University To Battle For MIT Professor

Harvard’s psychology department may soon make a bid to hire away from MIT renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, according to Harvard and MIT professors.

“I think an offer is imminent,” said Chair of the Department of Psychology Daniel L. Schacter.

Schacter said Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby will ultimately decide whether to make the offer.

Kirby could not be reached for comment yesterday.

“[Pinker would] add to our strength in cognitive science and would certainly add a lot to our offerings in language and cognitive psychology,” Schacter said.


But MIT isn’t expected to give up Pinker without a fight.

“I certainly wish Harvard wouldn’t do this,” said Mriganka Sur, Fairchild professor of neuroscience and head of MIT’s department of brain and cognitive science. “I am certain MIT will do all it can to keep him here.”

Sur said that he had discussed the matter with Pinker, and that Pinker had expressed happiness with his position at MIT.

Pinker is currently on sabbatical in California and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Pinker, who taught at Harvard for a year after earning his doctorate from the University in 1979, is widely recognized for his wide-ranging work in subjects such as evolutionary psychology and visual cognition.

“Perhaps the most impressive thing about Steve is that he does not seem to suffer from the ‘depth/breadth’ tradeoff that plagues so many of us,” Harvard’s Lindsey Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn wrote in an e-mail. “He is remarkably broad while remaining deep in numerous sub-fields,”

“Pinker has an outstandingly analytic mind, is a superb synthesizer, is productive, and is contributing novel ideas to the field,” he wrote.

Pinker has studied the way our brains form three dimensional images and the way our visual attention is distributed in a three dimensional world.

Pinker has also studied the process by which humans learn to speak.

“Steve’s work on the language led him to view it as an instinct, which jibed nicely with his fondness for evolutionary theory,” Kosslyn wrote.

Books such as Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language and How the Mind Works, as well as frequent contributions to publications like The New York Times and Slate, have made Pinker a celebrity among intellectuals and psychology experts.

Pinker’s most recent book, The Blank Slate, was a bestseller. In the book, he attempted to debunk the well-known idea that we are born as “blank slates.”

—Staff writer Nathaniel A. Smith can be reached at