The Institute has a rich legacy of Grand Pursuits, endeavors which not only benefit our direct constituencies today but reach out like a beacon of innovation to influence the world for the better and accomplish our larger mission. Current examples include MIT’s hosting the W3C Web Consortium, the unifying standard-bearer for global internet and information connectivity, and MIT’s commitment to OpenCourseWare, sharing our curriculum freely such that individuals and institutions worldwide can learn. In earlier years, MIT leadership and faculty co-founded such influential efforts as WGBH, the basis for public and educational broadcasting in the United States, and Project Athena, a revolutionary campus-wide computing and communication system that helped define a new paradigm in the world of computing. Sputnik-era MIT efforts to advance children’s science and math education were ultimately spun-out to form Educational Development Corporation, currently an independent, six hundred person, non-profit K-12 educational materials and support organization.
What then are the Grand Pursuits and bold experiments of the next MIT generation? Might we take scientific publication back to its open, non-profit roots and spearhead a worldwide online Opensource Knowledge Initiative? Could K-12 education benefit from a parallel OpenCourseWare revolution in OpenKidsWare or even a School of Education at MIT? Might the Institute embark on a Global Development Initiative in pursuit of economic viability and environmental sustainability, bringing the fruits of innovation and entrepreneurship to the three-quarters of humanity beyond first-world borders? Such endeavors would be sources of moral inspiration to students, something we could take tremendous pride in being part of and helping bring to reality. MIT must be vigilant and attentive in the search for other projects that might innovate in such inspiring ways on a grand scale.
MIT’s commitment to advancing knowledge and education in order to serve the nation and world at large has forged a plethora of inspiring leaders ranging from entrepreneurial leaders like Alfred P. Sloan to Nobel Prize winners such as H. Robert Horvitz. In all of the departments and fields of study within MIT, one finds talent and leadership that motivate students and members of the MIT community, as well as many others around the world.
To meet and maintain this expectation, MIT needs strong, rousing leaders on all levels: administration, faculty, student, and alumni. We need leaders who can be ambassadors of this Institute; leaders who really go out and shape the world, as well as leaders who can continually inspire and hone one another. It might be useful to incorporate this quality into the selection criteria for hiring faculty and administrators and even in the admission of students. In addition, MIT can promote inspirational leadership by highlighting its existing leaders. For instance, one way this can be done is by giving Deans more public visibility and a role in strategic outreach. Ultimately, by producing strong leaders, MIT can attract strong leaders (and vice versa).
Finally, MIT faculty and senior administrators seem reluctant to actually lead; that is, to take more time to be visible in public, to voice inspiring words, to rally students and other Institute community members towards bold goals and lofty aspirations, and to share an aggregate institutional vision. By “vision” what people really seek is a coherent description, a compelling story which synthesizes the most exciting and emergent themes at MIT, as articulated by those senior leaders who really do have Institute-wide perspective. Far from being “cornball”, such exhortations can indeed move people to action and raise our aspirations. President Killian’s Inauguration phrase became a signature of his era, evoking MIT as a “university polarized around science, engineering and the arts” which while limited in objectives is unlimited in the intensity and degree to which those goals are pursued. As an Institute, we can learn lessons from our earlier Presidents – Rogers, Walker, Maclaurin, and Compton for instance – who were compelling orators and writers and who were disproportionately more visible in their day and influential both on campus and in the eye of the general public.