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The Inaugural Address

James Rhyne Killian
Tenth President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
April 2, 1949

The Obligations and Ideals of an Institute of Technology

James Rhyne Killian 
Dr. Compton, your excellency, distinguished guests, faculty, students, lades and gentlemen in this hall and in the overflow audience in the great court:

One of my pleasantest recreations, which I share with my family, is mountain hiking, the climbing of the gentler, more ladylike mountains that one can find in New England. Today, as I stand at the base camp of the Institute's presidency, a rugged mountain but shining, I well remember the observation of George Meredith that in mountain climbing every step is a debate between what you are and what you might become. This bracing challenge of the mountain climber heightens my appreciation for the gracious welcome and the good wishes of this great assembly.

I also recall the Biblical injunction, "Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off." I am sure, however, that you will forgive me a special privilege today if I boast about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I am proud to express my faith in its mission and in its future. I am proud of my colleagues on the Corporation and on the Faculty. My pride in each of these is but a measure of my respect and my affection for its students, those who are here now in the fullness of youth and those who once were here and now are alumni, forty thousand strong. All these, working together, have been the weavers of brilliant strands of high spirit, high achievement, and high ideals, which make up the rich fabric of this institution.

To return to my mountain metaphor, no one remains at Technology very long without sensing altitude, the invigorating winds which blow from all quarters, the energizing sunshine of discussion and discovery, the long view.

In the administration of this institution I am also proud to be the partner of my predecessor and continuing chief, Karl Compton. He has brought to this institution a heightened concept of public service, a rare unity of purpose and spirit, and a prestige never before equaled. It might be said that Richard Maclaurin brought the Institute its Augustan age; if so, then Karl Compton has made his presidency its Olympian age.

And here may I inject another personal note. If I have any special qualifications for the Institute's presidency, these are largely attributable to two men: Vannevar Bush and Karl Compton. Dr. Bush, when he was vice president and dean of engineering, first provided an inexperienced youth new occasions for new duties, and Karl Compton, always the ideal teacher, by example and by selflessness provided an unequaled opportunity for me to practice and acquire some of the methods and the ideals which have made him a great educational administrator.

During the convocation of the past two days, we have been reviewing the sweep of world problems through a wide-angle lens. Today with the sirens muted, I would like to narrow the field and focus on the obligations and ideals of an institute of technology at this mid-century point. What can an institute of technology do in the second half of the century to advance human welfare, security, and peace? How may it best administer to the human spirit?

For this purpose, I need first of all to define an institute of technology, and this I can best do by describing the concepts which brought the Massachusetts Institute of Technology into being. M.I.T. opened its doors at the close of the Civil War, at a time when American business enterprise and technology were being released for a triumphant sweep across the Continent. America needed specialists who could apply scientific principles to industrial processes and who could provide the complex managerial skill to control machine processes. The colleges of that day were not prepared to, or else did not, train these specialists and so a new power appeared in the educational world, the institutes of technology and then the Land-Grant colleges sired by the Morrill Act. M.I.T. was one of these institutions. Its scheme of education had been drawn just before the last mid-century point by William Barton Rogers, professor of natural philosophy at the University of Virginia. Rogers' plan advanced four fundamental principles, and I'd like to enumerate these.

First he emphasized the importance of being useful. He had no sympathy with the then prevailing point of view that the practical professions lacked dignity. He stressed that vocational studies provide students the inner satisfaction of being able to do something useful and to do it well. He was one of the earliest advocates of what President Conant has described as the philosophy of the modern American university, "a philosophy hostile to the supremacy of a few traditional vocations, a philosophy moving toward the social equality of all useful labor."

Next Rogers stressed the educational gain to be derived from building a college program around a professional objective. He recognized that the discipline, the thoroughness, and the motivation inherent in the engineering program have great educational value.

Rogers' next principle, that of learning by doing, he expressed through the laboratory method of instruction. This idea was not original with him, but in the new Institute he gave it its first extensive, systematic application. In his educational thinking, Rogers always stressed method; he had faith in the scientific method, in the spirit of science and its search for truth. This led him to foresee the far-reaching effects on higher education of the spirit and methods of scientific research, the concept which holds that learning thrives best in an atmosphere not of imitativeness but of creativeness.

And finally Rogers was single-minded in his belief that learning principles is more important than learning facts. "We believe," he said, "that the most truly practical education, even in an industrial point of view, is one founded on a thorough knowledge of scientific laws and principles, and which unites with close observation and exact reasoning," and note this, "a large general cultivation."

These concepts of Rogers, later enriched by Francis Amasa Walker, led to the growth of a special type of educational institution which can be defined as a university polarized around science, engineering, and the arts. We might call it a university limited in its objectives but unlimited in the breadth and the thoroughness with which it pursues these objectives.

These concepts explain why an institute of technology, as I define it, includes an undergraduate school and a graduate school as coequal parts of a homogeneous faculty. Out of Rogers' plan has evolved a school of engineering and applied science working in close association with a school of basic science, each complementary and both enriched by the social and esthetic values of architecture and the humanities.

I have reviewed these evolving principles of our founder so that I might today reaffirm them. I believe in them and I propose in the years ahead that we hold fast to them.

And now what of the future? The development of an institution, I suggest, is like the printing of a colored print. The first printing lays down the design, as did Rogers for M.I.T. Successive printings create new values, increase the depth, fill in the colors. How may we continue to enrich the design of our institutes of technology so that they may reflect the changing values and needs of our free society?

We are faced, I suggest, with three imperatives. First, we must continue the creative contributions which science and engineering can make to modern life. Second, we must educate for professional and social responsibility. Third, we must maintain the freedom and independence of our institutions. Let me take these in order.

Maintaining the Endless Frontier

In his classic report on a national program for science, Dr. Bush described science as the endless frontier. The primary obligation of our institutes of technology will continue to be the education of men and the conduct of research to keep this frontier endless.

As Dr. Compton so convincingly stated on Thursday, new wealth, in the form of new processes, new products, and even new industries, is created in the laboratory. We must stress again, however, how important this function is to our prosperity. In our dynamic economy we must constantly create more jobs for more people. We must steadily increase our output per man-hour if we are to have better and cheaper consumer goods along with higher wages.

We must also recognize that science is a national resource out of which we can and must bring replacements and substitutes for depleted natural resources. In fact, one of the major responsibilities of science and technology in the years ahead will be the conservation of natural resources and the replacement of scarce materials by equally good or better substitutes.

Basic science, applied science, and technology are vital factors in meeting all of these requirements of a prosperous economy.

They are likewise essential to the maintenance of health. The disease-destroying powers of penicillin were discovered in a university laboratory, and industry mobilized its engineering and technological skills to make it rapidly available to all of our people. Nuclear science has already been put to work in dramatic and effective ways to cure and detect disease. Through such typical procedures, the basic scientists and their colleagues, the doctors and engineers, are giving our people a more buoyant health, greater life expectancy, better defenses against disease. In the schools where such men are trained we must be relentless in increasing their capacity to achieve these goals.

Maintenance of the endless frontier is likewise essential to national security. A healthy people, a prosperous economy, and adequate natural resources are our chief defensive lines, but one of America 's greatest sources of strength, we must always remember, is its unequaled industrial capacity. Our schools of science and engineering, educating men for the refinement and management of this productive machine, have a major responsibility in helping to make sure that America can always be, if need be, the arsenal of democracy.

We must also be prepared with the men who can outwit an enemy in the design of weapons and countermeasures. In speaking of the British scientists in the Battle of Britain, Mr. Churchill observes that "unless British science had proved superior to German...we might well have been defeated, and, being defeated, destroyed." He might later have said the same of American science and our own war effort. We must continue to educate the imaginative and audacious minds that created the O.S.R.D. and mustered the democratic ranks of American scientists into invincible battalions, such as our own Radiation Laboratory here in Cambridge. We must be able again to beat an enemy to the draw, as we did in developing the atomic bomb.

Our schools of science and engineering, if they are strong, are a powerful fleet in being a striking force that can be thrown into action instantly if needed. We must be sure to have in these institutions this kind of reserve strength—and we must strive unremittingly to prevent it ever having to be used for war.

The maintenance of the endless frontier also provides the promise that our research and our technology will contribute to human welfare far beyond the boundaries of our own country. Great reaches of the world are still undeveloped. A majority of the people of the world, as we heard yesterday, live in a state of poverty and even of chronic starvation, judged by modern nutritional standards. I believe that science can accept Mr. Churchill's challenge of Thursday night and do a great deal to prevent and eliminate starvation in the world. The endless resources of science and technology combined with imaginative free enterprise in partnership with government can raise the world's standard of living. Our institutes of technology have a major part to play in educating the men who can harness the energy and who have the vision to put it to work for the peoples of the world. This is another way by which science and technology can remove the economic barriers to world government.

I review these fundamental contributions of science to national and international welfare to emphasize that we need more and not less science and technology. All the silly talk about a science holiday is as dangerous as the talk some years ago about economic maturity. Science and technology, under enlightened direction, are essential to health, prosperity, and security. In addition they both give you and me more freedom to be socially responsible citizens, to be good neighbors, to pursue the good life, to seek ways of making it unnecessary ever again to divert science away from its normal peaceful objectives.

I would also emphasize the need in America for superlative achievement in basic science, as distinct from applied science. Before the war a majority of the fundamental advances in science came from Europe, while we were content largely to apply and develop these fundamental concepts. America itself must develop the men who can make fundamental, creative contributions, and we must find the educational means of doing so. A special responsibility lies upon our institutes of technology not to neglect basic science. Not only do they need it as an essential partner of engineering; they need to cultivate science for its own special values, its disinterested search for truth, its creativeness, its readiness to acknowledge error and accept new ideas.

Our flourishing graduate schools are our surest means of furthering this objective. At M.I.T. one ventures the hope that we might make a further contribution by a more formal recognition and support of postdoctoral study.

This whole range of responsibilities for the public welfare which rests upon the team of science and engineering must guide us in all of our activities at this institution. We also believe that this team is made stronger by a third member, social science, including management, which has taken its place as a professional field in its own right at M.I.T. The combination of the engineer, the economist, the regional planner, the architect, and the sociologist provides a task force of exceptional power for the beneficent management of social forces. This combination of professions acting through industry and government can insure that science and technology work with maximum efficiency for social ends. We propose to maintain here at the institution an institute of technology creatively active in social technology.

Education for Social Responsibility

Second on my list of obligations to be met by an institute of technology is the obligation to achieve a better synthesis between professional education and general education.

In the second half of the twentieth century the need for the "large general cultivation" of which Rogers spoke will have a commanding urgency. No college, in a world of turmoil as we have today, can shirk the responsibility of preparing a man to be a citizen as well as to make a living. As we stand at the mid-century point, the responsibilities of the professional men, especially the scientists and the engineers, have a new and awesome measure.

The late Mr. Justice Holmes once pointed up this problem of the specialist when he argued that lawyers should be civilized. "Perhaps in America...we need specialists," he remarked, "even more than we do civilized men. Civilized men who are nothing else are a little apt to think that they cannot breathe the American atmosphere," he noted, but "if a man is a specialist, it is more desirable that he should also be civilized; that he should have laid in the outline of the other sciences as well as the light and shade of his own; that he should be reasonable and see things in their proportion. Nay, more, that he should be passionate as well as reasonable,—that he should be able not only to explain but to feel; that the ardor of intellectual pursuit should be relieved by the charms of art, should be succeeded by the joy of life become an end in itself."

To this prescription of Holmes for the professional man, we need to add another basic ingredient—that of a broader understanding of social forces—the new social mind called for by Henry Adams. The specialist must shun the view that is sometimes common that lopsidedness is laudable; he must be politically and morally responsible; he must test his actions by their human impact. I speak not only of the scientists and engineers but also of the lawyers and physicians and businessmen, specialists all.

The institutes of technology thus are not unique in having to meet these demands of the specialist-in-training. In the past two decades, the universities and liberal arts colleges have all been struggling with the need to provide a common core of studies which will contribute toward a man's effectiveness as an individual and as a citizen, regardless of his occupation. The old concept of the liberal arts as an ornament or as the prerogative of a special class has given way to programs in the humanities and social sciences helpful in developing a sense of values pertinent to the society in which we live.

In rounding out their programs, the liberal arts colleges have recognized the educational value of the discipline, rigor, and motivation inherent in the engineering curriculum, and they have sought to find equivalents. In turn the engineering colleges, while prizing and preserving these advantages, have been adopting into their curriculum more of the common core studies recognized in the liberal arts colleges. Thus the two programs have benefited one from another.

In 1944 a committee of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education published a notable report on "Engineering Education after the War." This report advocated that engineering schools devote at least twenty per cent of their undergraduate curricula to subjects in the humanities and the social sciences, and that these subjects be presented with as much vigor and integration as the professional subjects in engineering.

I submit that we must go further than this recommendation if we are to educate engineers of breadth and judgment—professional men who have the background, understanding, and public spirit to be leaders in their professions, their neighborhoods, and the nation. To be sure of educating such men, we must have the strongest possible program in general education to do the whole job. The teaching of our professional subjects must comprehend the broader view.

Night before last when I was returning with Mr. Churchill from the Garden to his hotel, he leaned over to me and said, "As you advance science at your great institution, don't neglect the humanities," and I told him, as I tell you today, that we have not and will not.

Along with more general education in the engineering curriculum, we should have less and less specialization in undergraduate engineering subjects, while at the same time preserving the motivation that comes from having specific courses of study, such as chemical engineering or civil engineering. What the engineering schools are trying to do is to push into the graduate years some of the more specialized work and to include in the undergraduate subjects a less empirical but more basic content of engineering science. Undergraduate engineering programs must provide a general education with the emphasis on science and engineering, rather than a specialized training with a gesture toward general education.

Education is to be found not only in the classroom and the laboratory but in the experience of living with one's fellows in an environment stimulating to intellectual activity and conducive to the development of community responsibility. We want to carry further the development of an environment at M.I.T. which performs in the broadest sense an educational function itself, not in a passive way but in a dynamic way. The whole concept of living facilities, activities, and atmosphere must be skillfully arranged to provide the kind of environment that contributes to the development of leadership, breadth, and standards of taste and judgment among our students—to give them the fullest possible opportunity to acquire, in a phrase of Sir Richard Livingstone's, a sense of the first-rate.

As we seek to broaden the education of the specialist, we must be careful to avoid overscheduling or overcramming him. Institutes of technology have always been proud of their reputation for requiring hard work of their students. I hope that they will not lose that reputation. But students need not only to meet rigorous requirements; they also need opportunities to reflect, to develop the intellectual maturity that comes only from the self-education under adequate stimulus. The students who are studying to be professional men need time to be resourceful, to develop judgment, to acquire a broad margin to their life. They need time to avoid what Veblen called "trained incapacity."

We must also be sure that the exceptional student has exceptional opportunities to proceed at his own pace and in his own way. Herbert Hoover has wisely observed that in our preoccupation in America with the common man we should not forget that our advancement depends upon the uncommon man. This is particularly true in education. We must find better ways of encouraging the exceptional student and the genius. We must provide a clear field for the fleet runner, for minds "forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone."

As Newton 's statue was to Wordsworth in the ancient Cambridge , I hope that M.I.T. may stand as a "marble index" of these minds.

I have spoken of the opportunity to think in terms of world needs in an institute of technology. This opportunity arises naturally out of the internationalism of science and out of the scientific tradition of unconditional coöperation among scholars. International amity has long been the hallmark of science, and I suggest this example can be a powerful agent in promoting peace among nations.

This internationalism has been taken up with enthusiasm by students. The summer program for foreign students which our own students here at M.I.T. initiated and managed so successfully last summer and which is now spreading across the country, is a fine example. You often hear that American students take no interest in shaping and influencing great affairs. The current student experiments in promoting international good-will stand as a shining refutation.

Here at M.I.T. we have students from fifty-three foreign countries. Ambitious youth from the world over are turning to American institutions to learn useful professions in an atmosphere benign to learning and to the spirit of world citizenship. We have in this spirit of our educational institutions an exportable commodity that can contribute importantly to world prosperity and to world amity. As we minister to these students from all over the world, we have a responsibility to offer them an education that is free of petty parochialism and that leads both to professional competence and to moral responsibility.

Preserving the Freedom of Private Institutions

Third, in my list of imperatives our privately endowed institutes of technology, along with all endowed universities, have an obligation to be free, both in financial support and in teaching.

The American people are faced with critical decisions regarding the support of their colleges and universities.

The endowed institutions are being squeezed by the effects of inflation on the one hand and the decline in investment income on the other. More disastrous than either of these is the decline in donations. Recent studies indicate that private contributions to our colleges per student enrolled, adjusted for changes in purchasing power, have been declining for a number of years, despite the fact that the total dollars contributed reached a maximum in 1948. The symptoms of this malady are crystal clear. The tuitions of our private colleges are being forced up and up, in some cases their standards are dropping. In an effort to increase investment income, the investment committees of a few are resorting to expedients which may endanger the whole tax-exempt principle.

The state institutions also have an acute problem. They must provide for a steadily increasing college population. The President's Commission on Higher Education advocates an enlargement of post-high-school study from its present total of 2,400,000 students to 4,600,000 students by 1960.

Whether or not we have so large an increase in the next decade, we must plan on providing increased opportunities for post-high-school studies; and publicly supported institutions, as the President's Commission concluded, must take most of the increase. Can they do this without Federal aid? The President's Commission did not think so. It advocated direct Federal subsidy to publicly supported institutions. On the assumption that the Federal Government could not subsidize private institutions without exercising control, the Commission would have all the direct Federal subsidy go to the state institutions. In the light of this conclusion, one is prompted to ask: Why also does not Federal subsidy of state institutions carry the threat of Federal control to those institutions?

In this situation lie the critical issues which must be met in the years ahead, and the wisdom with which we meet them may well determine the future effectiveness of our universities. May we in the colleges govern our approach to these issues by the best interests of our society and not by selfishly institutional considerations.

I do believe that our private institutions particularly have an obligation to keep themselves strong and independent, not for selfish reasons but for reasons of high educational policy. It has been said many times, but should be said again, that our public institutions benefit from the freedom, flexibility, and independence of the private institutions. The strength of our university system lies in its diversity and its lack of centralization. The destruction of the private institutions would help to destroy this diversity.

Our institutes of technology, because of their close relationship both to government and to industry, have a special obligation to maintain their independence. As a believer in free enterprise, I believe that free enterprise must help to maintain independent institutions. An institute of technology, serving and strengthening a prosperous economy, deserves enough support from free enterprise to insure its own independence—an independence that rests upon support so diversified that no encroachment upon the institution autonomy is possible.

If they are to remain strong, the privately endowed institutions must of necessity try to avoid covering the waterfront in their programs. They must concentrate their resources so that what they do is done well. This calls for more coöperation among institutions, and a willingness to allocate more and duplicate less in the field they cover. Already, some of our alert liberal arts colleges are beginning to exchange staff members and to pool teaching resources.

The future of the private institution also demands restraint in numbers of students admitted. They should not try to compete with the state-supported institutions in enrollments. They must have the courage to place quality above quantity, whenever they have to make that decision to recognize their special function as pace-setters in our educational system. Even so, they will need imagination and determination to compete.

Another obligation to be independent lies on all of our institutes of higher learning. In a period of armed truce, the fundamental principle of academic freedom is subject to stresses which we have not met before. One of the gravest dangers of the present cold war is the danger that it will force America to relinquish or distort or weaken some of its basic civil rights. I hope that this does not happen either to our country or to our colleges.

The university, more than any other institution, resolves the dichotomy between the individual and the institutionalized aspects of modern life. It is an environment where the dignity of man is more important than the pomp of organization. It is the sanctuary of the free mind, and the mind which is not free profanes it.

We must hope that the cold war may not diminish the opportunity to be free, either on the part of the educational institution or on the part of the scholar himself.

To curtail freedom in our institutes of technology would be to run counter to the spirit of science, which thrives best in an atmosphere of freedom practiced with responsibility—the responsibility of a company of scholars governing themselves.

I have suggested, in summary, that an institute of technology must function as a university polarized around science, engineering, and social technology. It has an inherent obligation to be of service to industry, to government, and to society generally. Its base must be a strong undergraduate school, working in partnership with a powerful graduate school. It has a continuing obligation to maintain the endless frontier of engineering and science.

To meet the present needs of society it has an obligation to educate men of professional competence who also have a cultural reach beyond the techniques of their professions. And to these obligations I have added the special obligation of the privately endowed institute to maintain its independence.

I have faith that we can accomplish these objectives at M.I.T.

Alfred North Whitehead once happily said that "education is discipline for the adventure of life; research is intellectual adventure; and the universities should be homes of adventure shared in common by young and old."

This is our goal. With an outstanding faculty of creative scholars and with a superbly able student body, there are no limits to the adventures we may share, here at M.I.T.

It is my hope that in the years ahead we may also achieve the imaginative administration and the noble environment to give our faculty and students opportunities to contribute their full potential to the prosperity and to the peace of the world.

In the faith that we can attain these ideals, we move confidently into the second half of the century.

Technology Review 51, May 1949, pp. 429-440.


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