Clarifying MIT's International Agenda
Last September the Faculty Chair, Professor Tom Kochan, writing in the Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XXIII No. 1), noted that “One of the biggest strategic issues on the minds of many faculty is our international strategy. A number of faculty have asked: What is MIT’s international strategy? Indeed does the Institute have one, and, if so, are we following it?”
Provost Rafael Reif, in this issue of the Newsletter, describes his view of MIT’s approach to international engagement. He rightly notes that much of this engagement is the result of entrepreneurial initiatives arising from the faculty at large, and that an attempt to impose coordination and cohesion on these richly diverse activities might be counterproductive. We feel there is nevertheless a need for faculty to learn from the experience of their colleagues who have been involved in significant international projects, and to obtain some guidance, calibration, feedback and support from them and from the MIT administration.
The International Advisory Committee (IAC) that the Provost constituted three years ago, with faculty drawn from each of the Schools and with several members of the senior administration, seems to now be providing some measure of this guidance, calibration, and feedback. [Disclosure: One member of the Editorial Subcommittee serves on IAC.] The existence of such a committee, able to gather input on a wide range of international activities at the Institute – certainly all such activities of substantial size – and to use this perspective to provide guidance to various international initiatives, is very welcome. We are not aware of any predecessor to IAC that served as this kind of focal point at the Institute.
From the point of view of operational support for faculty initiatives in the international domain, there is more that can be done centrally. We recognize that it is harder, when dealing with the most diverse international partners, to provide faculty with the sorts of templates and procedures that they are used to having when dealing with monolithic domestic agencies such as the NIH or NSF, or with US companies. Nevertheless, our sense is that more can be done than is presently being done.
Individual faculty members should not have to work from scratch when they put together an international initiative. What are the issues to be considered up front? What are the cautions? What might be the unintended consequences? What is the range of experience from similar efforts undertaken in the past?
The Provost’s article goes on to note that the entrepreneurial efforts of individual faculty are complemented and supported by a coherent global strategy on the part of the central administration. It is presumably this strategic vision that underlies the bigger institutional commitments MIT ends up making. One assumes that this coherent global strategy reflects some measure of consensus among the faculty. Perhaps the IAC and the report it published in September 2009 (web.mit.edu/provost/reports/IAC_Report_20090903.pdf) have been helpful in this regard. (The original charge to the IAC included the task of contributing to the design of an international strategy for the Institute.) It is to be noted, however, that the major international involvements most commonly mentioned in faculty conversations – Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and Portugal, for example –considerably predate IAC.
The Provost lists various desirable features of an institutional-level international commitment. On that list is “resources,” and the article devotes a section to funding models for such commitments. We are encouraged to see recognition of the possibility that some projects in MIT’s mix of desirable international engagements may not be in a position to cover all their costs, and may require seed funding from MIT and other partners in order to get off the ground.
Do we have a specific example of a significant international initiative in a particular country or region that MIT felt was important enough to commit to up front, with a determined subsequent effort to team up with partners and line up the necessary resources? If so, this example would be well worth highlighting.
The examples that faculty seem to pull out most readily are ones where – at least in the way the story is usually told in such discussions – the money showed up first and the program was put together subsequently.
MIT’s sesquicentennial finds the Institute with a stellar and enviable international reputation, renewed and enhanced each year by new, or newly recognized, accomplishments of its students, alumni, and faculty. Our challenge is to carry this legacy forward in a creative and fruitful way, maintaining the core values that underlie MIT’s excellence, but operating in a much more crowded world, and with unprecedented global challenges.