The Uncertain Outlook For International Engagement
This plan has described several practical steps that MIT can take to build a more robust platform for successful international engagement by MIT faculty and students. The approach presented here will provide new opportunities for the MIT community to work for change in the world and, in so doing, sustain and strengthen MIT itself.
But a major question looms. Is it possible for MIT to pursue its global goals and aspirations successfully at a time when doubts about the economic benefits of globalization may be growing in the U.S. and elsewhere; when political and religious intolerance seem to be rising around the world; when governments, including our own, are pursuing more overtly nationalist agendas; and when the future of the American-led international order is in question?
This plan has asserted the importance of staying the course in MIT’s international strategy. The Institute’s mission is to develop in its students the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind. Engaging internationally, and achieving international impact, are central to achieving that mission, and thus to remaining at the forefront of higher education and research. But how, in practice, can MIT operate successfully in an environment that may be less hospitable and even hostile to some of its key goals and values?
The negative impact of these external developments should not be exaggerated. MIT is an independent institution with its own mission, goals, and values, and can steer its own course in the international arena as well as at home.
Moreover, much of what MIT accomplishes in the international arena is enabled by personal and professional relationships of trust between our faculty and their colleagues in other countries. Even where governments may be moving to constrain academic freedoms, there will still be residual space for cross-border collaborations.
Finally, MIT’s own stock has been appreciating internationally. Indeed, the Institute’s international reputation may be stronger today than ever before. The MIT faculty is world-renowned. A stream of extraordinary discoveries continues to flow from its laboratories. Its ability to connect scientific research to innovation and economic development is much admired around the world. Foreign governments and universities want to work with MIT, and international students are seeking to study at MIT in unprecedented numbers. MIT is consistently at or close to the top of major international university rankings. All of this will help MIT achieve its international goals.
Nevertheless, recent domestic and international developments create potentially serious new risks. For example:
- International students, post-docs and visiting scholars may be less likely to apply to American universities, including MIT, because of uncertainties over immigration policies and the perception that foreigners will be unwelcome in the United States.
- International candidates for faculty positions may similarly become more reluctant to apply because of concerns about the environment for immigrants in the U.S.
- Universities elsewhere may become more attractive to outstanding student and faculty candidates who might previously have preferred to come to MIT.
- MIT faculty, staff, and students who are not U.S. citizens may be more reluctant to travel abroad professionally in light of uncertainties in U.S. border policy and the risk of retaliatory actions by other governments.
- The flow of research, educational and philanthropic funding to MIT from elsewhere may be adversely affected by the prospect of more adversarial relations between the U.S. and other countries.
- MIT’s international collaborations in and with important countries and regions including Mexico, China, Russia, and the Middle East may be disrupted by an increasingly adversarial political climate.
- MIT and other U.S. research universities may be targeted politically because they are associated with technologies that are perceived to have socially disruptive impacts, including job-displacement impacts that may be far larger than those observed to date.
MIT cannot protect itself fully from these risks. But it could take several actions to mitigate them, such as:
- Developing an effective communications strategy that clearly articulates the Institute’s goals for international engagement. The strategy should target international stakeholders, including international alums, national and local governments, prospective faculty and students, and others, and should also address domestic stakeholders. These communications should emphasize MIT’s autonomy and where appropriate should clearly distinguish between the university’s goals and those of governments (including those of the U.S. government). They should demonstrate that MIT is a welcoming and inclusive community that is ready to support those of its faculty, students, and staff who must struggle with immigration and travel issues that U.S. citizens do not face. They should underscore the ongoing importance of international collaboration in terms of achieving MIT’s mission and goals. They should also emphasize the benefits that international collaboration has historically provided to MIT and our partners, as well as to the U.S. economy generally and our own region more specifically. Finally, the communications strategy should also focus on clearly demonstrating the role of an MIT education in creating lifetime opportunities for outstanding domestic and international students of every background.
- Building alliances and partnerships that will help make MIT’s international activities more robust. These include:
- Partnerships with leading international universities that share MIT’s commitment to the values of intellectual excellence and rigor, discovery, tolerance, and open-mindedness.
- Partnerships with large multinational corporations. These companies are themselves facing new pressures in the changing international environment, but the best of them are resourceful, creative, and financially strong, and they will find new ways to prosper under new conditions.
- Partnerships at the innovation ecosystem level. The fact that important problems are increasingly being addressed at the ecosystem level provides new research opportunities for MIT faculty and students. One possibility would be to focus on building a network of some of the world’s most dynamic innovation hubs, each with a comparative advantage in a different area. The hubs could work together to address some of the world’s great challenges such as climate change mitigation, clean water, or physical security and cybersecurity.
- Linking MIT’s partnerships with international firms and governments to the effort to build our own innovation economy. This would mean encouraging international partners to locate R&D and production facilities in our region, and working with state and local governments to enable such moves. This could include branding local ports of entry as the nation’s most hospitable to visitors, strengthening transportation links between the Boston–Cambridge innovation hub and other, economically less-advantaged parts of the region, and creating additional opportunities for firms locating in the region to benefit from educational and research activities at MIT and other local universities.
- Expanding the range of contingency plans MIT has developed for international emergency situations. This would include maintaining effective lines of communication with relevant federal agencies. It would also entail preparing the Institute’s own international safety, security, and crisis management infrastructure to address the risks of MIT personnel being stranded outside the U.S. and of retaliatory actions by foreign governments.
- Strengthening MIT’s capacity to assess and address the socio-economic, socio-political, and ethical consequences of scientific and technological advances.