A Global Strategy for MIT

How MIT Engages With The World Today

The MIT campus, open to the world, is becoming increasingly international

MIT’s openness to the world dates back to its earliest years. The first international student, Ichiro Hongma, arrived from Japan just nine years after MIT’s founding in 1861.1 Today our campus community of more than 20,000 includes 6,500 faculty, academic staff and students from about 150 foreign countries. Thousands more foreign nationals come to MIT for shorter visits each year.2 More than 40% of our graduate students and 65% of post-doctoral scholars hail from other countries (these figures do not include foreign-born permanent residents); and 43% of the faculty were born outside the U.S.

The international character of the campus has deepened over the last two decades. The share of international graduate students at MIT increased from 33% in 1998 to 43% today. International students have also accounted for most of the growth in the graduate student population: Between 1998 and 2016, graduate student enrollment rose by 25%, and international students accounted for 75% of that increase. The population of post-doctoral scholars has risen more rapidly, increasing by 78% between 2006 and 2016, and international post-docs accounted for 80% of that growth. These trends have occurred throughout the Institute. All five Schools have experienced an increase in the proportion of international graduate students in recent years, as have most departments.3

International sponsorship of research and other on-campus activities has also grown rapidly. Between 2006 and 2016, the dollar volume of international sponsorship grew three-fold, and by 2016 accounted for 18% of all sponsored activity at MIT, up from 8% a decade earlier.

International firms’ growing interest in MIT has contributed to these trends. Firms headquartered outside the U.S. now account for over half of corporate R&D funding on campus. They also comprise 74% of the corporate membership of the Industrial Liaison Program (ILP), up from 45% in the mid-1990s.

In substantial part, the increasingly international character of the MIT campus has been a ‘bottom up’ phenomenon – the result of choices and actions by individual faculty and students, external partners, and, in the case of graduate students, individual departments via their admissions policies. The administration has supported these developments, and has led the way on other initiatives, including launching several large International institution-building programs (discussed below). In one area, however—international undergraduate admissions—MIT policies have bucked the general trend: The share of non-U.S. students in MIT’s total undergraduate enrollment has remained roughly constant, never exceeding 10%–11% over many years. The de facto cap on international undergraduate admissions is discussed in more detail in the Recommendations section.

The MIT community is becoming increasingly active around the world

As the MIT campus has become more international, the MIT community has also been growing more active around the world. Today MIT faculty and students are engaged in research, education, and service activities in more than 75 countries, and the scale and scope of these activities are increasing.

Education. Half of the graduating seniors in 2016 reported having at least one international educational experience, up from 23% a decade earlier. For some undergraduates this involves traditional study-abroad programs at other universities. For many more it means practical internships and experiential learning opportunities. Many graduate students also participate in project-based learning in other countries.

The MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI) has played an increasingly important role in providing international education opportunities for MIT students. In 2016, MISTI arranged almost 1,000 student internships and other placements (roughly 70% of them for undergraduates) in 30 countries—a four-fold increase over the last 10 years. Other hands-on educational offerings, often with a strong service component, are provided by D-Lab, IROP, the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, the Tata Center for Technology and Design, the Legatum Center, the Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Sloan School’s Action Learning programs for its Master’s students.

Relatively few MIT undergraduates opt to participate in traditional study-abroad programs, in which they enroll at other universities for one or two semesters. This is because the intensity and cumulative nature of the MIT undergraduate curriculum is a significant barrier to overcome, and because the opportunities to engage in research at MIT itself are so great. Most MIT students opt for shorter stays abroad, in January or over the summer. (The largest study-abroad program, the Cambridge-MIT Exchange, will conclude at the end of the 2016–2017 academic year because of funding constraints in the U.K.)

Online Education. MIT’s digital education platforms are creating unprecedented opportunities to connect with learners around the world, and they have already helped expand the faculty’s educational reach. Since its launch in 2003, MIT’s pioneering OpenCourseWare website has received nearly 200 million visits from every country in the world, and since the launch of the edX platform in 2012, 3.5 million learners—75% of them from outside the U.S.—have signed up for MITx courses. In addition, fee-bearing digital courses taught by MIT faculty and targeted to professionals have enrolled more than 15,000 learners from more than 110 countries since 2013.

Meanwhile, MIT continues to experiment with new delivery mechanisms and credentials, pioneering a new MicroMasters qualification that is open to anyone in the world, regardless of academic background. The courses are delivered online and are freely available; students who do well in them can earn a MicroMasters credential at low cost.4 MIT recently agreed to collaborate with 14 other U.S. and international partners in the edX consortium to offer an expanded slate of MicroMasters programs. As of this writing, the consortium is offering 22 such programs and another 17 are in the pipeline.

Research. International sponsorship of MIT research has been growing rapidly, as noted above. Although much of this work is carried out at MIT, it often entails reciprocal visits by MIT faculty and students to work with international collaborators. Many faculty in management, the humanities, and the social sciences carry out field research around the world. Faculty in the natural sciences conduct research at leading international experimental facilities such as the DESY Laboratory in Germany, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, plasma physics laboratories in Germany, China, and France, neutrino detectors in Japan, and a network of climate observatories in Rwanda and elsewhere. As other countries increase their R&D investments (often more rapidly than the U.S.), MIT faculty will increasingly travel abroad to access the most advanced capabilities in their fields.

Many MIT programs provide opportunities for faculty and students to carry out research internationally. For example, the SMART Center in Singapore, MIT’s largest international research endeavor, was established in 2007. More than 200 MIT faculty, staff, post-docs, and students are currently involved at SMART, some of them in residence for several months. Other internationally-oriented activity is supported by the Tata Center, which funds faculty and students to carry out collaborative research on development challenges in India and elsewhere. Faculty affiliated with the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, based in the MIT Economics Department, are conducting randomized evaluations in 30 countries to test and improve the effectiveness of poverty-reducing programs. MIT’s Global Seed Funds, administered by MISTI, provide small seed grants to encourage new research collaborations between MIT faculty and their counterparts in about 30 countries. The ILP organizes conferences around the world to showcase MIT research and promote connections between researchers and potential industrial sponsors. Finally, MIT-wide faculty groups periodically convene to consider research and educational opportunities in different regions of the world. A good example is the Africa Advisory Committee, which is currently exploring new possibilities for MIT engagement in Africa.

Institution-building. MIT is also heavily involved in major international institution-building projects. This is not a new role for us, although the scale of this activity has increased in recent years. In previous decades MIT helped establish new higher education institutions in Brazil (ITA), India (IIT Kanpur, IIM Calcutta, Birla Institute for Technology and Science), and Iran (Arya-Mehr University of Technology). Today our active institution-building projects include the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. Another major program, to help upgrade engineering research and educational institutions in Portugal, is now in its tenth year. These programs have each involved scores of faculty members (see Appendix 2).

Other large international capacity-building projects have been coordinated at the school or department level, such as the Sloan School’s current engagement with the Asia School of Business in Malaysia and its programs to upgrade management education at several Chinese universities, as well as the Mechanical Engineering Department’s collaboration with King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia and the China activities of the Sam Tak Lee Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab in the School of Architecture and Planning.

Alumni. Some 20,000 MIT alumni reside in 160 countries around the world. The Alumni Association maintains active alumni clubs and MIT Technology Review manages MIT Enterprise Forum chapters in more than 40 countries. These local groups organize continuing education programs, online services, volunteer opportunities, and events to help alumni connect with MIT and with fellow MIT graduates.

A majority of MIT faculty members take part in international education, research, and service activities

No single metric fully captures the involvement of MIT faculty in international activities. A measure of international research collaborations is the share of all MIT publications with international co-authors. This share rose from 25% in 2001 to 50% in 2016.5 During FY15, 391 faculty members, or almost 40% of the MIT faculty, were supervising foreign-sponsored projects processed through the Office of Sponsored Programs. Faculty involvement in MIT’s large institution-building programs has also been extensive. Over the past decade, more than 400 faculty have participated in at least one of the five big institution-building programs mentioned above (SUTD, SMART, Masdar, Skoltech, MIT Portugal), and many have participated in two or more (see Appendix 2).

Faculty involvement in the large institution-building programs has been heavily weighted towards the School of Engineering. Faculty from other schools are involved internationally in different ways—for example, the international teaching activities of Sloan School faculty, the international field research conducted by many members of the SHASS faculty, and the participation of School of Science faculty in experiments at international research facilities. Though no comprehensive database of these engagements exists, it seems likely that at least half the MIT faculty has participated in international education, research, or service activities in recent years.

Further growth of these activities seems likely. MIT students are seeking more high-quality opportunities to learn about and engage with the world. MIT professors are aware that research funding is growing in many countries and are finding more opportunities to collaborate with international colleagues. And MIT itself, at the top of the international university rankings and widely recognized for its strength in combining innovation with research and education, is much in demand as a partner by governments and universities around the world.6

First-of-a-kind impacts

MIT’s international engagements provide additional opportunities for faculty and students to have impact in their fields. It is a career expectation that MIT faculty will break new ground in research, but many faculty are also strongly motivated to work with their students to achieve other first-of-a-kind impacts, whether in education, technology applications and design, or the development of new public policies or institutional capabilities. Working internationally greatly expands the potential frontier of such impacts, and MIT’s international engagements have frequently delivered on this potential.

The trademarks of “global MIT”

Many of MIT’s international activities are similar to those undertaken by peer universities. But three kinds of activity differentiate MIT to some degree, and also seem particularly important to the MIT community.

MIT’s “global classroom”: MIT is building out what is effectively a global classroom to help its undergraduate and graduate students learn about the world. Unlike a conventional classroom, MIT’s global classroom enables students to learn by doing—just as they do on the MIT campus. This means providing international experiences that emphasize hands-on learning and practical problem solving. These experiences are often preceded by country-specific cultural and historical education and language training. MIT may be unique in the extent to which international experiential learning has been integrated into undergraduate education programs. (As noted previously, MIT is simultaneously developing a different kind of global classroom: a low-cost digital or blended classroom for non-MIT learners all over the world who aspire to MIT-quality education.)

MIT as a builder of institutions and innovation ecosystems: Governments, universities, and philanthropists around the world are asking MIT to help them advance their human and economic development objectives. MIT is being asked to share its policies and practices for education, research, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and to help build entrepreneurial, impact-driven universities modeled on MIT itself. In some cases we are also helping to build innovation ecosystems beyond the boundaries of the universities we are working with.

MIT as a global problem-solver: The Institute’s entrepreneurial, outward-looking faculty and students go wherever in the world important problems are to be found, and where their knowledge, insights, methods, and rigor can help deliver solutions. The institutional culture of MIT encourages faculty to think about research contributions in terms of their impact on practice as well as their intellectual quality.

Administrative challenges

Compared with MIT’s U.S.-sponsored programs, international engagements pose different and often greater administrative challenges in both the development and operational phases. The majority of MIT’s domestically-sponsored activities consist of research and educational projects funded by agencies of the federal government. Well-defined rules and procedures have been developed to manage these activities. But there is no standard structure for sponsored agreements in the international arena, and as these activities continue to expand, the administrative challenges are growing. In just the last three years MIT has entered into approximately 300 separate agreements involving 40 countries, and many of these agreements have had unique provisions. Each sponsoring country has its own legal, tax, employment, and currency requirements, administrative style, and cultural expectations. Adding to the complexity are U.S. export control regulations, safety and security considerations, and the need to protect against misuse of the MIT name. In the operational phase of these engagements, faculty members often need more intensive administrative support to manage the added complexity than is typical of domestic projects.

An additional consideration is to ensure the careful self-assessment that is a feature of MIT’s institutional culture. The MIT Portugal Program has provided one example of good practice in self-assessment of international institution-building. Leaders of the Portugal Program invited researchers to ‘embed’ in the program with the specific purpose of evaluating its subsequent performance.7 Other large institution-building programs have yet to receive rigorous internal assessments, and until now there has been no sustained effort to promote the sharing of experiences and learning across these programs.

In recent years MIT has taken a number of steps to address these challenges. The International Advisory Committee was formed in 2007 to provide the administration with advice from faculty on the full range of MIT’s international engagements. The International Coordinating Committee was created subsequently to strengthen the support for international activities provided by MIT’s administrative offices and functions. Additional opportunities to upgrade administrative support are discussed in the Recommendations section of this report.

Faculty perspectives on MIT’s international activities are generally positive, though with some reservations

Faculty attitudes towards MIT’s international activities were explored during a series of informal discussions, roundtables, and presentations (see Appendix 1). In addition, a task force of younger faculty was formed to explore these issues. The Faculty Task Force on International Engagement convened faculty forums in all five schools to gain additional input.8 In general, faculty members seemed to agree strongly on the central importance of: (1) enabling MIT students to learn about the world; (2) attracting the most talented students and faculty from around the world to MIT; and (3) deploying MIT’s problem-solving capabilities to address major global challenges. (Some faculty members also commented that MIT should be paying more attention to economic and social problems at home.)

The most commonly expressed concerns focused on MIT’s large international institution-building programs. These programs were perceived by some to have a negative impact on education at MIT as a result of faculty spending significant time away from campus. This was mentioned by some faculty members who had not participated in these programs as well as by some who had. (Other participating faculty members argued that their contributions to educating MIT students had not been adversely affected .) Perhaps not surprisingly, heads of departments whose faculty had participated most heavily in these programs were among the most vocal on this score. However, some department heads also saw opportunities for their departments to become more active in international institution-building activities, complementing or even substituting for Institute-level efforts.

A number of comments concerned faculty residence requirements. The two Singapore programs have such requirements; in exchange, MIT has received compensating resources, including funding to create new faculty slots. But some expressed concern that the relief wasn’t adequate, or that it wasn’t deployed in proportion to the actual burden, or that such resources couldn’t effectively compensate for the loss of faculty time anyway. The other large programs do not have residence requirements, and therefore impose fewer burdens on faculty in terms of spending time away. A recurring view was that MIT’s online education platforms might help reduce these burdens further in the future, although it was also noted that international partners place high value on the physical presence of MIT faculty, and that online delivery of courses could only be a partial substitute.

Other concerns focused on what some faculty members suggested was a tendency for MIT to ‘follow the money’ in selecting its international partnerships.

Some SHASS and School of Science faculty commented that their Schools had been less involved in the large institution-building projects, and that for those faculty who did participate the experience was not always as intellectually fulfilling as they had hoped. On the other hand, there was broad agreement that the diverse research styles and approaches to international engagement pursued by faculty in the different Schools is of great value to MIT, not least because it enriches the international opportunities available to our students. More generally, there was strong agreement that the intellectual diversity of our five Schools and their interdependent, mutually reinforcing contributions are core sources of MIT’s strength. This is an important message for potential international partners seeking to emulate the Institute’s impact in research and entrepreneurship.

1 See: Alexander, Philip N. 2011. A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 68.

2 During 2015, a thousand international students spent time on the MIT campus as special students, visiting students, or exchange students.

3 Over the last decade, the proportion of international graduate students increased from 41% to 43% in the School of Engineering, from 34% to 43% in the School of Architecture and Planning, from 42% to 45% in SHASS, from 37% to 47% in MIT Sloan, and from 31% to 35% in the School of Science.

4 Two MIT MicroMasters programs have recently been launched. The five online courses offered under the first program, in supply chain management, have already attracted 174,000 learners from 192 countries. A small percentage of verified students who do exceptionally well in these courses and a final exam may be eligible to continue their education on the MIT campus, applying credit earned in the MicroMasters program towards a regular master’s degree. The first such students will arrive on the MIT campus in 2018.

5 From, visited January 28, 2017. For the AAU group of research universities as a whole, the corresponding shares were 19.4% and 37.1% respectively.

6 For the past four years MIT has been ranked first in the QS World University Rankings and has also been highly ranked in other ranking schemes.

7 These evaluations have appeared recently in a series of peer-reviewed publications (see, for example, S. M. Pfotenhauer et al, “Architecting Complex International Science, Technology, and Innovation Partnerships”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 104 (2016), pp.38-56; M. Hird and S. M. Pfotenhauer, “How Complex International Partnerships Affect Domestic Research Clusters”, Research Policy, vol. 46 (2017), pp. 557–572).

8 A short report prepared by the Faculty Task Force on International Engagement can be requested at