeed in its recent curricular reform vote the College faculty acknowledged the need to get students to confront directly the linkages between the technical and the humanities and social sciences portions of the curriculum by establishing the new requirement of an “integrative course/experience that involves the exploration of the interaction between science, technology, and society.”

In 1990, in anticipation of a major fund drive, Tad Beckman drafted a proposal focused on the issue of integrating a concern with human and social goals into the technical education and activities of the members of the Harvey Mudd community to present to Alex and Adelaide Hixon, who were known to be interested in these issues. In the preamble to this proposal, Beckman wrote:

In inaugurating the Hixon forum for Responsive Science and Engineering, Harvey Mudd College seeks to re-envision its mission of producing leaders in engineering and science who have a strong understanding of human and social goals. The study of humanities and social sciences has played an important role in HMC’s curriculum from the outset, but that study has been too compartmentalized, not sufficiently joined with the study of science and engineering. We need to challenge our students, our faculty, and the scientific community to consider more deeply the moral implications of their work.

In this venture we hope to bring the disciplines represented at Harvey Mudd closer together than ever before; and at the same time, we hope to set out on a path of study, research and teaching that has a major influence on other institutions in the country and sets a standard for shaping and utilizing technology in the next century.

As envisioned by Beckman, the Forum would involve College faculty and students across the disciplines in

  1. developing and teaching or taking courses, “which link scientific, technological, ethical, public policy, and other issues in new and innovative ways.” (This would certainly include project based courses or educational experiences associated with internships, etc.);
  2. carrying out research involving the interaction of science, technology, values and public policy; and
  3. sponsoring an annual conference or symposium on some timely and appropriate issue connected with responsive technology.

To carry out these activities Beckman proposed that the Forum have a “convener” from the Harvey Mudd tenure track faculty, a group of up to six faculty participants in any given year drawn together because of shared interest in a particular theme, and an annual senior visitor who would teach some Harvey Mudd courses, help to organize the conference, and interact with the faculty. In addition, he suggested that the Forum might offer space and supportive grants to individuals (usually on sabbatical leave from other institutions) who wish to visit for a semester or a year. The College faculty assigned to the forum would receive some course release; but it was also assumed that they would teach in Forum sponsored innovative courses that would, in many cases, be part of their department’s programs. (With the new requirement of an “integrative course,” it is expected that every department will offer some courses of this kind, at least as departmental electives).

Though the Hixon Forum proposal was discussed prior to its presentation to the Hixons with Chair-of-the-Faculty Tom Helliwell and Dean of Faculty, Sam Tanenbaum, it was not brought to the full faculty at that time, even though it was anticipated that it would have an impact on the academic program of the College. The Hixons did make a decision, in 1990, to provide support for the Hixon Forum through deferred gift trusts in the amount of $5,000,000; but because there would be no immediate income from those gifts, full faculty discussion of the Forum was deferred.

Subsequently, in 1995, the Hixons agreed to separately fund the Hixon-Riggs Visiting Professorship in Science, Technology, and Society, through additional cash or cash equivalent gifts. They did so in the expectation that this constituted the first step in implementing the Hixon Forum through the immediate funding of the proposed senior visiting position. Meanwhile, one of the smaller trusts, amounting to approximately $400,000 has matured and those monies have been applied to endowing the proposed annual symposium.

In May 1999, the Hixon Forum was approved by the Department Chairs Committee, acting for the full faculty. The College is beginning to seek additional funds in order to expand the current operations of the Hixon Forum. In the mean time, the steering committee conducts searches for the annual Hixon-Riggs Visiting Professor and the annual symposium is being held.