A Global Strategy for MIT


This strategic plan was requested by President Rafael Reif and Provost Marty Schmidt. They asked what can be done to ensure that MIT’s future activities in the international arena will have the greatest benefit for the Institute’s mission. Thus the central questions for this plan: How can MIT’s international activities best contribute to advancing the frontiers of knowledge in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship? How can these activities help to bring forefront knowledge to bear on solving the world’s most challenging problems? And how can they contribute to educating future leaders who are prepared to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind?

Individual faculty members initiate and implement most of MIT’s international activities. The role of the MIT administration is to encourage and support these activities and to safeguard faculty members’ freedom to pursue them. But sometimes MIT also seeks to act internationally on a larger scale, in order to increase its impact. This is true of some major international research initiatives—for example, on climate, energy, clean water, public health, and urbanization. It is also true of MIT’s large institution-building projects, such as those in Singapore, Russia, and Abu Dhabi. In the past, MIT could be reactive, responding to major international opportunities as they arose, without systematically comparing alternative courses of action and without a framework for setting priorities. But today these activities claim a significant share of the Institute’s scarcest and most valuable resource—the time and attention of the faculty. MIT cannot do everything it might want to do, and MIT cannot be everywhere in the world. Priorities are therefore needed, and these priorities must be articulated in a way that is understood by faculty and by current and potential collaborators.

This is not the first time that MIT has sought to assess its international engagements. In 1991 a faculty committee chaired by Professor Eugene Skolnikoff concluded that MIT’s primary obligation to serve the national interest would be best met by maintaining the Institute’s status as a premier institution focused on science and technology, and that engaging fully in international activities was essential to achieving that objective. Subsequent faculty committees have elaborated on why international engagement is so important to MIT (see Appendix 4). For example:

  • “An MIT education should prepare students to become productive members of a world where knowledge and commerce are no longer constrained by national borders . . . As individuals who have been educated to understand and communicate within other cultures, MIT graduates will have the confidence and skills to become capable and responsible leaders in the global community.” (GEOMIT 2007)
  • “Our faculty and students have research and educational interests that often naturally lead to international activities and experiences, especially as communication across national boundaries expands, and as research and teaching interests overseas increasingly advance to intellectual frontiers and complement our own interests.” (IAC 2009)
  • “MIT is widely viewed as a high-value partner by foreign governments, corporations and universities that increasingly seek to initiate collaborations and share resources with the Institute.” (IAC 2009)
  • “Strategic advances in global education and research are essential to sustaining the Institute as the world’s preeminent educational and research institution for scientific discovery and application of knowledge.” (MIT Global Council 2009)

These observations remain no less true today than when they were first made. So why is another strategy review needed now? There are two main reasons.

First, over the last quarter century—and especially over the past decade or so—MIT’s international activities have expanded very rapidly, and they now account for a sizeable fraction of everything the Institute does. The number and variety of potential new opportunities continues to grow, and it is more important than ever for the MIT faculty and administration to think carefully about strategic priorities and to communicate these priorities effectively.

The second reason why a strategic review is needed now is that the environment for international engagement is in flux, and many longstanding assumptions must be reconsidered. Two trends at MIT—the increasingly international composition of our campus community and our growing presence around the world—have closely tracked the course of economic globalization. The same dynamics that have shaped the development of the global economy have been central to “internationalizing” MIT: growing cross-border economic, social, and cultural connections; greater individual and corporate mobility; increased trade and capital flows; and instantaneous, globe-spanning transmission of information. As the middle class has expanded in many countries, global demand for high-quality educational opportunities at top-ranked universities like MIT has grown rapidly. And as new centers of excellence in education, research, and innovation have emerged around the world it has become more important than ever to engage with international partners and to collaborate with the best of them. MIT has thrived in the rules-based, increasingly open, and increasingly connected global economy. But today the ideas, values, and policies that have driven globalization are under greater stress than at any time in the last several decades. At home, the outcome of the recent presidential election has cast doubt on the strength of the U.S. government’s commitment to sustaining the liberal international order from which so many have benefited in the past, including America’s great research universities. Elsewhere, nationalist sentiments and authoritarian governments are on the rise in important parts of the world. At MIT, core commitments to open intellectual exchange, to the free flow of ideas and people, and to international collaboration in scholarship and problem-solving will remain undiminished. But these unfolding economic and political developments presage a more adverse international environment than the one MIT students and faculty have thrived in and grown accustomed to in recent decades. That prospect requires a careful strategic review and a thoughtful response.1

This plan presents a framework for thinking about MIT’s strategic priorities in the international arena. It introduces a set of principles to guide the Institute’s future international engagements and recommends several specific initiatives and actions designed to strengthen MIT’s portfolio of international activities.

The processes we use to decide whether and how to engage with the world are an important focus of the plan. Of course, this engagement is occurring constantly: whenever MIT admits an international student, whenever a faculty member travels overseas to deliver a lecture or collaborate with a colleague, whenever a student takes up an international internship—MIT is engaged with the world. From time to time, too, larger-scale international opportunities arise. The processes used to consider and act on all these opportunities—big and small—shape MIT’s international strategy. No less than the strategy itself, it is the quality of these processes that is the focus of this plan.

The value of the plan must ultimately be judged by the outcome of the decisions and actions it generates. But in the short run the strategic framework presented here can be provisionally assessed with respect to several general criteria or qualities that apply to almost every successful organizational strategy. Specifically, the framework must be:

  • Relevant. The framework must speak to what MIT wants to do as an institution, what it is actually doing, and how well it is doing it.
  • Principled. The framework must reflect the values that are important to MIT. These values should govern every MIT activity, whether it involves an individual faculty project or a large-scale initiative, and whether it is carried out in Cambridge or anywhere else in the world.
  • Future-oriented. The framework must anticipate likely changes, both in the external environment and in the activities and priorities of MIT itself.
  • Based on a credible theory of action. The framework must reflect a clear understanding of how the actions of MIT educators and researchers produce consequences, and how these actions and consequences are connected to MIT’s mission and goals.
  • Readily understood by faculty, students, partners, and everyone else with a stake in MIT’s success.
  • Targeted at well-defined objectives, so that it is possible to judge whether MIT is on the right track and how fast it is progressing toward its goals.

To ensure the relevance of this plan, I began by asking MIT faculty colleagues what topics they thought it should address. Many answered with questions of their own. Here are some of them:

  • What is MIT trying to achieve in the world? What impacts do we seek? Where is our impact likely to be greatest?
  • How can we ensure that our international efforts don’t deplete but rather sustain and strengthen our Cambridge campus, the source of our excellence, creativity, and energy?
  • Where should we be in the world? Should we focus our efforts on particular countries or regions? If so, which ones?
  • What level of international activity should we plan for 5, 10, and 20 years from now? And how should the focus of these activities be distributed between education, research, and service?
  • In education, what balance should we seek between serving (a) our own students, (b) MIT-caliber students around the world who are unable to attend the Institute as regular students, and (c) other kinds of international students (including pre-K–12 students and lifetime learners) that our faculty may also be interested in serving? How will our digital learning platforms affect this choice?
  • What balance should we seek in the durations of our international engagements, from the very short to the very long? Under what circumstances might we consider a permanent physical presence outside the United States?
  • How should we operate in parts of the world in which our core values aren’t fully shared? Should we take actions to promote those values, even if such actions aren’t necessary to the conduct of our primary activities? Under what circumstances would we choose not to engage at all?
  • Beyond ensuring compliance with the law, what obligations do we have as an American institution to concern ourselves with the interests and policies of the U.S. government as we consider and execute our own international engagements?
  • When, if ever, is it acceptable for us to take reputational risk?
  • Which partners should we seek out for our international activities? When is it best to partner with peer universities? With ‘fast risers’? With governments? With companies?
  • What determines when an international engagement becomes ‘major’? When does it require consideration of institutional impact beyond what would normally be required for MIT’s sponsored research and educational activities? When does it require an institutional imprimatur?

Some of these questions are answered in this plan. For those that aren’t addressed directly, the plan presents a set of principles and processes that will allow thoughtful answers to be developed as new scenarios arise and new opportunities emerge.

The plan is organized as follows. The next section describes MIT’s current international activities in research, education, and innovation. The following section considers how these activities are likely to evolve in the coming years. Following that, the main goals that motivate these activities are enumerated, as well as the key values and principles that should guide them. The next section presents several recommendations designed to help build a stronger platform for successful international engagement at MIT.2 The final section presents some ideas on how MIT might continue to thrive in the international arena even as the general environment may be becoming less hospitable and perhaps even hostile towards some of our core values and goals.

1 While the focus here is on the international environment, political developments at home may be at least as challenging for MIT. Skepticism towards science and the scientific method; fears of technological change and its impact on work, employment, and wages; suspicion of ‘elites’ and of experts; greater prejudice towards immigrants; debased forms of social communication, enabled and encouraged by social media—all of these developments, as their influence spreads, will make for a less sympathetic environment within which research universities must pursue their missions.

2 More detailed implementation plans have been developed for many of these recommendations; this report merely highlights their key points.