I come to this lectern imbued with many—and varied—emotions and feelings. This position is, for me, the culmination of a lifetime of intimate association with this extraordinary institution. As student, alumnus, member of the faculty, and administrator, most of my adult life has centered on the surroundings of this courtyard. I stand here today as no stranger to you, and the Institute is a central part of my life. The dominant emotions I feel are those of profound respect and humility, for this place expects and deserves uncommon performance from those who are privileged to serve it.
With me on this platform today are the four men who have served as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the thirty years of my life here: Jim Killian, Jay Stratton, Howard Johnson, and Jerry Wiesner. I owe much to each of them, because of their legacies of devoted stewardship, and because of the support and encouragement they have given me. They have provided continuity and wisdom through many MIT generations—years which have seen enormous changes in the nature of science and technology, as well as in the character of the Institute. I am particularly indebted to Jerry Wiesner, with whom I have worked so closely during the years since he became president in 1971. His generous sharing of the accomplishments, and the problems, of his presidency has provided me with an extraordinary apprenticeship. Words fail, Jerry, to express my indebtedness to you.
My purpose in these remarks is to express my sense of the mission of MIT, particularly as we look to the challenges and the opportunities of the 1980s.
As MIT enters a new decade, it takes its place in a world whose prospects for peace and justice are uncertain—a world in which economic security, literacy, and health are not enjoyed by most people. With all of our progress, poverty is still the only prospect, and hunger a condition of life, for a shockingly large portion of the world's people. Even in the most advanced countries, such as our own, driving inflation and painful levels of unemployment strain the society and cast shadows on our dreams.
Here in the United States, in the midst of a presidential election year, there is a widely shared sense that many of the old values and ways are not appropriate to these times. And yet, the political process has not produced new paradigms for addressing the problems of our age. Some suggest that the political process itself, including the structure and the organization of our government, is unable to respond effectively to the complexity of our world and to the shrinking scales of time and distance.
Earlier in this century people looked to science and technology to light the path of progress. This is no longer the case. That early, and somewhat naive, optimism has been replaced by a skepticism and by an alarming decline in scientific literacy in this country. This decline reflects, in part, the difficulty of keeping up with fields which grow and change with astonishing speed. But there is also, among the public, an ignorance, wariness, and discomfort about most things scientific and technological. Such an attitude must be of great concern to us here, for we have an essential responsibility to make the case for science and technology in the service of humankind. MIT is—and should be—expected to provide leadership for improving the level of scientific literacy and for nurturing talent in—and for—today's world.
Probably the toughest questions we face today have to do with the social and political context of the decade ahead. I venture no political or economic predictions. My ability to divine the future complexion of our society and of our economy is no better than yours. There are no easy answers and there may be no sure path to finding any answers. There is one certainty however: The young men and women who entered the Institute as freshmen three weeks ago are the future. And our hope for a better world rests just as surely with them—and with what they learn here—as it does with the discoveries and advances in knowledge to which our faculty contribute. Our challenge, as we chart our future course, is to set our priorities and to forge educational and research programs that will bring that hope closer to reality.
Meeting this challenge requires, I believe, that we both preserve and transform MIT: We must preserve its historic intellectual focus and its insistence on excellence, and, at the same time, we must transform its programs to serve the needs of the future.
I would like to speak first of the special character and distinctive purpose we must preserve as our touchstone for the future. We are a science-based university which places special emphasis on education.
We must preserve our unswerving commitment to the quality and vigor of our core activities in engineering and science. We must do so in ways that respect the integrity of basic science; in ways that uphold the values of applied science and technology; and in ways that reflect and engage the social context in which science and technology occur.
We must preserve and continue to build strong programs in the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences. These dimensions of intellectual and creative experience are necessary to the definition of MIT as a university devoted to the broad reach of human inquiry. And they are essential to our providing a full and balanced education for our students.
We must preserve our emphasis on education. We have a responsibility to educate our students for civilized leadership as professionals and as citizens of the world. Our responsibility to them, and to the generations that will follow, is: to support them in the development of their intellectual powers; to help them shape their values and attitudes toward increased caring and compassion; and to encourage their personal growth as creative, sovereign human beings.
The emphasis on education, however, cannot be sustained without the research strength of the Institute. Our efforts to push out the frontiers of knowledge—to seek answers to the basic questions—are fundamental to the life of this institution. Research at MIT inspires, nourishes, and helps to organize all that occurs in this academic community. It provides the basis for graduate and postgraduate education and contributes in powerful ways to the development of the creative abilities of our undergraduates. The active involvement of students in research adds fresh perspective to the research enterprise. And it reminds us once again of the curiosity, the enthusiasm, and the stamina which provide the spark for innovation and achievement.
We must, therefore, preserve research and education as complementary activities on this campus. Indeed I would say that the blending of research and education defines MIT, and our future must continue to rely on their combined strengths.
I believe, therefore, that in contemplating any new research opportunity or program, we must ask, each time: How will it contribute to our capacity as an educational institution? What benefits or opportunities will it bring to future generations of students? And, in turn, we must ask: How will new educational programs challenge the imagination of the faculty—the men and women on whom we rely for institutional growth and renewal?
I would like now to discuss some ways in which we must transform MIT. There are, I believe, three related challenges which we must meet if MIT is to sustain its leadership and influence in the decade of the 1980s and beyond. In setting these challenges before you, I am not suggesting that change at MIT should be precipitous. But I do believe that we can—together—take the bold steps necessary to secure the Institute's future.
First: We must rededicate science and technology as socially powerful activities.
We continue to hear the complaint that the world has had too much of science and technology; that many of our human and social ills are the direct result of unanticipated and deleterious artifacts of technology, foisted upon the world by technicians with tunnel vision.
It is clear, however, that the future development not only of this nation, but of the world, is inexorably tied to continued scientific progress and to the humane and thoughtful applications of science. What is needed is not a retreat from science and technology, but a more complete science and technology.
We must strive to develop among ourselves, among our students, and in the public at large, an understanding of the fact that engineering and science are, by their very nature, humanistic enterprises.
Scientific inquiry is, at once, a most natural and highly refined expression of the human mind and spirit. It is derived from native curiosity about the nature of our world and about the universe, and it results in speculations and concepts which help to give meaning and order to that world. Engineering and technology are both natural and socially derived enterprises. They offer suggestions of agenda—on goals and priorities—for scientific inquiry. And, as Sir Eric Ashby noted two decades ago, engineering must engage with the daily process of living. In his remarkable essay entitled Technology and the Academics, he said:
... a student who can weave his technology into the fabric of society can claim to have a liberal education; a student who cannot weave his technology into the fabric of society cannot claim even to be a good technologist.
Ultimately, I believe, this inquiry and these enterprises must rest where they begin, with concern for the human condition.
The attention to the humanistic elements and the human consequences of all that we do must be broadly shared. For, not only do we need a more complete science and technology, but we need to understand—and to engage—the larger social, cultural, and historical domains of which they are a part. We must continue to be a sanctuary for the constructive criticism of the technological enterprise and of the larger society. These principles must be built into the academic programs of our students—both undergraduate and graduate—and they must be reflected in the lives and activities of all who choose to be a part of this institution.
The humanities, the arts, and the social sciences are essential to our efforts—as distinct intellectual disciplines, each with its own integrity, and as forces which develop a sense of time and place, encourage the arts of expression, and shape the values necessary to the complete education of our students.
Indeed, a second challenge we face has to do with education at MIT: We should review the character of the MIT educational experience, paying particular attention to the questions of pace, coherence, and intellectual impact.
The young women and men who come to the Institute as students are highly motivated, able people who are committed to high levels of achievement and intellectual effort. They join an environment in which sustained hard work is the norm, and in which sloth is the cardinal sin. The capacity and passion of our students for hard work reflect those qualities exemplified by the MIT faculty.
This union between committed, hard-working people and an institution in which hard work is a deeply ingrained ethos produces, all too often, a frenetic pace of life—a pace which is self-rewarding and mutually reinforcing. And not without its costs. Most undergraduates regularly register for a remarkable—some would say staggering—number of subjects. Many faculty undertake heavy burdens of outside professional commitments, which, when superimposed on their responsibilities to the Institute and on their personal family responsibilities—produce a load which numbs the mind—and the body. MIT reinforces these modes of behavior by rewarding those whose achievement is exceptional in a group where exceptional achievement is the norm.
Now, it would be foolhardy for me to argue, in front of this audience of true believers, against the virtues of hard work. Rather, should we not ask, from time to time, about the side effects of this high-pressure environment? And should we not consider the possible benefits of more time for contemplation, for pursuit of interests and activities outside the professional realm, and for developing friendships and a sense of community?
The pace of MIT contributes, I believe, to those centrifugal forces which weaken our shared central purpose and which impair the coherence of our educational programs. We must take care that we have the time and the commitment to educate the person—as well as the future professional in a specific field. If MIT is to achieve its potential as "a university polarized around science, engineering, and the arts," to use Dr. Killian's phrase, we must engage—in each new generation—in the task of redefining the meaning of a liberal education based on science. This task is central to our purpose and to our existence. We must face it head-on if we are to prepare young people for leadership in the world.
For it is in the college years that students should learn to examine the basic premises about self and society; to explore different ways of thinking, to develop independent judgment, to sample and to relate diverse intellectual styles and concepts. These explorations form the cornerstone of later personal and intellectual growth, and must not be bypassed in the interest of early specialization.
Our dedication to providing our students—particularly our undergraduates—with a full and balanced education is a major unifying force for this institution. And it is a force which would not exist if we were to concentrate solely on graduate education, or research, and on the advancement of the disciplines. The collective responsibility and commitment of the faculty to undergraduate education is, I believe, one of our most important and valuable assets.
It is not easy, however, for the faculty to maintain a collective resolve on this matter. The forces which pull us apart are strong, and some have been with us for a long time. For example, the increasing specialization of knowledge and the necessary development of strong disciplinary associations which transcend individual institutions inevitably impose limits on one's concern with internal institutional issues and with the holistic character of educational programs. Now the increasing complexity and runaway bureaucracy of the national system of research support limit the energy any one person can devote to institutional issues. It is important, I believe, for us to resist these forces of estrangement and to work hard to preserve a sense of community responsibility for, and participation in, the affairs of MIT.
This brings me to the third challenge which I set before you today: We should insist that issues centered on the human condition of the Institute be at the top of our agenda.
The effectiveness, the achievements, and the influence of the Institute in the past have come from people—the tens of thousands of individuals who have cast their lots with this place. The successes—all the great contributions—of this institution rest on the extraordinary quality and effectiveness of individuals, who through their love of excellence, their intellectual powers, and their commitment to the first-rate, have made the difference.
Of course, it should be the same in the future, and it will be. But it may be more difficult. The quality of life in the academic setting does not seem as enviable as in the past. The pressures of inflation on salaries, the enticing offers for scientific and engineering talent in the marketplace, the bureaucratic snares which characterize many of our relations with the government—all take their toll. And while we are not alone in this respect, we may be more vulnerable than most universities.
I believe that we must give special attention to enhancing those qualities of the Institute which make it a good and satisfying place to study and to work.
I am particularly concerned that we work to develop a community of the best faculty, students, and staff from as diverse a population as possible. For over a century, MIT has been a place where exceptional people from all walks of life come together to work and to study. As such, MIT has a responsibility to itself and to the nation to be open—and to reach out—to the most talented and promising people, regardless of race or sex.
I am convinced that our own processes of selection, admission, and appointment meet the test of fairness. Nevertheless, we have not met our own objectives for making our educational programs accessible to minorities and to women, or for expanding employment opportunities for them. Our disappointment is evident in enrollments, as well as in our record of employing women and minorities in professional capacities. We must, therefore, invent new ways of reaching those highly gifted people whose capabilities we have not fully tapped and whose talents we have not previously nurtured. The patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping in our society must be changed. And that change requires leadership from MIT.
It is our responsibility to help develop the full range of talent and potential in our society. Our success in meeting this goal can only be to our benefit—as an institution and as individuals. For a good deal of the learning at MIT occurs informally, and is based on the daily interactions among people of different backgrounds, experiences, and points of view. Certainly the international character of this community has enriched the Institute over a period of many years. I believe the social and intellectual endowment of MIT will be similarly enriched by growing numbers of women, and of Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. It should be our goal to make this a welcome environment for them, to attract them in growing numbers, to support their growth, and to benefit from their creativity.
For the sake of MIT, and for the world we help to build, we would do well to share the vision of Margaret Mead, articulated nearly 50 years ago, but no less relevant today:
If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.
I cherish a vision of a time and a place—our time and this place—where the richness and variety we seek in our community will become a reality. I ask all of you today to help make this our joint achievement—now.
While these, and other, challenges must be addressed in the years ahead, they represent, I believe, both great opportunities and cause for much optimism about that future. For each of these challenges is dedicated to a common goal: the creation of a more humane and a more complete intellectual mission, educational program, and sense of community at MIT.
Late in the summer, our family moved from Winchester to take up residence at the President's House on Memorial Drive. In a few long days (and short nights) we have begun to develop a keener appreciation of the tempo of life on campus. We have—all of us—been cheered and encouraged by the warmth of the welcome we have received, and we are delighted to be a part of this extraordinary community. We feel that we belong here. And we are ready to go to work with you.
MIT Office of the President Records, 1972-1990 (AC 180), box 102, folder 3.
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