MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 4
March/April 2005
Marginalization and Discrimination at MIT
MIT 2040
Academic Responsibility and Gender Bias
Summary Report from the Ad Hoc Committee on the Faculty Quality of Life
When Everything is Secret, There is No Truth
Professors of the Practice:
Bridging Industry and Academia
Goodbye To The Orchard; Singer
A Retrospective Look at
The Campaign for MIT
Improving the Graduate Student
Academic Experience
Making the Green Grade
MIT Retirement Programs
Satisfaction with resources that support research and teaching [from the 2004
Faculty Survey]
Printable Version


MIT 2040

Erik Demaine and Olivier de Weck

It is one of those crisp, frigid Cambridge mornings in early March. The Charles River is still frozen solid and the sky is saturated a deep blue as students scurry across campus for the first week of classes. IAP just finished two days ago. Gone are the days when IAP lasted only four weeks. The extension from four to eight weeks was approved in 2017 after much debate among faculty and administrators, but remains controversial even after two decades. Ultimately, the wisdom of enhancing IAP as a unique MIT experience has prevailed, allowing students to experience fields far from their intellectual centers of gravity. It also allows them to take a number of half courses (6 credit units), which now outnumber what had traditionally been full courses (12 credit units). This extension of IAP forced MIT to postpone the spring semester by a month, with commencement now being held at the end of June.

There have been other changes too, some very visible, others much more subtle. The campus has grown significantly over the last four decades. The waterfront along Memorial Drive was already owned by MIT in the twentieth century from the Longfellow Bridge to the Western end of campus (where the old Hyatt had once stood). So, the enlargement of the Institute was fueled by expanding across the railroad tracks towards Central Square and Kendall Square. There are now more buildings carrying NW, N, and NE numbers than there are buildings on the main campus around Killian Court. Ironically, MIT's and Harvard's campuses are on the verge of entanglement, after being held at arms length for the last two centuries. MIT is still the leading university for science and technology in the country and perhaps in the world, with total student enrollment peaking at 13,840 last year. The percentage of undergraduate women has also increased to 50%. (In contrast, the number of female students has plummeted at Harvard since 2005, except at the Harvard Medical School.)

The biggest change at MIT was probably the reorganization of the Institute in 2025 with the dissolution of the departmental structures.

While the traditional schools (Architecture and Planning, Engineering, Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Sloan School of Management, and the School of Science) still exist, their internal structure was transformed from the traditional hierarchical tree-like departmental structure into a network-like structure of loosely connected knowledge centers. Despite vehement opposition by some, MIT was the first university in the United States to muster the courage to break down the barriers between traditional departments and disciplines (e.g., between mechanical, electrical, and nuclear engineering; organic-inorganic chemistry; molecular biology and genetics) and to organize its research units around the interdisciplinary center structure. The success of both the Biological Engineering Division and the Engineering Systems Division contributed to this trend. The change caused great difficulty initially because of the ambiguity in allocating faculty positions and other resources, centrally controlling a network structure, as well as mapping MIT's units to the traditional professional societies. But it also gave MIT and its faculty the ability to be significantly more nimble and aggressive in their pursuit of new research opportunities relative to its domestic and international competitors. It became clear by 2010 that so-called "interdisciplinary" work had become the norm, rather than the exception.

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This flexibility allowed MIT to actively impact a number of significant technological breakthroughs in the first half of the twenty-first century: MIT spearheaded decentralized energy production and distribution based on multi-source hydrogen production and ultra-high-efficiency photovoltaics, and the control of personal digital devices and computers via brain waves and voice commands. (Keyboards and other oddities such as the computer mouse are still on display at the MIT Museum.) A growing population of cyborgs around the world and especially at MIT no longer use computer monitors, and project digital images directly to their visual cortex, thanks to the difference-mending collaboration between the Media Laboratory and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, before those units were dissolved. Two of the six astronauts executing the first human landing on Mars in 2032 were MIT graduates (one from Aeronautics and Astronautics, one from Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences). World hunger fell 30% in just one year when, in 2034, MIT pioneered the light and efficient "pan-nutrition every-flavor bean."

Technology has also permeated teaching and learning at MIT, with OpenCourseWare (OCW) now serving as the main portal for students within and outside of MIT. All MIT lectures are now being broadcast and archived automatically on OCW, with the site receiving over 500 million visits daily. The virtual TA system allows for interactive Q&A sessions between remote students and on-campus teaching assistants and faculty. At other universities, students organize "MIT OCW Clubs" which meet twice weekly to watch MIT lectures, discuss problem sets, and take exams. OCW grades students automatically where possible, and a current matter of debate is whether eager students who prove themselves online should receive certificates of learning. Meanwhile, top highschool students attain OCW experience to improve their admission portfolios.

The network-centric focus in both research and learning has radiated outward from MIT, with the Institute serving as the hub of an international network of premier universities forming a global alliance, with intellectual reach into the farthest corners of the planet. MIT's links with Cambridge University in the U.K., the Singapore-MIT Alliance, the Malaysia University of Science and Technology (MUST), and others have been unified and broadened to include Stanford University, École Polytechnique in Paris, Tsinghua University in China, and other partner institutions on all continents, including a virtual outpost at the new Antarctic research station.

This network had become not only desirable, but necessary after applications to U.S. universities from international students had declined by 36% (Engineering), 24% (Business), and between 20-24% in other fields starting in the 2003/2004 academic year. This decline continued rapidly until 2009, after which time the U.S. government eased restrictions on foreign students.

While foreign graduate enrollment in the United States leveled off at 250,000 by 2010, most of the damage had already been done.

In contrast to many of its peer institutions, MIT remained relatively unaffected by maintaining its high level of excellence and selectivity and by offering increased study options to foreign students through its international network. This allowed foreign students affiliated with MIT's knowledge centers to choose between full-time on-campus study at MIT and full-time study at a partner institution with virtual classroom participation through the real-time OCW system, combined with short-term visits to MIT for intense face-to-face encounters with faculty and fellow students from across the globe.

Another benefit of the global collaborative network of universities is the reduced impact of fluctuations in local markets and federal funding. When the U.S. government lost track of the importance of fundamental research (starting as early as 2004) MIT had to turn to other sources. One of those sources was created by forming a larger, combined endowment between the partner universities, which now totals what would have been the equivalent of $1 trillion in 2005. By 2030, the university network created its own funding agency, which now provides the majority of research funding for all universities in the network and many universities outside the network. The resulting freedom has enabled MIT to lower its tuition substantially, realizing the principle that good education cannot be bought. Current predictions suggest that increasing government support of the agency will be a central issue of the U.S. elections later this year. But whatever external funding does come in, MIT and its network have the power to reject any strings attached to the money, and preserve its academic freedom.

But other things around MIT have stayed reassuringly the same. The Red Sox have not been able to reclaim their World Series title from the 2004 season and are still looking for a repeat over three decades later. It seems as though the curse had only been temporarily reversed in that one magical year. The Big Dig, as it is still called, was completed by 2008, but the occasional leak and tunnel closure remains. Food trucks are still the most popular form of nutrition for students and some of the staff around campus. And the sunset has a particular brilliance over the Charles River on this cold night,
March 1st , 2040.

Erik Demaine is an Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineer and Computer Science. He will be 59 years old in 2040. Olivier de Weck is an Assistant Professor in Aeronautics & Astronautics and in the Engineering Systems Division (ESD). He will be 71 years old in 2040.

Editor's Note: This editorial was written by two of the "younger generation" of MIT faculty. We always welcome articles by all MIT faculty, but particularly wish to encourage submission of pieces by this "younger generation."

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