MIT has committed significant resources to expanding and developing new and emerging areas of research over the last two decades, most visibly in materials and “tiny” technologies, biological engineering, the mind sciences, information technologies, in social- and global-systems innovation, and more. The emergence of these fields has both inspired and driven new collaborative enterprises within and beyond MIT’s institutional boundaries, requiring greater sponsor volume, placing increased stress on common infrastructure, demanding building renewal and construction, and squeezing older, more classic fields. Furthermore, most students are unaware of the broad spectrum of emerging fields and their transformative implications. While MIT has core classes in the classic foundation disciplines, there is no longer any survey class for all MIT students which considers the emerging issues and opportunities of the day and places current work into larger societal context.7
MIT’s Mens et Manus mission demands a balanced approach to the disciplines combining both theory and practice, and embracing the full spectrum of technological endeavor, ranging from exploratory fundamental science through application to commerce and real-world impact. A few students have benefited tremendously from exposure to all phases of the Innovation Pipeline at MIT, from work as UROP or RA on sponsored research, through class participation on a Deshpande Center Innovation Team, through extracurricular company-founding via the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition and advising from alums in the Venture Mentoring Service. And yet the totality of these ‘pipeline’ experiences are neither scaled-up enough to be available to most students nor are most students properly aware of the overall innovation ecosystem at and around the Institute.
President Compton created the Schools structure at MIT in the 1930s as a mechanism to both provide depth of administrative leadership, and to place the Sciences on a par with Engineering while recognizing the distinct strengths of the Arts disciplines of Architecture & Planning. After WWII, during President Killian’s tenure, Humanities and Management were formalized, leading to the Five Schools structure in place today.
While appreciating the strengths of the current Schools and Departments, many students wonder why MIT has not embraced additional Schools, especially the areas of Law, Medicine, Policy, and Education. MIT does have a variety of programs in all of these domains – for instance, Health Science & Technology (HST) is a collaboration between Harvard Medical and several Engineering disciplines at MIT. Furthermore, MIT has several offerings for students interested in pre-law or pre-medical or civil service or K-12 teaching. And yet none of these programs is a bold commitment on the Institute’s part to building deep-strength in these areas, especially in a uniquely MIT-style. In fact, recent Presidents have seemed to shy away from further School-building8. For instance, which institution would be better positioned than MIT to specialize in legal implications of new technologies, of intellectual property and intangibles, of environmental risks and externalities, and so forth. Such an MIT-style Law School would tackle some of the most challenging issues of our age. Similarly, it is widely accepted that improving K-12 education is crucial, but through what formal mechanism is MIT actually demonstrating a real commitment to creating educational solutions?
In MIT’s matrix structure, the Departments and disciplines change rarely – perhaps one or two recombinations or new entities per decade – whereas Groups, Labs, Centers, and other research vehicles come and go ten times as frequently. Perhaps, then, the School structure is itself becoming antiquated with the classic distinctions between science and engineering blurring and the differences between pure and applied social science slipping. Are new cross-disciplinary Divisions such as Biological Engineering or Engineering Systems indicators of things to come? Will we see further growth of virtual Divisions such as the Computational & Systems Biology Initiative (CSBi)? Perhaps these less heavyweight structures are, in fact, excellent mechanisms to explore emerging areas while avoiding formal, structural and hard-to-change Institutional commitments.
MIT currently coordinates programs of international intellectual exchange such as MISTI and the Knight Fellows, programs which help convey MIT ideals and culture to a multi-national audience. MISTI exports MIT’s training through individual students sent as interns to labs and offices in Europe and Asia. The Knight Fellows Program immerses science journalists, active world citizens by birth and by occupation, within MIT’s unique social and academic context. Both programs are successful integrations of perspective between MIT and the international community and merit ongoing nurturing, if not scaling-up and increased support.
Despite globalization and increased international interaction, global breadth and sophistication appears systemically undervalued in the general MIT education both for undergraduate and graduate students. The formal curriculum allows relatively few opportunities for study abroad or student-generated short term international research projects. The Institute stands to benefit as a whole by instilling opportunities for global awareness and social responsibility within its curriculum, which assist with the global positioning goals discussed later in this report.
MIT might gain enduring competitive advantage by tackling key 21st century challenges that demand rigorous system-level interdisciplinary approaches, such as global sustainability, life science solutions, offshore outsourcing, global access to pharmaceuticals, and economic development. MIT has demonstrated a keen ability to promote focused horizontal integration through research efforts such as the Media Lab, the Earth Systems Initiative, -and Deshpande Center innovation programs, and the Broad Institute. Furthermore, the Institute has encouraged cross-disciplinary programs run by students on an extracurricular basis, for example the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition. Despite these successes, there still remains a strong sense among students that integration of our five Schools has not reached full potential. Perhaps a focused approach that defines new multi-disciplinary centers of excellence will place the Institute in a position to build on our key strengths in engineering, physical sciences, life sciences, management, arts and humanities.
MIT’s physical campus is a fundamental driver in the experience of all MIT stakeholders and ultimately the success of the Institute. It is a physical manifestation of MIT’s commitment to pursuing innovation and building global leaders. Not only does a well-planned campus provide the space and resources for cutting-edge research and comfortable student housing, but it also greatly impacts the perceptions and experience of our key external stakeholders, ranging from recruiters to prospective students and faculty to industrial and academic partners.
MIT has undergone significant expansion and reorganization of its academic and research facilities in the past few years. While recent projects such as the Z-Center, new graduate housing, the Stata Center, and the McGovern Institute are viewed as substantial improvements, many students feel that the current facilities remain insufficient for optimizing the innovative environment and quality of life goals for MIT. In short, the campus is unnecessarily ugly, under-capitalized, and inadequate. Students at the Sloan School, for example, feel constrained in their workspace and ability to provide a professional, comfortable environment for recruiters and visiting colleagues. The Mass Ave. entrance to MIT is not very “inviting”, large portions of older facilities are sorely in need of renovation, and the campus as a whole still lacks flexible, welcoming spaces outside of the lab. MIT might also consider opportunities for other satellite campuses such as the Wood’s Hole Institute.
There remains a constant tension is between investing in functional lab space and alluring community space. MIT needs to rigorously assess how and whether the recent investments, for instance in the Stata Center, have impacted our research productivity, faculty satisfaction, student quality of life and stakeholder perceptions of MIT. Above all, the students feel that a more robust physical campus planning board and process with formal, integrated student involvement would be a most useful initiative in helping to answer these questions.
7 According to his biography, MIT President Walker ran just such a class for all students during his tenure. Perhaps the time constraints and responsibilities of today preclude Presidential action, but Walker’s Institute-Wide Elective served an enduring need and, alas, has no parallel in the modern curriculum.
8 For instance MIT President Weisner not only turned down a proposal to create an MIT Medical School – fearing overwhelming financial burden and instead creating the joint-HST program – but also turned down Professor Rines’ proposal to create a Law School. Undaunted, Rines went on to found and build the Franklin Pierce Law Center, for many years now a top-ranked technology law institution in the US -- http://www.aas-world.org/intellectual_property/fplc/fplawcenter.html How much stronger might this program have been today had this effort begun in the 1970s under the MIT umbrella instead of independently? Is a merger possible?