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Donor Profiles

An investment in open sharing

MIT Alumnus donor Jon D. Gruber

An enthusiasm for what’s “cutting edge” in technology has molded Jon Gruber’s life, and has now made its mark on MIT OpenCourseWare.

Gruber, an entrepreneur who is the president of Gruber & McBaine Capital Management, the company he founded in 1987, has been a consultant to government clients, a tech analyst, and now an investment advisor focused largely on technology stocks. In fact, he is known in some circles as “the father of technology investing.”

Recently, he decided to give a $1 million gift to MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW), an unprecedented act of generosity for MIT’s global initiative that is committed to publishing virtually all of MIT’s course materials freely and openly for the benefit of mankind.

A MIT Class of 1964 alum and generous supporter of MIT (in 1998, Gruber had established a career development professorship at the MIT Sloan School of Management), Gruber wanted to give MIT a large gift as part of his 40th MIT reunion celebration in summer 2004… But he was not sure where he wanted to direct that gift.

A conversation with former MIT President Charles M. Vest tipped the balance in favor of designating his latest gift to MIT OCW. “(OpenCourseWare) was a most distinct idea - something that no one else has done,” Gruber said. “And it was clearly one of Chuck Vest’s favorites, too. There was no ambiguity there. He was very, very upbeat about it.”

Upbeat for good reason: With 1550 courses published thus far, MIT OCW is already helping to make the world a better place. An example: University faculty in Baghdad are using it as a model while they work to rebuild their country’s education system.

Gruber’s gift will support the development and open publication of course materials in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science - his undergraduate major - and also in MIT’s various programs in the visual arts.

“I chose visual arts because of my family,” he explained. “My mother and brother are both artists and photographers, and my sister is in the arts and singing, so my father and I are the only ones in the ‘other world.’” (Gruber’s father was an engineer from Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University.)

Gruber and his wife, Linda, live in the San Francisco Bay Area and are patrons of several arts organizations there. The couple’s daughter, Lindsay, holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia; son Wyatt, a Duke University grad, also holds a degree from the MIT Sloan School.

Opening doors to the world

OCW donor Larry Birenbaum.

Larry Birenbaum, a 1969 MIT graduate in Electrical Engineering, has an impressive history of giving back to his alma mater. In the past, his gifts – like those of many donors to Institute – have supported departments that transformed his own MIT experience.

For example, Birenbaum, who is now Senior Vice President and Group General Manager of the Ethernet Access Group at Cisco Systems (currently enjoying a leave of absence), was a founding member of the 3Com Corporation, and one of the donors of the 3Com Chair in MIT’s Laboratory of Computer Science in 1999. Birenbaum and his wife, Jan, had also established an MIT scholarship fund which supports MIT undergraduates who were born as citizens of another country and immigrated to the United States, and became U.S. citizens. Birenbaum, who is himself a naturalized citizen, feels it is important to make an MIT education accessible to gifted students – just as, decades ago, a scholarship helped make MIT accessible and affordable for him.

Recently, however, Birenbaum and his wife Jan gave a generous gift in support of an MIT initiative that did not exist when Birenbaum was a student: MIT’s OpenCourseWare. “It’s true that gifts typically support something that you experienced as a student,” Birenbaum explains. “But I was really taken by this initiative. A lot of other schools are trying to figure out how to make money off the Internet, and that’s completely understandable. But I just love the idea that MIT took a completely radical approach, and said, ‘We’re going to make these materials free to everybody.’

“I had the opportunity to take some terrific courses when I was at MIT,” Birenbaum adds. “I took Hans Lucas Teuber’s ‘Introduction to Psychology,’ which was fabulous, and eye-opening. In the Electrical Engineering department, I took a hands-on laboratory course in which I worked on building a computer from scratch, trying to demonstrate that file sharing could be accomplished on a hardware basis. We didn’t quite complete it… I guess we’ll never know if it was a reasonable idea! But it was an incredible learning experience.”

With his gift to MIT OCW, Birenbaum hopes to make this type of learning experience accessible to others around the globe. “OpenCourseWare is exactly the kind of thing that universities should be doing,” he elaborates, “in terms of being novel and forward-thinking. The courseware information is definitive, which you’d expect from an institution like MIT. It’s also comprehensive – a rigorous, disciplined, methodical approach to committing this stuff online. And that’s so generous… and so useful.”

Birenbaum has been so impressed with the initiative that it has actually transformed his own relationship with the larger institution. “This initiative actually reeled me back into the school,” he admits. “I had kind of drifted away, in terms of involvement. But [the OCW] announcement really brought me back.”

Birenbaum’s gift is a tribute to the generosity and work of the faculty, who make OCW possible. “I’ve been really impressed with the unselfish attitude that the faculty has taken with this,” Birenbaum explains. “I don’t know much about university politics, but I would gather that the stuff that they pull together for their courses is, in a sense, proprietary.  Why should they make that available to others? But they seem to have overcome all that, and fulfilled the commitment to get 100 percent of their courses on the Web. That’s just extraordinary.”