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The Inaugural Address

Julius Adams Stratton
Eleventh President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
June 15, 1959

Julius Adams Stratton

There is, in my own academic world, no higher honor to which I might aspire. To this honor, I add the privilege of following in the path of a friend and col­league of long standing for whom I hold the utmost affec­tion and respect. There is no one who has had a better opportunity--or more occasion--than I to observe at first hand the tireless energy and devotion with which Dr. Killian has worked for M.I.T. and the enormous contribution that he has made to our country, and I respond with the assurance that the prospect of this con­tinuing and intimate association in a common cause fills me, too, with enthusiasm for the task and confidence in its success.

I, myself, come to you this morning as no stranger. First as a student, then through the ranks of the faculty, the productive years of my life have been interwoven with the hopes and progress of M.I.T. These years have given to me a sense of the past--a deep respect for those who have gone before, an appreciation of the thought, the energy, and the devotion that have brought to this institution of ours the high esteem it now enjoys.

But with this regard for the past, I have come to cherish an even brighter vision of the future. M.I.T. is a product of our age. By its aims, its methods, and its ideals it is keyed to the needs and problems of the con­temporary world. Today, more than ever, the measure of our greatness will be determined by our capacity to educate for leadership.

The challenge of contributing to such high purpose inspires one to rise above all personal limitations, to ap­proach the task not only with humility and understand­ing but also with courage and a venturous spirit.

Just fifty years ago, almost to the day, across the Charles, M.I.T. inaugurated its sixth president. Those who listened to Richard Maclaurin on that seventh of June, 1909--and some are here today--must have been conscious of the stupendous changes that had begun to envelop their world. The Victorian Age was past, and gone with it was a certain stability in many of the affairs of men. Here in the United States especially there was evidence on every hand of expanding material progress, of a rapid rise in the wealth and prosperity of the countrv. We had become a world power, and Americans were pervaded by a spirit of confidence and optimism.

At that same time it was becoming increasingly clear that science and technology were the powerful accelerating forces of our advancement. It is extraordinary, as one looks back, to see what a multitude of the inventions that have come to symbolize this modern age were introduced into common use in the first decade of the twentieth cen­tury. Just the year before the inauguration of Dr. Mac­laurin, the United States government signed its first air­plane contract. For the sum of $25,000, the Wright Brothers agreed to deliver an airplane able "to attain a speed of forty miles per hour, to sustain flight for one hour, and with the ability to land undamaged." In that same year, Henry Ford introduced his Model "T" car, and wireless telegraphy had developed to the point that the Marconi Company could open its trans-Atlantic ser­vice to the general public.

While any catalogue of the inventions and industrial developments of the early 1900's is impressive, the dis­coveries of science in that remarkable first decade were, if anything, more prophetic of the future than the ad­vances of technology. Physics in particular broke free from its classical mold with the first formulation of the quantum theory of radiation, of the special theory of relativity, and of our ideas on the radioactive decay of the elements. Thus the opening of our century marked one of the great intellectual revolutions of history.

Yet in 1909 this new world was very new indeed, and I can hardly believe that anyone in Dr. Maclaurin's audience could have foreseen the fantastic progress of the next fifty years. Today, one travels from Boston to Los Angeles in five and one-half hours instead of five and one­half days. Networks of communication carry our voices, and soon our images, to every corner of the globe. Nuclear reactors and digital computers have become tools of in­dustry and commerce as well as of research. And space, once the lonely outpost of science fiction, is now a new frontier. In short, great engineering and technical de­velopments have advanced our capabilities on many fronts by many orders of magnitude.

Man has made comparable gains in every field of pure science. Day by day we penetrate deeper into the ultimate mysteries of the nucleus and of the universe. We have created elements and synthesized complex mole­cules, including biochemical ones. We have developed great experimental tools like particle accelerators and radio telescopes. We can work at the edge of absolute zero, and through thermonuclear fusion we have begun to reproduce conditions that prevail within the suns. Within our lifetime, many of the dread diseases which had afflicted mankind throughout his history have yielded to modern medical science.

But these are only the peaks of great discovery and invention, and their brilliance should not blind us to the massiveness of the developments upon which they rest. Indeed, the advances of science and engineering have come to affect every aspect of our lives. They are changing the patterns of our culture and the form of our cities. They are permeating finance and commerce and shaping the issues of domestic and foreign policy.

Only as we pause to take account do we discern how far the process of change has carried us and with what gathering momentum we are being swept forward. Yet in spite of all this apparent progress, we can hardly view the future with unalloyed optimism. We have enjoyed an enormous enhancement of material power and wealth in the United States but have notably failed to resolve some of the most urgent social problems within; and we are challenged from without both economically and po­litically for our very survival. Our hope for a resolution of these problems will depend upon our wisdom and upon our command of the forces we have set in motion.

The basic question is, can we in fact control our destiny? I myself have faith that with intelligence and determination we can. Although I recognize full well that our course as Americans cannot be pursued in isola­tion from that of the other peoples of the world, none­theless I am convinced that at this juncture in history the success of our own efforts will rest largely in two courses of action, both rooted in education.

First, we must understand that our future economic health, quite as much as our military security, will be governed by our capacity to maintain technological su­periority. We have no alternative and must bend all our energies to maintain the advance of science and to expand its frontiers. An inner thirst for knowledge and understanding draws men to research; but it is incum­bent upon the universities, upon industry, and upon government to provide a soil and climate in which re­search may flourish.

Second, in our concern for external security we must not ignore a wide range of urgent and difficult social problems created by the technological revolution itself--problems associated with the growth of our cities and population, the interrelation of men and machines, the production and distribution of food, and the increase of leisure--to name but a few. In their form, if not wholly in their substance, these are new problems, and the men and women who will deal with them most effectively must have a new kind of education.

It is in this context of national necessity that M.I.T. must examine its role.

Very nearly one hundred years have gone by since the founding of the Institute. On this Alumni Day one may look back with great admiration on the part that M.I.T. has played over the century in developing the industrial power of our country. From our alumni have come men who have helped to construct the highways, the bridges, the great cities. From the earth they have taken the oil and the minerals. They have built and managed great industries. They have been among the foremost leaders of a vast and growing research and de­velopment effort in the nation. To a multitude of pro­fessions they have brought a mastery of the methods of science and engineering.

As we recall these accomplishments, it is appropriate to recall also that this institution was created by William Barton Rogers as an expression of faith in certain new concepts of professional. education and that from the very outset our academic policies have been directed by a few central ideas. In essence, Rogers maintained that there is dignity and importance in the mastery of useful knowledge; that the foundations of a professional life may profitably be laid in the undergraduate years, combining with and contributing to a liberal education, to the enrichment of both; and that science and en­gineering can be the legitimate foundations of a higher education.

M.I.T. has been built upon these convictions. Their essential worth is amply proved by the contributions of our graduates over the years, both at home and abroad. I think it well on this occasion that I reaffirm my own confidence in the basic soundness of these principles.

Yet the course upon which they must now guide us leads into a future that will be totally unlike the world of Rogers or even of Maclaurin. M.I.T. must adapt itself to the needs of a changing epoch. It must assume new roles and accept new responsibilities.

As we lift our eyes to ever higher horizons, it must be with the clear understanding that no task is presently more urgent than the education of youth. The greatest contributions that M.I.T. can possibly make to the com­mon good will be made through those young men and women who will have shared with us for a period the experience of striving and learning. Everything we do, whether for the advancement of knowledge or in the interest of public service, should be viewed in the larger context of our teaching mission. The highest goal to which a university may aspire is that its sons and daugh­ters shall be leaders in art and science and that their influence shall be brought powerfully to bear for the welfare of mankind.

With this affirmation of purpose, I come now to certain thoughts upon the quality of education at M.I.T. and the directions in which we should guide our efforts. There are, in my view, three areas that particularly merit our attention.

First, I think that we must strive to develop more effectively the creative, imaginative, constructive powers of our students.

Second, we must bring about a more productive integration of the humanities and social sciences with the physical sciences and engineering.

And third, I am convinced that we must endeavor to impart to our students a better understanding of the professional estate and of the values it implies.

Let me elaborate upon these three aims in a little more detail.

Throughout the entire history of the Institute, much of the strength of our educational plan has been derived from the rigor and thoroughness of our method. From the day he enters as a freshman, the undergraduate learns to work in depth and to be held accountable for the results. He learns also to work under pressure and to marshal and employ his knowledge under test. From this discipline and mastery of fundamentals comes an intellec­tual self-reliance that will stand him in good stead.

We wish in no way to lessen this rigor. But the acquisition of accumulated facts and the formal instruc­tion of lectures and classroom are properly only part of the educational process. The intellectual discipline of tests and problems must be supplemented and enlivened by other forces that will arouse and stimulate the im­pulses of originality latent in every student.

Some of you may have been fortunate enough to hear Dr. Edwin H. Land speak eloquently on this sub­ject two years ago in Kresge Auditorium. He expressed the conviction that "the freshmen entering our American universities have a potential for greatness which we have not learned to develop fully by the kind of education we have brought to this generation from the generations of the past."

It seems to me that it is in the context of these ideas that research takes on its full and proper meaning in the university. By its very nature, research demands originality in thought and action; and it is in research that each student, as well as each member of the faculty, can find an outlet for his creative interest and energy and can share in the intellectual excitement of new dis­coveries. Consequently, university research serves but half its purpose if it becomes remote and isolated from the students themselves.

Of course, I understand that only at the graduate level does a student normally begin to participate effec­tively in research. I am also well aware of the practical difficulties of undergraduate involvement in advanced work. But I do believe that the spirit of originality and independence of thought that permeates our superb laboratories should begin to influence our students from the time of their arrival. Whether an undergraduate himself produces a piece of work of any novelty is of little moment. What is important is that we stir his imagination, encourage him to break free from the chan­nels of conventional thought, and teach him how to bring to bear upon his problems the facts and methods acquired in the classroom.

As I express these ideas, it is with the conviction that they apply with particular force to engineering educa­tion. Lately, engineering has been pushing its roots deeper and deeper into all areas of science and mathe­matics. This has been a necessary and, indeed, inevitable trend. But we must remember that engineering is art as well as science.

From his earliest history, man has been driven to build and to do, and the fulfillment of this urge finds its highest expression in the work of the engineer. The engineer is concerned with making and with producing, with converting the yields of pure science to useful prod­ucts and services. His function is to adapt knowledge to beneficial ends, to find ways and means of solving the practical problems of human existence. There is, there­fore, in the education of the engineer the most compelling reason to develop by all possible means the creative and constructive powers of the student. The achievement of this goal is one of the great challenges and opportun­ities in education today.

I come now to my second objective. The contributions that the humanities and social sciences have to make to the education of the scientist and engineer have been clearly established. Over the past decade, under the leadership of Dr. Killian and Dean Burchard, the Institute has won wide recognition for the support that has been given to these more liberal aspects of our cur­riculum. I think it important to say that I, too, am convinced of the wisdom of this course. I also believe that we must now strive to integrate the teaching and research in these areas even more closely with the larger interests of the Institute.

The range of our professional activities at M.I.T. has for some time been steadily widening. We are con­cerned not alone with science and engineering for their own sake but increasingly with fields on which science and engineering have a direct impact in contemporary society. In addition to the obviously related field of economics, we are becoming increasingly active in such areas as psychology, political science, and other social sciences. Our Center for International Studies, and in­deed the School of Industrial Management, also fall into this category. This growth is both desirable and inevi­table.

However, I feel that our efforts in these new fields will be most fruitful if we are able to capitalize to a greater extent upon our special resources as an institute of technology. In fact, the justification of our excursions into these new areas is that they express a natural ex­tension of the central purpose of M.I.T. Although I am satisfied that notable steps have been taken towards meeting these criteria, much more can be done to bring about a freer and more mutually profitable interchange between students and faculty in the several schools.

And now thirdly and briefly, we should remind our­selves that M.I.T. is a professional school, and as such we have an obligation to impart to our students an under­standing of both the privileges and responsibilities in­herent in the professional estate.

What in fact constitutes a profession?

In the sense that I am speaking, all the professions share certain qualities in common that set them apart from the other occupations of men. Each, of course, is centered upon a particular field of learning. Each makes high demands upon the intellect and requires a mastery of special techniques. But it is an attitude that distin­guishes the professions rather than their particular con­tent. Above and beyond all technical competence, the truly professional man must be imbued with a sense of responsibility to employer and client, a high code of personal ethics, and a feeling of obligation to contribute to the public good.

As a great educational institution, we shall fall short of our mission if we fall to inspire in our students a con­cern for things of the spirit as well as of the mind. By precept and example, we must convey to them a respect for moral values, a sense of the duties of citizenship, a feeling for taste and style, and the capacity to recognize and enjoy the first-rate.

I have ventured this morning to emphasize once again how the extraordinary advances of science and engineering have brought to our contemporary world both new problems and new opportunities. Whatever their solution may be, we shall in dealing with them have to draw heavily upon our resources in education. Because of its character, its traditions, and its achieve­ments, M.I.T. has a major role to play.

Somewhere in his writings, Charles W. Eliot, who was later to become President of Harvard University, remarked that when truly American universities ap­peared, they would be indigenous to our soil and relevant to our time and would grow out of national need. I can think of no better way of summing up the essential char­acter and spirit of M.I.T.

As I come now to the end of my remarks, there are a few final thoughts that I should like to share with you upon the nature and the responsibilities of the office that I have just assumed.

A university is an extraordinarily complex organism. It works in many fields of scholarship. It encompasses a wide range of operations involving teaching, research, and--in these days--government contracts. It has ob­ligations to a varied constituency--students, faculty, alumni, and trustees. A university must be administered. As in any great enterprise, there must be a source of prompt, clear-cut decisions and an orderly handling of administrative affairs.

But good administration, indispensable as it is, is only the beginning. It has been said countless times that the faculty is the university. Upon the president himself rests the responsibility of creating and maintaining a climate in which both learning and teaching may flourish. This means an intellectual environment in which im­aginations are stirred, which fosters confidence that worth-while things can be done, and where feelings of freedom and security go hand in hand with a sense of obligation and loyalty. In such a favorable climate, presi­dent and faculty work together in harmony and share the excitement of planning and building.

But there remains to the president one more func­tion of leadership. In the perpetual debate of ideas that is the essence of a university, he must be more than a referee. He must himself be prepared to take positions on matters of educational import. Above all, he must be able to formulate his aims and make clear what he proposes to achieve. And in all these things he must be guided constantly by a vision of the highest goals of his institution.

To this charge I pledge my whole endeavor.

Technology Review 61, July 1959, pp. 475-479.

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