Report of the President

For the Academic Year 1990-1991

President Charles M. Vest's annual report to the MIT community, October 1991.

© Copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact the MIT News Office at, or (617) 253-2700.


Observations on the First Year

My first year as president has been marked particularly by the need for MIT to respond to a host of challenging external forces. At a time when I wanted to concentrate on setting a long-range agenda for the future of the Institute and primarily on involving the community in strategic planning, MIT has faced a flood of external actions and issues that have demanded unremitting attention. Some of these issues--such as the matter of intellectual integrity in the conduct of research--touch all universities. Other external actions were more narrowly focused on a few universities--such as the Justice Department allegations regarding "price fixing" on financial aid.

Many of these outside forces are troubling, some could be seriously damaging. But while I regret the sheer time and effort that dealing day-to-day with these matters has required, the fact is that they are by no means unrelated to the long-range planning on which we need to concentrate. Indeed, they have served as a lens to bring into focus many of the issues that we must address in defining and shaping our future. They speak to us of a changing nation and world. And many represent an erosion of the partnership of the federal government with our research universities.

Changing Public Attitudes

Yet the matter is deeper than the erosion of the sense of partnership between the government and the universities. In our democratic system, the actions of the Congress and the executive branch ultimately reflect the views and will of the people. Thus, we must look more closely at public perceptions and attitudes toward our research universities. MIT historically established the paradigm for these universities and retains its preeminence today; hence these are critical matters for us.

I surmise that the origins of changing public attitudes toward our research universities are twofold:

First, there is a growing wave of populism and an associated widespread distrust of expertise, excellence, and privilege, whether real or perceived.

Second, there have been direct assaults, largely on ideological grounds, against our universities. These began in earnest when William Bennett used his pulpit as Secretary of Education to attack American higher education. The flames he ignited were fanned by others, including the picture of the presumed decline of higher education painted by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, and the intemperate portrait of the American professoriat by Charles Sykes in Profscam.

Criticisms of universities have struck a resonance with the public, which had taken account of rapidly rising tuitions and come to believe that, almost antithetically, the quality of teaching and the commitment to undergraduate education, had degenerated. It is a resonance that we must worry about. It calls for serious self-examination.

Catalytic Federal Actions

Against this backdrop came this past year three catalytic federal actions-- the investigations at Stanford of alleged abuses of the system for reimbursement of indirect costs of sponsored research; the further investigation of the matters surrounding fraud charges associated with the Cell paper by Weaver, Baltimore, and others; and the continuing investigation by the Justice Department of alleged conspiracy and price fixing among universities.

While these activities captured the headlines, still other actions were proceeding with less public attention. They included the decline of peer review of academic research and facilities proposals and the corresponding increase in political earmarking; investigations about conflicts of interest on the part of faculty with strong ties to industry; debates about technology transfer from U.S. universities to foreign countries, particularly Japan; criticisms about the numbers of foreign students studying engineering and science in American universities; and a continuing decline in the effective level of federal financial support of students.

Diagnosis and Prognosis

What does all of this mean? To what extent are these forces aimed at MIT specifically? What is the prognosis? What can we do? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but I would like to share some thoughts about them.

First, what does it mean? It means, basically, that our universities are not immune to the strains present in our society, and that tight budgetary times and shifting, or indeed uncertain, federal priorities are likely to have profound implications for us. It means further that we must strive energetically to understand the forces at work, and their causes, and then develop ways of dealing with them. Thoughtless defensiveness is neither an appropriate nor helpful response. We must listen to and talk with our critics as well as serve as critics. We must correct those areas in need of correction. We must adjust to new realities, recognizing the opportunities and responsibilities as well as the difficulties we face.

When I arrived in Cambridge last fall, MIT had been buffeted by several adverse interactions with various agencies of the federal government in rapid succession. Many believed that there was a strong anti-MIT attitude abroad, but I have not found it so. For over twelve months now, I have made monthly trips to Washington, each with a saturated schedule of visits to senators, representatives, agency heads, and other policy makers. I come away with the impression that MIT is still highly respected and viewed as an important national resource. However, I do not believe that we are viewed as being as far apart from the crowd as we have been in the past. There are also small pockets of resentment of our quality and a belief that, while many other institutions need help, MIT can take care of itself. And there is, most regrettably, a serious lack of recognition of what is required to maintain the wide range of excellence at an institution like MIT and of how very different that is from what is required to build one or two spires of excellence at other kinds of institutions.

What is the prognosis? These are treacherous times. We need to take a leadership role in restoring public confidence in our research universities and in engendering a better understanding of their past contributions and of their importance to a vibrant future. These tasks should follow from our own self-assessment and dedication to leadership in a changing world. Above all, the United States must re-establish a strong and fundamental belief in education and in the importance of scientific and technological research. In his recent book The Next Century, David Halberstam speaks of the Japanese educational system. Regardless of one's views of the nature of that system, he states, the Japanese believe that if the young people are educated well, all else can be achieved. It is this attitude--that the development of our human capital, of people and their ideas, is prerequisite to all else that we want to accomplish--that we must regain in the United States. If we succeed in doing so, a bright future for the country, and an exciting mission for MIT, will be assured.

Changing Federal Relations

Let me now turn to some of the specific elements in the nature of MIT's relationship to the federal government that require careful analysis and action. We begin that task from a history and background of strength. Previous MIT administrations have been very well represented in the highest councils of the executive branch. Moreover, MIT faculty remain very well connected to the agencies of the federal government. They are sought out for service on key planning panels and understand the missions of the agencies very well. Nonetheless, I believe that the Institute today needs new responses to the apparent growing shift of responsibility for science and education policy into the more chaotic domain of the Congress. In addition to devoting a major portion of my own time to federal issues, I concluded early on that it would be wise to have a continuous presence in Washington. Accordingly, we have opened an MIT Washington Office, directed by Dr. John C. Crowley, former vice president of the American Association of Universities. This office will enable us to observe and interact more continuously with federal policy initiatives, and the related authorization and appropriations processes that affect us and our colleagues. We intend to work largely through coalition building and close collaboration with our sister institutions. The Washington Office will also serve as a gateway to MIT, assisting in bringing MIT faculty expertise to both principals and staff members in the Congress and in the executive branch. Good scientific and technological advice is needed as never before in the government, and our faculty can contribute much.

Indirect Costs of University Research: The subject of indirect costs of university research, long considered something of an arcane topic, became headline news in 1991 as a result of allegations of erroneous and inappropriate charges to the federal government by Stanford University. The subsequent government investigations riveted both Congressional and public attention on indirect costs of research, and on the accounting/auditing procedures used to reimburse universities for those costs. These investigations, and the manner in which they were conducted and reported by the press, have tended to erode public confidence in our universities and have unleashed forces in Congress and elsewhere that have the potential to do great damage to the nation's system of higher education and research.

These investigations have also raised, authentic issues, however, and the response of the university community must be to correct any legitimate problems. In particular, further tightening, clarification, and greater standardization of accounting procedures are needed to prevent erroneous charges to indirect cost pools. What is not needed is a rush to judgment that will produce an ill-considered quick fix that will harm the long-term health of our universities and our national system of research. I am particularly concerned that the responsibility for indirect cost matters should remain centered in the executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The specter of the details of indirect cost accounting becoming part of the annual appropriations process in the Congress is daunting.

A particularly troubling aspect of the present indirect cost debate is the lack of recognition of, or commitment to, the concept that federal research support to universities serves the dual purpose of accomplishing research and educating, graduate students, who comprise the next generations of researchers. In some of the debate, funding of university research has been viewed as a simple government procurement--an approach that draws no distinction between supporting university research, with its intimate involvement of graduate students, and purchasing goods and services from an ordinary supplier. This approach also appears to be promoted by some funding agencies which support policies that effectively encourage the employment of postdoctoral researchers rather than graduate students. In an era when projections show looming shortfalls in the numbers of PhD scientists and engineers in the U.S., such an approach is unwise, and we have worked hard to counter it wherever we have found it.

Relatedly, we are concerned about recommendations by some to disallow the payment of graduate research assistants' tuitions as employee benefits. The disallowance of this practice would drive an immediate two-thirds increase at MIT in the annual cost of supporting a graduate student research assistant on an individual faculty grant or research contract. A lack of supportiveness of the graduate student component of research is also displayed in various proposals for handling the partial support of library costs and the recommendation by some in Congress that the student services component of indirect costs be eliminated.

Fundamental to the process of restoring confidence in this system of cost accounting is the tenet that policies and practices should be based on principles. Therefore, I believe it is particularly important now, while we are reviewing these accounting guidelines, that we not lose sight of the fundamental principles of OMB Circular A-21, which has governed for many years the financial relationships between government and universities receiving federal funds in research. In brief, these principles are that university faculty, graduate students and staff will perform research at low cost, and that simultaneously they will maintain and advance the scientific, technological and intellectual infrastructure of America by educating the next generation of researchers. In return, the U.S. government will recognize the diversity among American universities and the dual role of graduate students in research and education, and will bear its full and fair share of costs. These philosophical and economic principles have proved extraordinarily sound and have helped make our university research system the world leader. Any restructuring of Circular A-21 must be solidly based on considered analysis, careful redefinition, and the preservation of the principles that have served so well.

Academic Integrity: Universities exist to pass on knowledge to succeeding generations and to generate new knowledge, analyses, and insights. We, in addition, have an overarching responsibility--to imbue in our students and ourselves a dedication to intellectual honesty as well as an understanding of the methodologies of objective analysis and the respect for reasoned discourse that lead to the establishment of scientific and scholarly truth.

Recently, a few highly publicized cases of alleged scientific misconduct have captured the public's attention. While the press and others seek to sensationalize these events, we must do more than attempt to persuade the public that if such misconduct has occurred it is a rare event--as in fact it is. In every case of alleged misconduct, we must look to the substance behind allegations, and we must continually review and refresh our commitment to basic academic values.

What are these values? What is the foundation of scientific and scholarly research that we hold fundamental? The foundation is truth, and certain intimately related concomitant values, which Jacob Bronowski identified so well in his book of essays, A Sense of the Future . As discussed by Bronowski, these include, importantly, independence and originality; a belief in the value of dissent; and an adherence to freedom of thought and speech. Central to these values is the importance of respecting another's point of view. Points of view and hypotheses are there to be debated, tested, proved, disproved, revised, built upon, or rejected. This is what makes science--indeed most scholarship--both an individual and a highly communal activity. And it is why we say science is a self-correcting enterprise that strongly counters any forces that might tempt one to cut corners or act with less than full honesty.

Nonetheless, there are forces that push the modern university researcher in other directions. Among them are the following:

First, the rapid expansion and communication of knowledge. Nearly instantaneous promulgation of research results by various modern means contributes to a sometimes frenetic pace that can run counter to the careful review and reworking of research that might reduce ultimate error.

Second, the nature of incremental advances in some fields. In some fields undergoing rapid development, it is often the case that relatively modest advances may have great, albeit fleeting significance. This, too, can produce a rush to disperse results that can reduce care, review, and reflection, thereby increasing the probability of error.

Third, the culture of instantaneous news and fame. Scientists and scholars do have egos. They are often highly competitive, a characteristic that generally works to the advantage of science. However, when this trait is combined with the American public's unquenchable thirst for sensation and for daily dosages of revolutionary advances, extraneous temptations and inappropriate forces are created.

Finally, the opportunity for monetary gain. Universities have become great engines of the modern economy, and we have increasingly worked together with profit-based industries in arrangements which have contributed significantly to the common good. Yet some of these ties between university scientists and the corporate world, with their enhanced opportunities for personal financial gain, may not always be free from the possibility of troubling conflict of interest.

The basic challenge before us is to do a better job of passing on and strengthening our system of values. How can this be accomplished? The easy suggestion is to establish formal courses and perhaps require them of all students. But this is not necessarily practical or effective. We can, also, as I have asked MIT to do, establish broader mentoring of new colleagues--faculty and students--and create occasional forums designed to help develop an environment in which the importance of intellectual integrity and scholarly values are widely understood and prized. Ultimately, however, it is in our individual and institutional actions that our values are manifested. Whatever we say, we teach by example. And the lesson will be conveyed best, therefore, by the ways in which we undertake our own scholarly activities and by the ways in which we deal with problems if they do arise.

We have heard great outcries, for and against, the policing of science. Our response, as an academic community, must not be one of knee-jerk defensiveness, but rather one of developing an effective method of self-governance regarding integrity in research. If we are not able to do so, we can be sure that others will be only too glad to do it for us. And what we don't need is more bureaucracy and increased overhead expenses for programs to enforce scientific integrity. To strengthen our self-governance at MIT, the Provost and I asked a group of distinguished faculty, chaired by Professor Sheila E. Widnall, to review our responsibilities and articulate our values in the conduct of academic research; to look at our own policies and procedures in light of those values; to compare these policies and procedures with federal and professional standards and guidelines governing research, and to suggest revisions where appropriate; and, finally, to propose creative ways of introducing mentoring and educational programs regarding both the conduct of research and the provision of broad career guidance throughout the entire academic community. This committee has produced an interim report which will provide the framework for Institute-wide discussion during the Fall and to a set of specific recommendations thereafter.

Student Financial Aid and the Justice Department: A rather strange episode in our relations with the federal government continues to play itself out in a suit against MIT by the Department of Justice. Since 1989, a number of universities and colleges have been the subjects of an investigation by the Department of Justice seeking evidence that they have conspired and violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Hoards of government attorneys have, at great expense to the American taxpayer and to those who pay tuition and make charitable donations to these schools, combed through the records of this "industry" to spot evidence of "collusion" in restraint of trade that would suppress free market forces acting upon faculty salaries, tuition charges or financial aid to students. In May the U.S. Attorney General brought a formal complaint against the eight Ivy League universities and MIT for colluding in the Overlap Group--meetings held by those institutions to assure that their student financial aid to applicants in common be awarded only on the basis of financial need.

The eight Ivy League universities settled the complaint out of court by agreeing not to engage in this practice for the next ten years. MIT, after careful deliberation, decided not to sign this consent decree and therefore is being sued by the Department of Justice. We took this position for three reasons. We do not believe that we have violated the Sherman Act; we believe that there are distinguishing differences between us and the other eight universities in this matter; and we believe that our approach to need-based financial aid, and the manner in which its implementation was assisted by the Overlap Group, serves an important social function and is the best use of the limited financial aid funds available to us. We do not believe it is in the nation's interest for universities to compete financially for students.

The Department of Justice, apparently believes that financial aid would better be based on merit. They conclude that if the highly competitive schools named in their action had not jointly agreed to provide aid based on need, that some students would have received greater financial assistance, and therefore a lower effective price for their educations, and that this would be appropriate. MIT, on the other hand, has long believed that, while students should be admitted to the Institute on the basis of intellectual merit, they should be awarded financial aid based solely on their, and their families, ability to pay. Ironically, and remarkably, this long-standing MIT student aid policy is exactly the approach that was later mandated by the Congress for the use of federal financial aid funds to undergraduates.

MIT has and will defend its beliefs in this suit in a considered manner, seeking thoughtful and expert advice, and remaining cognizant of all the costs and ramifications of its actions.

The Changing Face of America: Implications for MIT

Besides these federal actions, there are a number of other external issues that impinge strongly upon us. Foremost among them, and one of deep concern is the issue of race in America. Universities are both susceptible to aspects of this issue and, in my view, responsible for working vigorously toward the solution of certain components of it. Moreover, regardless of differing views regarding the social responsibilities of higher education, the fact remains that the racial and ethnic structure of the American populace and work force is changing rapidly in well known and absolutely predictable ways. Students who are to be optimally educated for the world they will enter must learn from the experience of living with, and learning with and from, students and faculty representing the diversity of people who now comprise the country. Furthermore, as we look at the various projected shortfalls of engineers, scientists and PhD level scholars in numerous fields, it becomes apparent that attracting and educating people from segments of our population who have traditionally not been well represented in academe is in the national interest.

MIT has played a leadership role by significantly increasing the numbers of underrepresented minority students in our undergraduate programs. Underrepresented minority students make up 16 percent of the class of 1995. Enrollments in our graduate programs, and representation on our faculty, of underrepresented minority scholars, however, have not kept pace. It is imperative that we improve this situation appreciably. At the faculty level, the Provost has recently announced a reinvigorated, funded program designed to assist departments financially in increasing the number of underrepresented minorities on the MIT faculty. We also are accelerating the conduct of programs aimed at making the opportunities for graduate study at MIT clearly known to underrepresented minority undergraduate students around the country.

MIT has also played a leadership role in the education of women in engineering and the sciences. Women comprise 35 percent of the new entering class. Substantial progress has been made during the last two decades also in attracting women to our graduate programs and to our faculty, but more remains to be done. Here, too, the provost will provide certain assistance for hiring women, especially at tenured levels in departments where they constitute less than a third of the faculty.

But attracting a more diverse faculty and student body to MIT is only part of the challenge before us. The entire environment for living and working in our universities needs concerted attention as the society of which we are a part changes. Single parents, dual-career couples, and an aging population have become the norm. Although the university cannot be expected to solve all of the problems that accrue from these changes, they require that we give proper attention to the development of a campus that is open, rewarding, and enjoyable. Accordingly, following the recommendation of a recent faculty and staff committee, a Council on Family and Work will be appointed to advise and assist the administration in establishing at MIT the most satisfying environment possible.

MIT: A National and International University

Yet another set of challenges has to do with the increasing interdependence of peoples and enterprises throughout the world. Our world is interconnected as never before--through our physical environment, through communications networks, through our production and economic systems, through politics and through expanding common knowledge bases. Similarly, our research universities have become increasingly international, an inevitable change that has led some legislators and others to question the nature of the international connections of research universities in general, and of MIT in particular.

The basic questions are obvious. Is it appropriate that so many international students are studying science, engineering and business in American universities? Nationally, for example, approximately 50 percent of the graduate students in engineering and physical science are foreign citizens, while at MIT one-third of our graduate students come from other countries. Is it appropriate for universities to receive support in the form of donations, or research funding, from foreign countries and companies? And the most difficult, and emotionally charged, question--given that our universities receive so much federal research support--do foreign companies "skim the cream" by carrying off critical technological knowledge, commercializing it, and then outcompeting U.S. firms?

During much of this past year an Institute-wide committee chaired by Professor Eugene B. Skolnikoff considered these and other issues involving our international connections, and proposed a number of policies for MIT. We have disseminated this report widely around to colleagues in government and industry, and it has received, generally, very favorable comment.

The basic principle set forth in the report is that MIT is first and foremost an American institution. We have, and will, serve the United States well. We best serve our nation, however, by being a preeminent institution of higher education and research emphasizing science and engineering. We can maintain this preeminence only if we maintain strong intellectual, professional, and personal ties throughout the world.

Science has always prided itself in its internationalism--judging people and ideas on their merit alone. This principle served us well earlier in this century when large numbers of American scholars studied in Europe, bringing back leading-edge knowledge and establishing fine academic departments and laboratories here. American universities also value greatly the numerous faculty who have emigrated to this country and have become great academic and scientific leaders. I believe that we are now entering an era when the flow of scholars and knowledge across many national boundaries will be the prerequisite for first-rate science and technology, and for first-rate universities. We must act accordingly.

The issue is admittedly complicated to an extent because of the diminished distinctions between basic and applied research in many fields, the shortened times from laboratory to commercialization, and the more intimate relationship between universities and industry. However, I believe that it would be a serious strategic error for the country to attempt to establish impermeable boundaries around our universities. Rather, we must work to gain more assurance that communications with visitors to our laboratories are two-way, knowledge and expertise flow in as well as out. Having said this, I believe that the fraction of international students in U.S. graduate science and engineering programs is too high in my view. It should be a goal of our secondary and undergraduate schools to educate and inspire U.S. students to move into such demanding and important programs of study rather than standing aside while more intellectually energetic and disciplined students from other nations take up the challenges. Furthermore, we must educate our U.S. citizen students appropriately and encourage them to gain experience overseas, that is, we must prepare them for leadership in the kind of world in which they will live and work. (The MIT Japan Program is an example of leadership in this area.)

Education at MIT

All aspects of undergraduate education continue to be very actively discussed at the Institute, as they are in public forums, where university faculty are frequently criticized for allegedly caring more about graduate education and research than undergraduate teaching. With such criticism in mind, I recently asked one of our graduating seniors how he had found the quality of teaching at MIT. He answered that it was excellent in the lower level subjects, but spread over a wide range in the more advanced subjects. Expanding on this, he explained that the faculty expended enormous effort and creativity in doing a truly first-rate job in the large freshman and sophomore introductory classes, but that a student was expected to learn more independently--more like a junior colleague, if you will--in many of the more advanced subjects. This senior's response demonstrates yet another aspect of MIT's uniqueness. At most research universities the usual complaint is that the faculty seem uninterested in the large introductory courses, and only as one progresses into the advanced classes does their interest become more deeply engaged.

While American students themselves appear to be satisfied in many dimensions, they seem also to have the sense that somehow things should be better still. Undergraduates often believe that they have too many teaching assistants as instructors, not enough direct faculty contact, and insufficient academic and career counseling. And such criticism is aimed most often at research universities, the thesis being that undergraduate teaching is not valued there and that faculty often neglect their teaching responsibilities because of the emphasis on research.

What then is the situation regarding undergraduate teaching at our research universities, and at MIT in particular? In contrast to what some educators are arguing today, I believe that the American research university has created a matrix within which the best possible education for the Twenty-first Century can take place. Its novel blending of undergraduate education, graduate education and research is what truly makes these universities the best in the world. At MIT, moreover, there is a permeating belief that our undergraduate curriculum and education constitute our institutional core and are the key to our national and world leadership. Still, vigilance is required to maintain teaching excellence and to renew and revitalize the curriculum. I believe that our record in this respect is a exemplary.

In a major curriculum development this past year, the faculty voted to establish a subject in modern biology as a new general Institute requirement for undergraduates, effective with the class entering in 1993. We believe that we are the first university to recognize, by requiring it of all students, the growing general importance of modern biology and the uniqueness of its methodologies. This will enhance still further the quality and relevance of an MIT education.

I am pleased to report also something of a quiet revolution in student counseling and personal contact between students and faculty. As we enter 1991-92, so many faculty have decided to offer freshman advisor seminars that over two-thirds of our new students are having the experience, at the very beginning of their MIT education, of meeting weekly in small groups with Institute faculty for study, discourse, and counseling.

To encourage further attention to teaching, we have just established a program of Faculty Fellows. These endowed awards will recognize faculty for outstanding contributions to our undergraduate educational programs. They are intended to have associated with them a level of prestige equivalent to endowed professorships, and will provide a discretionary scholar's allowance for a period of ten years. The Provost will solicit nominations from the community and will appoint approximately six Fellows per year. Thus over a decade, on the order of sixty outstanding teachers will be acknowledged in this manner.

A Personal Note

I have narrowed the scope of my first presidential report to focus on a few trends and problem areas that are of particular significance nationally and at MIT in 1991. There is so much more that could have usefully and pleasurably been addressed. Since accepting the privilege of serving this great institution, I have found MIT to be intellectually vibrant, replete with creativity and entrepreneurship, well managed and a great asset to this nation and world.

On a personal note, Becky and I wish to express our deep appreciation for the manner in which we have been accepted and welcomed by the MIT community. To have that friendship, warmth and collegiality coexist so wonderfully with the excellence and professionalism of our faculty, staff and students has made our transition to our new home and institution as pleasurable as it has been as much of a pleasure as it has been an honor.

MIT's commitment to education, its uniqueness in mission and education, and its effective service beyond the confines of its campus have served the nation and world well for many decades. Our central challenge is clear--to continue and enhance MIT's excellence through these uncertain and changing times and into the next century.

Charles M. Vest
October 1991

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