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As a leader in science and technology, MIT has a responsibility to invest time and energy in local, state, national and global representation of science and higher education interests. However, the time invested by the President and other officials at MIT must be balanced with the need to maintain MIT’s reputation for world-class innovation by focusing on improving MIT internally as well. MIT Presidents have served in senior positions in the federal government, and have been responsible for major scientific efforts our nation has undertaken in periods such as World War II. MIT has also taken a bold stance on higher education issues such as affirmative action, and must continue to lead our peer institutions in this manner. Along with national influence, local influence in the city of Cambridge is important as well. Cambridge has shown itself willing to use its power to play a strong role on campus in terms of regulation. MIT should continue to leverage the many contributions that it has made to the city of Cambridge in building a stronger relationship. Perhaps one underutilized tool in fulfilling this goal is the student body – students are undoubtedly willing to take opportunities to get involved in all levels of government, and MIT’s government relations office should incorporate student involvement into their strategy for political influence.
The European Union recently announced plans to create “institutes of technology” in the MIT mold. Such announcements, though some may view them as threatening, nevertheless illustrate MIT’s international recognition; our pivotal role in guiding and shaping the world of science and technology is admired worldwide. In a globalizing world, it is critical for MIT to constantly reinvent itself and maintain a valuable place through all our fields of science, technology, engineering, education, and research.
The Institute has long been an elite university where science and engineering education is world-class. However, as the top universities compete more and more fiercely for the best students and faculty, MIT has found itself in a world of competitors. For example, a university that has only a few “superstar” professors can likely offer higher salaries9. The Institute also competes with universities with larger endowments and on the basis of how much technological commercialization it can create.
An example of this competition on the admissions side is MIT’s relationship with other technical schools such as CalTech and its relationship with Ivy League institutions. In the former case, MIT competes with these schools directly in the science and engineering areas where MIT is strongest. In the past, MIT has won a large percentage of applicants who were admitted to both MIT and CalTech or another technical school. However, against the Ivy Leagues, it is more a question of attracting well-rounded students who are also interested in a rigorous science and engineering education.
A second example of this competition can be seen in the recent decision by another institution in Cambridge to develop a school of engineering. MIT competes with this other university in several academic areas, but engineering will be a relatively new one. As more and more emphasis is placed on innovation and practical education, it is not surprising that engineering disciplines are more and more attractive to all universities.
In the realm of competition, MIT has clearly succeeded before as we are still rated number one in many engineering disciplines. However, MIT must continue to provide its students with the best opportunities and experiences in order to stay on top. Perhaps, one good example of this is making sure that graduate students receive competitive funding. There are of course many areas for improvement, as they would be at any institution. As long as we keep sight of the fact that MIT is, and should be, one of the premier, science and engineering education and research universities in the world, we can continue to successfully compete.
The public face of MIT -- i.e. our brand and reputation and tangible acts, as well as our visible institutional leadership -- both serve a rallying community integration function as well as communicate what prospective members of the community should expect from MIT and our people. The MIT brand embodies our mission, values and community priorities while developing outsiders’ expectations of how they will value the MIT experience, reputation and relationships. To this end, every major program and initiative should be evaluated against its ability to both defend and strengthen MIT’s public face; admissions, sponsorships, recruiting and faculty retention depend on this.
A good example of MIT’s sensitivity to its public face is the OpenCourseWare (OCW) program. This program clearly helps strengthen MIT’s position as a global educator and distributor of knowledge. Two areas of weakness, however, are in the outside perception of MIT’s people as somewhat unbalanced and poor recognition of the warmth of the MIT community as a whole. From a student perspective, this can be a substantial negative force in attracting the best new students as well as top-quality employers. Sloan students experience this disappointing perception regularly, often having to defend themselves to recruiters against the “techie” and “Sloan students are focused on IT and operations” stereotypes.
The challenge for the Institute is to proactively shape public perception that reinforces our strengths in technology and innovation while providing a more balanced view of the global MIT leaders that are developed here. Highlighting our Nobel Laureates and amazing technical achievements is imperative, but we suspect Kofi Annan, Amar Bose, Benjamin Netanyahu, Robin Chase, Bob Metcalfe, “Buzz” Aldrin, and John Reed would probably agree that there is more to MIT people than just technology. Shaping public perception along the desired dimensions must have a proactive, systematic, and continuous strategy behind it, one supported by MIT students, faculty, administration and alumni. Perhaps a valuable interdisciplinary leadership opportunity would be for students in all five Schools to convene a joint task force focused on evaluating MIT’s current public face and developing a comprehensive plan for filling the gaps. Although the Sloan School still struggles to decide between promoting its technology connections to MIT or its skill in training general managers, the branding program at Sloan might serve as a model for what is needed for the Institute as a whole.
MIT students are both drawn from a worldwide candidate pool and upon graduation disperse globally. Unfortunately, the importance of current events, cultural appreciation, and indeed global citizenship is often squeezed out or even forgotten by many students while here. The stereotypical MIT student is unfortunately all depth, no breadth. However, the world needs MIT to graduate students who combine tremendous skills in depth with worldly sophistication and breadth.
Although the Institute has already taken initiatives such as the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA) and the MIT Sloan Fellows Program in Innovation and Global Leadership to strengthen its global position, it still remains difficult for students to sustain a global perspective. Being physically and geographically removed from the rest of the world while balancing rigorous academics inevitably restrains student perspective.
The Institute must explore creative means of fostering global awareness and social responsibility. For example, strengthening collaborations like the SMA, incorporating study-abroad opportunities in the Institute curriculum, and exploring new international research opportunities (IROP?). On a less formal basis, organized forums or lecture series orient and expose students to global issues. For instance, a recent colloquium on the Politics of Reconstructing Iraq explored an important topic not only of professional relevance (e.g. to the architect, urban planner, civil engineer, and ROTC student) but of tremendous political and social responsibility.