Keeping Pace with Tom Allen

Tom Allen in 2006Tom Allen in 1966

By Amy MacMillan, LFM-SDM Communications Assistant
March 9, 2006

Following four decades of teaching at MIT, Professor Thomas J. Allen, Jr. said he’s "down to working 60 hours a week."

Allen, 74, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management and Dr. Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, may have slowed down slightly from when he taught Managerial Psychology for 39 years at MIT Sloan, but he still puts in as many hours as he can. And, when he’s not working, he’s at the Z Center swimming laps or at home jogging on his treadmill.

And, while he was Director of the National Institute for Technology Management at University College in Dublin for seven years, he flew to Ireland every month for 3-4 days. Allen still travels to Ireland occasionally, but most of the time he can be found in his office in E52, where he serves as the co-director of the Leaders for Manufacturing and System Design and Management programs.

Thomas J. Allen, Jr., the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management and Dr. Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, taught Managerial Psychology for 39 years.

It’s hard to believe that Allen came to MIT "by accident," but that’s what he likes to say. He grew up in Newark, NJ, in a working-class family, and graduated from Upsala College in East Orange, NJ, on an athletic scholarship. He was on the football and wrestling teams, but he downplays that. "I was never a star. I was always working in the trenches," he says.

In 1954, during the Korean War, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, and was stationed in Japan for two years. He came back and settled in Seattle, where he worked as an engineer at The Boeing Company. He started taking courses toward his master’s degree in electrical engineering, and was then transferred to a Boeing group working with MIT Lincoln Lab in Massachusetts. He picked up his engineering courses at MIT in 1959.

One day, as fate would have it, Allen was working in an empty classroom at the Institute, and he spotted a brochure for the School of Industrial Management (before it was renamed The Alfred P. Sloan of Management). Soon he was taking some of the school’s courses, and was introduced to Professor of Industrial Management Donald Marquis. Allen took his R & D Management course and became friendly with the esteemed psychologist. Marquis, who was working with a large grant from NASA, asked Allen to work with him when he finished his master’s degree in engineering. "And, I was crazy enough to do it," he laughs.

Allen received his own grant from the National Science Foundation in 1963. In 1964, he joined the Ph.D. program, and received his doctorate in management in 1966. He then left Boeing behind and joined the MIT faculty that same year. He still remains in awe of his achievement, referring to himself as "an inner city kid from Newark." Becoming a professor was not on his radar growing up, he remembers. Neither one of Allen’s parents attended college, and subsequently, as a result of their experiences, encouraged their children to get as much education as they possibly could.

During this time, Allen had started a family of his own. He met his wife Joan while he was at Boeing, and the two settled down and had three children: Tom, born in 1963; Susan, born in 1967; and Máirín, born in 1973. Allen and his wife just celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary in January.

In the fall of 1965, Marquis had volunteered to teach a new course called Managerial Psychology and Allen served as his TA. In the spring of 1966, Marquis told Allen, "It’s all yours." He discovered he loved teaching, and taught the class every year for 39 successive years. When asked the secret of being a good teacher, he laughs. "You’ve got to be a ham to be a teacher." Allen particularly focused on undergraduates, whom he describes as "intellectually open and very smart."

Allen’s affection for his students is mutual, says Ralph Katz, a research affiliate at MIT Sloan and a friend of Allen’s for more than 30 years. "The students adore him," Katz says. "He loves teaching the kids because he loves to share, and see the excitement in their eyes. He’s a kid at heart, and he’s got a very big heart."

Allen’s specialties became technology transfer, communication among engineers and scientists, organizational psychology and management, and his research focused on project management in the pharmaceutical and aerospace industries. He is the author of three books: Managing the Flow of Technology (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press 1984); Information Technology and the Corporation of the 1990s: Research Studies (New York, Oxford University Press, 1995), and Lean Enterprise Value: Insight from MIT’s Lean Aerospace Initiative (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). Allen has a fourth book due out in the fall entitled, Creating an Environment for Innovation: Stimulating Innovation through Physical Space and Organizational Structure (Elsevier).

The late 1960s and early ’70s were the pinnacle of radical activity involving the Vietnam War on college campuses across the nation, including MIT. There was a deep-seated student campaign against war research at MIT, and the campus was the scene of countless protests and demonstrations.

Allen wasn’t fazed. He kept a Marine Corps recruiting poster on his office wall, and didn’t hesitate to disagree with some of his more liberal students. He recalls the occupation of MIT President Howard Johnson’s office in January of 1970, when a group of disgruntled students knocked down Johnson’s locked door with a battering ram, and occupied the office for 34 hours. The students left voluntarily and no one was hurt, although seven of them were expelled and two served short prison sentences for their involvement in the melee.

Allen paid close attention because the head man on the battering ram was one of his students. He knew the man not only as a student, but as a handball partner who he used to beat on the court. The student was twice the size of Allen. "He used to get enormously angry. I wonder what ever happened to him," he laughs.

Later on, another group of students was rumored to possibly cause some damage to campus in yet another protest. President Johnson didn’t want to involve the police, and instead, asked faculty to confront the students if they caused any problems. Allen’s old mentor, Marquis, volunteered to spend the night in the MIT Sloan Building. Allen put on his combat boots and joined him as his sentinel. The two were there for but an hour when a group of Allen’s students showed up with a case of beer. Fortunately, the MIT Sloan building and the rest of the campus remained undisturbed that night.

The war-related conflicts weren’t always defused so serenely. One time, two students entered Allen’s office and insisted he sign a petition. He politely declined, but when one of the students refused to leave, Allen tossed him out with his own two hands. "I came from Newark you know – I didn’t take any nonsense," he says.

Allen stopped teaching the Managerial Psychology class a year ago. Currently, he is teaching an SDM course, Organizing for Innovative Product Development. He also served as chairman of the MIT Athletic Association (MITAA) for 25 years. The MITAA was renamed DAPER (Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation) in 2003, and after stepping down briefly, Allen is the interim chair on its Advisory Board.

"He is unceasing in his giving," says John Benedick, Assistant Director of Athletics for MIT. "He is the salt of the earth as far as we are concerned. I don’t know of anyone who has as big a heart as he does."

In his spare time, when he’s not working out or traveling, Allen enjoys spending time with his four young grandchildren who live in the area. "He is an extremely dedicated family man," says Katz. "His work was always important, but his family is more important."

When asked "what’s next" for him, Allen shrugs and smiles. "Who knows? I never anticipated what has happened so far," he says.

Tom Allen (shown here in 1966) says he has enjoyed teaching from his first days in front of a classroom, when he served as a TA for Managerial Psychology.