A Global Strategy for MIT

Goals And Principles For Global Engagement

The many international activities described in the previous sections are motivated by seven interlinked goals:

  • preparing our students for productive, rewarding, and consequential lives and careers by providing meaningful opportunities for them to learn about the world;
  • assisting our faculty and students to carry out their research in the world and about the world;
  • enabling our faculty and students to collaborate with the world’s most outstanding researchers and gain access to the world’s most advanced scientific facilities and infrastructure;
  • supporting faculty efforts to help solve the world’s most important and challenging problems;
  • attracting the world’s most talented students, faculty and staff to the MIT campus;
  • finding new mechanisms to accelerate and amplify the global impact of MIT’s educational and research activities; and
  • strengthening the MIT campus by diversifying and expanding international sources of funding.

No single international engagement can be expected to advance all of these goals, but MIT’s overall portfolio of international activities should yield progress on all fronts.

As important as the goals themselves is how we go about achieving them. Discussions with MIT faculty, students, and administrators point to the following core principles as guides for future international engagement:

1. MIT’s global reach and global aspirations

If MIT is to remain at the forefront of higher education, research, and innovation in the 21st century, our geographic reach and aspirations must be global. Working internationally and with international colleagues, and achieving international impact, are essential for achieving MIT’s mission of service to the nation and the world. Some may question the wisdom of this principle during a period of heightened global uncertainty in fields ranging from international trade and finance to military security and migration. But working across borders, collaborating with international partners, and tackling some of the world’s most difficult problems are so fundamental to MIT’s institutional values and so deeply embedded in MIT’s approach to education and research that it would be profoundly self-defeating to retreat from them now. Indeed, it seems especially important to reaffirm this principle of global engagement today, when barriers to the kind of progress we envision and to which we seek to contribute may be building around the world.

2. MIT’s American identity

MIT was founded with the purpose of improving industry in Massachusetts. Its graduates have since launched many new American industries and have helped to create millions of American jobs. MIT operates the Lincoln Laboratory for the federal government, for the purpose of developing new technologies for national security. Even as the Institute’s international engagements have grown, it continues to depend on the American taxpayer for much of its research funding and the financial support implicit in its tax-exempt status. No less important, MIT is the beneficiary of American laws, regulations, and other public goods—including safety and security—that the U.S. government provides. In short, MIT is an American institution, with all the benefits, privileges, responsibilities, and obligations that entails. When members of the MIT community operate in the international arena they must be in compliance with relevant federal (and state) laws and regulations, and when the MIT administration considers new international engagements it must be cognizant of the national interest. As an institution that is both in the world and worldly, MIT may on occasion encounter situations where competing national interests are at stake. When such situations arise, there should be full confidence, both at home and abroad, that MIT will never put any other country’s interests ahead of those of the United States.

3. The universality of MIT’s core values

Wherever MIT faculty, staff, and students are working in the world, they should be guided by the same core values that inform life and work on the MIT campus. In this sense, our international activities must be an integral part of what we do, not something separate. These core values include:

  • dedication to advancing the frontiers of what is known;
  • encouragement of discovery, intellectual risk-taking, and creative problem-solving;
  • honesty and integrity in all academic and personal dealings;
  • respect for others;
  • a commitment to diversity;
  • fairness in the treatment of all individuals and groups;
  • an open, respectful approach to discourse;
  • reliance on fact- and reason-based objective inquiry;
  • freedom of expression, communication, publication, and movement of people; and
  • a commitment to excellence in all that we do.1

If MIT’s name is used in association with international activities, we must be confident that these values will guide the conduct of those activities. So, for example, if MIT is to establish a presence in societies whose cultural norms or policies appear biased against women, or against particular racial or ethnic groups, or against groups based on sexual or gender preference, we should do so only if our faculty and administration are confident that members of these groups will experience no such bias within the frame of MIT’s operations—whether those individuals are part of the MIT community or are non-MIT collaborators working under MIT’s auspices. We obviously cannot require other societies to conform to our values, and we should be respectful of social and cultural differences. But by ‘exporting’ our values in this limited sense we can hope to influence the societies in which we work, through showing by our own example how things are done at MIT.

4. Faculty leadership and administrative excellence

The best ideas for advancing research, education, and innovation come from faculty and students. Large new international ventures will be most successful when they are led by faculty members whose academic interests are strongly aligned with project objectives. Major international ventures don’t succeed because the administration wants them to; they succeed when participating faculty members are committed to their success. Even when MIT’s central administration negotiates a new international venture, the initiative must be led by a committed faculty member once it is launched. If strong faculty interest in a particular international initiative is lacking, MIT should be very hesitant to proceed. In the operational phase, a second key requirement for success is to pair faculty leaders with talented administrators who can provide a singular focus on managing the demanding operational details that are a signature of many international programs.

5. Partnerships in learning

Collaboration is the sine qua non of learning, discovery, invention, and innovation. The single most important reason for MIT students and faculty to travel abroad is the opportunity to work with others who see the world in different ways and who are eager to contribute their ideas in joint discovery and problem-solving. For students, such educational experiences can be transformative. For faculty, international research collaborations can open up new intellectual frontiers and bring important new problems to the fore. Even for capacity-building projects characterized by large asymmetries in academic strength and reputation, international collaborations should be
approached as partnerships in learning, and with the expectation that each partner has much to learn from the other.

6. The need to weigh the opportunity costs of international engagements

The duration of MIT’s existing international engagements ranges from very short (a few weeks for a student project or an MITx course) to very long (up to a decade or more for a major institution-building project). We can only conduct a limited number of major international engagements at one time. ‘Full-scope’ institution-building projects requiring a comprehensive marshaling of Institute-wide capabilities and a long-term presence on the ground can bring major benefits but they can also tie MIT’s hands. The benefits may include support for exciting and/or under-funded new research areas; the potential to have a major impact in a problem area of importance to the Institute; the opportunity to build deep regional expertise that can be leveraged for future projects in that region; the ability to prototype new models of education, research, and innovation that can be brought back to campus; and funding for the MIT endowment and for MIT infrastructure. But as the duration and scale of these projects increase, so too do the associated opportunity costs, and the more careful MIT must be about committing to them. Similarly, large international engagements, such as SUTD and the SMART research center in Singapore, must be reassessed periodically with respect to the potential they offer for MIT to continue providing significant mutual benefits for MIT and its international partners.

7. Rigorous risk management, not risk avoidance or risk elimination

A risk-averse approach is incompatible with the kind of institution MIT is and seeks to remain. Some of the risks associated with MIT’s international activities are different in kind from those associated with other activities MIT undertakes; in addition, these risks tend to attract more attention. All involved must be fully aware of the risks and understand how best to manage them. But as long as the MIT community is active in the international arena a certain level of risk is unavoidable. Risks should be minimized, but MIT should neither seek nor expect to eliminate them. MIT faculty and students are creative and driven, and whether they are working on campus or internationally they seek to do things that haven’t been done before. When faculty members are engaged in significant research, or when important education is taking place, the role of the MIT administration is to work within a risk-informed framework to find ways to reduce associated risks to acceptable levels. The safety and security of students, faculty, and staff must be of the highest priority.

8. Balance in MIT's portfolio of institution-scale international engagements

Most of MIT’s international activities will continue to consist of small-scale projects at locations determined by the interests of individual faculty members. The distribution of MIT’s major engagements requires more planning, however. Wherever these engagements occur, the resources must be found to support MIT’s involvement. But the availability of funding cannot be the sole determinant of where MIT works, nor even the primary one. Other key considerations include the opportunity to collaborate with partners who excel in research and/or are strong in innovation, ideally with complementary strengths, from whom MIT faculty and students can learn and with whom they can jointly maximize their impact. Members of the MIT community also want to work in locations where the needs are greatest, where the problems are most interesting and challenging, and where they can most effectively pursue MIT’s mission of working for the betterment of humankind. The Institute’s portfolio of major international engagements should reflect both of these selection criteria. Implementing this principle may require new funding models, including resource transfers from richer to poorer parts of the world.

1 Articulations of MIT’s core values include those by the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education in 2014 (, a recent letter to the MIT community from President Rafael Reif (, and a recent statement by an ad hoc group of MIT faculty (