MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 4
March / April 2008
Nuclear Disarmament Activities at MIT:
Rising from the Ashes
Difficult Times Ahead Require a Higher Level of Faculty Participation in Setting Policies
The World at 02139
Skills, Big Ideas, and Getting Grades
Out of the Way
Newsletter Elections to be Held this Spring
Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education Hints at National Standardized Testing for Universities
Is the Campaign for Students
Shortchanging Graduate Students?
Budget of the U.S. Government (FY2008)
Notre Dame; Cardinal
Student Culture: PSETs
Intentions and Outcomes: My Understanding of the Fall '07 Faculty Meetings
Comment on Professor Sanyal's response to my article "Finding Polaris and Changing Course"
The Task Force on Student Engagement:
A Path Forward
Faculty Statement of Support for the
Task Force on Student Engagement
Undergraduate Admissions (1957-2008)
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

The World at 02139

Bish Sanyal

Which principles and strategies should guide MIT’s increasing international engagements? This is not a new question: As far back as 1975, an ad hoc advisory committee was created to discuss MIT’s international institutional commitments. Later, in 1991, the Skolnikoff Report probed this question further. In 1996, an international council was formed to craft policy guidelines; and in 2005, the Faculty Policy Committee, under the leadership of then-Faculty Chair Rafael Bras, wrote a memo deliberating the same question. At present, a task force is being co-chaired by Associate Provost Philip Khoury and Vice President for Research Claude Canizares to probe once again that same question, but this time in a world very different from the one in 1975.

In most discussions of MIT’s international engagements the issue is posed as an either/or proposition: Should MIT expand its operations abroad and thereby risk diluting what it offers domestically, or should we restrict our international engagements as a means to protect our domestic educational turf.

In this dichotomous conceptualization of the issue, MA, 02139 is viewed as the domestic setting for a top-ranking American research university which must now consider the extent to which it should internationalize its operations.

Even though the international component of the MIT community at 02139 is quite large, with varied technical expertise, and comprises highly intelligent and culturally sophisticated individuals, the Institute has not given even half as much thought to this readily accessible resource as it has to international engagements in places such as Singapore, Cambridge, Abu Dhabi, Portugal, and Dubai. At MIT, nearly 30 percent of the students, and an even higher proportion of the faculty, are international in origin. But the proportion of international students at the undergraduate level has remained constant at eight percent for some time, even though the academic records of international applicants are, on average, better than those of domestic students. As for the graduate international students at MIT, most serve as either a research or teaching assistant, and usually work very hard contributing to the remarkable productivity of MIT faculty.

MIT also hosts large numbers of post-doctoral and visiting fellows, such as the Knight Fellows in science journalism, or the SPURS/Humphrey mid-career fellows in urban and regional planning. Added to that are the international visiting faculty who are usually among the very best scientists and scholars in their own countries. Yet there is very little collective effort on MIT’s part to celebrate this incredible influx of global knowledge and experience. I cannot think of even one committee, let alone a task force, which was created to recommend how to better utilize this resource.

MIT may be somewhat unique among the top-ranking U.S. universities in the way it has dealt with its international community. As an institute primarily devoted to science and engineering – two fields that rely on universal principles – there is an openness to the world at MIT which is wonderful. Yet, perhaps because of the attitude that scientific knowledge can be produced and verified anywhere, there is no special effort made to celebrate cultural variations in the way that knowledge is produced and disseminated. At MIT there is no international house such as that at the University of Chicago, for example, where large numbers of students can gather to hear lectures, enjoy international meals and cultural shows, or discuss international political developments. True, we do have a Center for International Studies (CIS) with a strong focus on security studies. CIS’s current director, Richard Samuels, was instrumental in starting the first MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives) program in Japan, and under his leadership CIS has expanded its activities considerably. But, the center is located in two floors of a non-descript building which is more known for housing the MIT Press bookstore in its ground floor than as a venue for regularly held international events for students and faculty from all five Schools. The newly formed iHouse (2007) is a very small effort to bridge living and learning about international developments when compared to similar efforts at our peer institutions. The Public Service Center (PSC) at MIT tries to cultivate some form of cooperation among domestic and international students and fellows by sponsoring competitions, such as MIT’s 100K Entrepreneurship Competition, but PSC is under-funded and lacks strong administrative infrastructure necessary to support a range of activities.

More Examples

At MIT there is no guesthouse for international visitors or short-term fellows who usually face difficulties finding accommodations in a city that is known for relatively high rents and a shortage of good rental housing close to the MIT campus. This is particularly embarrassing for MIT faculty, because we are treated so well when we visit universities abroad. Our International Students Office does help arrange for visas, and the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures does provide a few special courses on English speaking and writing. There are also a few country-based student clubs, some of which promote cultural awareness through lectures, etc., or may even award a prestigious science prize as does the Arab Student Organization. But by and large the purpose of these clubs is to provide occasional emotional sanctuary to international students and fellows, not to connect them deeply to domestic students. Thus we miss the opportunity to build deeper linkages between MIT’s domestic and international students and fellows who, if nurtured well, could serve as mentors to our undergraduate students who decide to travel abroad.

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A Different Course of Action

So how do we generate a new enthusiasm at MIT for globally inspired learning? The broad objective should be to create a setting – physical, social, and intellectual – for both domestic and international students, faculty and fellows, to engage in conversations, discussions, and ultimately, joint problem-solving exercises; and an idea came to mind while discussing with Amy Smith of Mechanical Engineering how to increase enrollment in the popular D-Lab course which we co-teach. We imagined a building whose entrance lobby could be surrounded by lab space that would showcase the various inventions by MIT students and faculty designed to improve the quality of life of poor households worldwide. The same building could also be the new home for CIS, with seminar rooms and conference facilities for long-distance video conferencing. The building could host the various MISTI programs, and perhaps also provide a few classrooms for teaching international languages. As Wes Harris always reminds me: if MIT really wants to internationalize education, we must require that all students and faculty are fluent in at least two languages.

A beautiful setting for learning new languages could be a good incentive for the students and faculty who are often confined in their labs.

On the upper floors of the building, there could be living quarters for international visitors and speakers who come to MIT for a short time, like the week-long visitors who help guide various experiments for D-Lab students. Similarly, some visiting fellows of the Center for International Studies could be provided accommodations in the residential quarter of the building. We could require that all visiting fellows and guests contribute to the hosting of international events to be held in the building, in exchange for subsidized rates on room and board. An unpretentious but good restaurant offering international cuisine also could be housed, providing space for holding large international cultural events – including food and beverages. There is no end to the possibilities of how such a building could be designed to express MIT’s serious engagement with the world. In fact, an innovatively designed building could serve as a symbol of what internationalization means at MIT now.

But celebration of the world at 02139 requires first and foremost a very different mindset than the one which is marked by the current frenzy among many American universities to go global in pursuit of non-traditional revenues. True, all universities could benefit from additional revenue, but to justify such policies in the name of internationalization of education when opportunities for internationalization at home remain unexplored and unappreciated, seems almost like putting the cart before the horse. Whereas there is no substitute for our students traveling abroad and immersing themselves in different cultures, for such travels to be truly meaningful and productive much preparation at home is needed: new courses have to be offered; new types of research need to be funded; and institutional contacts have to be formalized so our students have institutional homes while living abroad. Most importantly, MIT students need to be encouraged to engage in joint problem-solving with students and faculty from elsewhere, allowing them to appreciate that problems can be defined and solved in more than one way.

To prepare our students so they can appreciate diverse modes of learning and jointly solve problems that are cross-national in origin, MIT needs to invest not just in a new building, but also in new courses, research activities, and social and cultural events. So where would the funds come from? As opposed to standard answers like raising endowments from alumni and friends of MIT who want to internationalize MIT’s education, there is another way which may ultimately address the dilemma of whether to go global or stay firm at 02139. Why not create a fund for strengthening internationalization efforts at 02139 – a fund to which all our international collaborators from around the world would have to contribute if they want to utilize MIT’s faculty and its brand name to strengthen their own competitive advantage in the market for educational services? This surcharge could be added to other costs MIT usually charges collaborators in other nations; and the new pool of funds could be used as a challenge fund to generate more resources from domestic as well as international alumni.

If this sounds like a fantasy, or too big an idea, let us remind ourselves that compared to the boldness of the proposals from foreign governments which have captivated America’s top research universities to engage in a gold rush abroad, what I am proposing is not outrageously expensive. It is one way to create a hub of international research, teaching, and cultural exchange activities at 02139 that will not be available for sale to even the highest bidder.

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