Boston’s Big Dig was the largest, most complex U.S. highway project ever built. The project cost five times more than was expected and was seven years behind schedule — a big failure of engineering leadership.

Bernie Gordon believes the project is a sign that the country needs to better educate engineers for leadership.

Because MIT has a reputation for leading the country in technical education, Gordon and his wife, Sophia, recently announced the intention of the Gordon Foundation to make a $20 million gift to the MIT engineering school to initiate and support a major engineering leadership program — the largest gift ever to that school for curriculum development. The program would be a national model for developing technical leaders.

“If you are a kid smart enough to be taken into MIT, you’ve got an obligation to attempt to be a leader, to accomplish something for society, and to help the country,” he says.

The Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program will help reinvigorate the country’s commitment to technical innovation. Recently, other nations are attracting large numbers to engineering, he says, and the U.S. is losing its ability to inspire young people to become real engineers. He believes that the academic community needs to change its approach to what a student needs for a top engineering education, and students need to develop and use their skills in real-life situations.

Gordon says it is merely his opinion and there are some exceptions, but “the engineering productivity around Boston may be the worst in the world. We’ve got many of the smartest people here, but intellectual ability is only one part of being a great engineer.

“You need to study a breadth of subjects and you need broad technical ability. But you also need discipline, integrity, strong character, right attitude, and an understanding of other human beings.” Gordon says that we need to educate engineers to also embody these leadership qualities.

Prof. Edward Crawley will direct the new program and Prof. Joel Schindall will serve as the interim industry co-director. Thomas Magnanti, who recently stepped down as dean of engineering, played a vital role in making the leadership program happen. Dean of Engineering Subra Suresh says: “The education of future engineering and technology leaders is more critically needed in this century than at any time in previous history because of the great challenges that face our global society. This extraordinary gift provides an opportunity to train MIT’s highly talented students not only in the fundamentals of engineering, but also in skills that will serve in the practice of engineering for society’s benefit.”

ONE OF THE BEST

Bernie Gordon is one of the best engineers in the country.

The holder of 200 patents, he invented the fetal monitor. The instant imaging CAT scanner. And digital Doppler radar.

He also contributed to the historic technology, Univac, the world’s first commercial digital computer. He has been called the father of high-speed analog-to-digital conversion. Its basic technology is found in computers, clocks, compact discs, telephones, TVs, EKG machines, and imaging equipment. He is the founder of Analogic Corporation and NeuroLogica Corporation. Recently he developed a device to provide diagnostics for stroke or brain injury victims. In 1986, Gordon received the National Medal of Technology.

“Whenever I give a speech, inevitably I will be introduced as a businessman, not an engineer,” says Gordon. “This seems to me to denigrate the real engineer.”

FIRST JOB

Gordon is proud of his occupation. As a boy in Springfield, Mass., he fiddled with radios and dreamed of becoming an engineer. At 13, he got his first job and began building and selling better outhouses, which when you pulled the cord released lime that sent the waste into the ground.

His father, who went to Harvard, was a lawyer and an ethics professor. His mother immigrated from Poland in 1912 and seven years later graduated from Boston University, first in her class. His parents had discipline and the highest standards, and demanded the same from their son.

“I was a real sissy kid,” Gordon says, adding that a gym teacher encouraged him to build up his body. Then, at 11, his Uncle Chick taught him to fight. He joined the boxing team in high school and boxed again in the Navy. “It gave me confidence. I could handle myself better. It’s very hard to be the leader of a group unless you’ve got self-confidence.” Gordon says boxing and the Navy taught him discipline and mental toughness — qualities essential for a great engineer.

“Schools,” he says, “teach the FUN-damentals of engineering. Imagine a course at West Point, the FUN-damentals of combat. Engineering isn’t fun; it’s serious hard work. It’s not a game.

“Ego is the enemy of engineering success. So many egoistic young kids simply think they are entitled to become something without gaining the experience, without going through an apprenticeship, without doing something for somebody else. That’s a big problem.

“What I see today is people in charge just delegating work, and they’re causing people to fail because they’re not giving a piece of themselves to their subordinates. A leader needs to give to others.”