Inaugural Address

Friday, September 21, 2012
As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon!

I want to thank you all for joining us as we celebrate a wonderful tradition: the installation of a new president. Your presence honors MIT: an institution strengthened throughout its history by the highest standards of excellence, integrity and service, and by its openness to people from around the world who share MIT’s remarkable culture of learning, discovery and innovation.

By witnessing today’s ceremony, you are stating your desire for MIT to continue to embody everything that is good and principled about higher education. I humbly recognize that I am just the steward of something much bigger than myself, and much bigger than all of us. I am the temporary guardian of an institution that means so much to so many, and, in that capacity, I sincerely thank you all for being here. I want to offer a special greeting to those present, or watching, who are among MIT’s 127,000 living alumni — the great, global force that lives out MIT’s values and mission in the world.

I also want to thank MIT’s three president emeriti — Paul Gray, Chuck Vest and Susan Hockfield — for recommitting us to MIT’s inspiring mission. They have each taught me important lessons in stewardship and aspiration. I want to thank President Faust for her remarks — although her warmth will make it difficult for us to maintain the façade of our carefully engineered institutional rivalry. Thank you, Drew, for your support and your enthusiasm for exploring new frontiers with us. As for the amazing John Harbison: That someone would compose such a wonderful piece of music in such a short time, and inspired by a presidential inaugural, is simply unbelievable! Thank you John, very much.

And I am deeply grateful to our many distinguished academic colleagues from all over the world for the privilege of their company this afternoon. We need you here, of course, to make the day seem properly serious and colorful.

However, I am also glad you joined us for another important reason. I believe that higher education has reached a historically important but difficult, crossroads — one full of opportunity, but also full of risk. Today, I will speak directly to the people of MIT about the road that I believe we should choose, as a community, and I hope that some of my observations may help clarify the challenges confronting higher education overall.

The world’s universities rank among humanity’s finest, most enduring and most productive inventions. By shaping minds and creating knowledge, they helped give birth to modern civilization. They have produced a rich understanding of nature and humanity. They have blessed us with science-based advances that have transformed daily life and elevated the human condition. And they serve as superb catalysts for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth.

Today, as the world faces grave problems around water and food, poverty and disease, energy and climate, society needs the creative force of its universities more than ever. Yet just when the world needs us the most, we find ourselves at the threshold of a historical transformation. This technological transformation has the potential to reshape the education landscape — and to challenge our very existence. In deciding how to respond, universities stand at a crossroads of risk and opportunity. I will speak first about the risks and challenges. But what I really want to focus on are the opportunities, so please, stay with me.

The idea of educational technology is not new, but today, it is newly serious and powerful. And it is coming on the scene at a moment when higher education is already struggling with the growing problem of cost. As you well know, many families find the sticker price of higher education unbearably high; that’s one painful dimension of the cost problem. But it may surprise you to learn that, at the same time, universities are straining to cover the actual cost of educating students. At a major private university like MIT, which centers on education through intensive, hands-on science and engineering research, we have to invest more than three times as much to educate our undergraduates as we receive in net tuition — that is, tuition minus financial aid. More than three times as much!

In the long run, this is not a sustainable financial model. Fortunately, at MIT, thanks to generations of generosity from our alumni and friends, we are still able to offer our undergraduates a world-class education, without requiring them to take on unacceptable debt. But of course, across the country, many institutions — and therefore many students — are not so fortunate. Yet the fact remains that to fulfill the mission of MIT, we must subsidize a deficit that no business could tolerate, a deficit that we may not be able to subsidize forever.

For MIT and for many of our peer institutions, this imbalance has presented an uncomfortable financial challenge for some time. But today, this financial challenge is building to a crisis point. Why? Because the landscape is suddenly alive with credible low-cost alternatives: relatively new educational technologies that are making it possible for a great many more individuals to learn high-level skills and content at a minimal price. This represents a great step forward for humanity, a step that we should all celebrate. I am deeply proud that MIT and its edX partners, Harvard and U.C. Berkeley, are helping to lead this revolution, higher education’s most profound technological transformation in more than 500 years.

However, while opening this floodgate of opportunity, these technologies may ultimately challenge the very existence of the current residential campus model — and that should concern all of us. Not because we like things the way they are. Not because we are proud of what universities have accomplished in the past. But because society continues to needwhat the residential research university does better than any other institution: Incubate brilliant young talent, and create the new knowledge and innovation that fuel our society.

Let me underscore this point: The research university is not an ornament or a luxury that society can choose to go without. The research university may be the most powerful source of leaders, ideas and economic growth that the world has ever known. A potential decline of the residential campus model, and of the research university in particular, may hurt society in ways that no one has begun to estimate.

As you can see, the risks are great. But I promised you that I would focus on the opportunities — and I believe the opportunities are even greater. The pressures of cost and the potential of new technologies are presenting all of us in higher education with a historic opportunity: the opportunity to better serve society by reinventing what we do and how we do it. It is an opportunity we must seize. Let me be clear: Of course we need to help today’s students by forcefully containing costs and continuing to seek new efficiencies. Of course we need to continue to raise money for financial aid. But history has assigned us an even larger challenge — a challenge that requires a solution of great boldness and scale.

This is a moment when the US, and, I would argue, the whole world, needs to educate more students —partly because we need them to help solve the challenges the world is facing, and partly because education is the most powerful social and economic equalizer. In fact, it should be the highest ambition of an advanced society to significantly lower the barriers of access to education. That is why I believe that, as institutions of higher education, we have an obligation to creatively exploit the power of these new technologies to make education more affordable, more accessible and more effective.

At the same time, we need to enrich and strengthen the model of the residential research university. We have a duty to explore ways in which these new technologies might make on-campus, in-person education even better — better at helping students develop their potential, magnify their creativity, extend their networks, achieve their dreams. Online technologies are good at teaching content, and they will get even better. The residential campus model is best at teaching the skills one learns through human interaction, such as how to compromise, inspire, persuade; how to build a life of high ethics and moral value; how to work creatively with people of different backgrounds; when, and how, to speak — and when, and how, to listen. The residential research university of the future should offer the best of both worlds, integrating the best ways to learn online with the best ways to learn in person.

Are there dangers? Of course. For example, we will need to make sure that the residential university of the future will be affordable and accessible. We must not promote a two-tiered system of residential education only for the rich and of online for everyone else. But I believe the creative possibilities that will flow from integrating the best of online and residential education are enormous. Recognizing these possibilities, we should not resist change; we should embrace change. The printing press did not weaken universities; it strengthened them. These are huge opportunities for higher education, and the stakes are high. This historic assignment is not optional. It is our shared duty to make sure the outcome serves humanity.

Now, let me turn to my dear MIT community — our faculty and students, post-docs and staff; our Corporation members, alumni and friends. I have defined what I view as the urgent challenges, and exciting opportunities, facing us and higher education overall. Higher education is about to engage in a great experiment. We all know that the consequences will be profound, for both education and research, but none of us knows how this story will end. We have two choices: to take part and try to shape it, or to watch from the sidelines as it evolves. The MIT I know loves challenges. The MIT I know solves the unsolvable, shapes the future, and serves our nation and the world. The MIT I know and love does not stand on the sidelines.

So what can MIT do? What should MIT do? We have already demonstrated our leadership in the latest educational technologies. MIT has a long history of seeking solutions to our own educational challenges and producing, in the process, advances that reverberate far beyond our campus. Given these strengths, we have a special responsibility to shed light on the grand educational questions of our time, to figure out how to take advantage of the opportunities, and to chart a sustainable path to the future. MIT should not just participate, but should help define the frontier.

We need to seek answers to fundamental questions: How can we blend new educational delivery methods with MIT’s traditional, hands-on, apprenticeship model to make residential education even more effective? Can we employ new educational technologies to offer our undergraduates an even more holistic educational experience — a deeper grounding in human society that will make all of us, students and educators, even more effective at practicing our disciplinary expertise? And can we learn enough about learning itself to actually lower the cost of residential education, while improving its quality? In other words, can these new technologies help us do what we do well — and do it even better? And can they help us do things we can only dream of doing today?

I want MIT to play a leadership role in seeking these answers — and I need your help. We should use MITx and edX to create the best online education possible, and we should actively seek ways to make that education affordable and accessible for hundreds of thousands of students, or more. At the same time, we should figure out how these technologies can strengthen the education we offer here on our own campus. In the great MIT spirit of learning by doing, we should use our entire campus community to invent the residential research university of the future, right here. I am determined to find the right way to address these large questions, and I will seek advice from across our community on how best to proceed. I know many faculty and staff members are eagerly involved in these explorations already. And I hope that our brilliant army of nearly 11,000 students will lend us their generational wisdom and fearless creativity.

In this new era of online education, MIT has already made a mark. My goal now is to position MIT, together with our partner institutions, as a creative hub: We should be a global source for insights into how these technologies can serve both our own universities and educational institutions everywhere.

We know that new educational technologies will change education, deeply and quickly. If we want the research university to thrive in this new landscape, we must make sure that its value is obvious to all, and I believe we should start with an energetic recommitment to MIT’s outstanding research enterprise. Now, let me talk about how we might approach that assignment in practice.

MIT’s mission statement charges us to “advance knowledge,” and bring it to “bear on the world’s great challenges,” as we “educate students” in service to humanity. Our faculty, post-docs, students and alumni live out this mission every day —and, remarkably often, they change the world. But even our incredibly successful researchers and innovators can use a little help now and then, and that is what the MIT administration is here for. So let me identify five important ways we will support and enable their work.

First, we must all be champions of basic research. In Norway, two weeks ago, I had the thrill of seeing the prestigious Kavli Prize awarded to three MIT researchers: Professor Millie Dresselhaus, Professor Ann Graybiel and Dr. Jane Luu from MIT Lincoln Laboratory. I have no doubt that the people of MIT will continue their passionate pursuit of curiosity-driven, fundamental research. This work is extremely important in and of itself because it expands the body of knowledge. But it also handsomely returns the investment to society, by enabling real-world solutions that we cannot begin to imagine. Unfortunately, these days, important segments of our society do not seem to fully appreciate this connection. But if a society gives up on basic research, it is giving up on its future. Let me say this again: If a society gives up on basic research, it is giving up on its future. So it will be my job — and our shared responsibility — to argue forcefully, effectively and publicly for retaining robust investment in fundamental research, and to remind ourselves, and our nation, of its importance and value.

Second, I am convinced that MIT must focus its strength on a number of historic opportunities to “bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.” From the Rad Lab, to Lincoln Lab, to the Energy Initiative and our countless partnerships with industry, MIT has proven the power of focusing brilliant, interdisciplinary teams on deeply difficult problems. Thanks to our “One MIT” and “One Faculty” organizational structure, the MIT community pursues this kind of problem-focused research with great success already, and I believe we should continue to do so, where the strengths of our five Schools allow MIT to make a unique contribution. I will ask our faculty, working with the provost, to identify those great global challenges, where — through coordinated, Institute-wide, mission-driven research, and through the power of innovation and entrepreneurship — MIT could make an inspiring difference. I could suggest examples — manufacturing, big data, health care, water, food, the environment — but I am much more interested in tapping the collective wisdom of our faculty, as well as that of our post-docs, students and staff, Corporation members, alumni and friends. Addressing these or other challenges effectively will require significant resources. So I will also ask the provost to explore where and how the administration could offer the most effective support.

Third, we must take new steps to support our culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. Thanks to the brilliant ideas and creative drive of our faculty, post-docs, students, staff and alumni, MIT already anchors a remarkable hotbed of innovation here in Cambridge and throughout the greater Boston region. More than 26,000 active MIT companies already employ 3.3 million people across the globe. With the right facilities, alliances and programs, identified by our faculty, we can build on that lead and continue to serve as one of the most powerful engines of innovation and entrepreneurship in the world.

Fourth, we must realize our full potential as a university with global impact. The humanity we serve stretches across the planet. And it is clear that we must prepare our students to succeed in a global economic environment. So it is extremely important that we continue our active engagement with the rest of the world. MIT’s network of global collaborations has expanded in the last few years. Led by our faculty, it will likely continue to grow — slowly, deliberately and strategically — in the next few years. It will be the duty of the administration to work with faculty leaders to make sure that, as we increase and strengthen our Institutional collaborations and collaborators, we fulfill MIT’s mission and build MIT’s strength for the future.

Fifth and finally, I will lead MIT to continue to make significant contributions in the area of race and diversity, equity and inclusion. From the findings of the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity, and the reports of the Institute Diversity Summit, we have many compelling suggestions for practical change. These include better ways to search for and mentor new talent, and to improve the orientation process for new members of our community. I am asking every member of the administration to work closely with me to make sure that our best practices become the norm across MIT.

Beyond such practical changes, I believe we still have some learning to do together, as a community. I know myself some of what it feels like to be different. I never experienced it at MIT, but I have experienced it. We must find new ways to make sure that everyone who earns a place here can feel — as so many of us already do — that MIT is their home.

The MIT that welcomed me 32 years ago was unlike anyplace I had ever seen. Meritocratic in principle, it welcomed talent from everywhere. Then as now, MIT radiated a spirit of openness, fairness and decency, from the commitment to need-blind admissions to the practice of not favoring legacy applicants. Later, MIT’s willingness to publicly acknowledge and correct inequities for women faculty made MIT a national model for progress. No one here at the time can forget how proud we felt to belong to MIT.

In terms of creating a true culture of inclusion, MIT remains a work in progress, but I believe we have the power to lead the way. My dream is that by the time MIT selects its 18th president, our diversity will no longer need to be a matter of presidential declarations, because it will be a welcome, obvious reality and a vital source of MIT’s creative strength.

I have big dreams and goals for MIT. I want us to help invent the future of higher education, and to use that wisdom to make our own brand of education even better. I want us to make substantial contributions to solving humanity’s great challenges and to helping America remember why it should always love basic research. I want the people of MIT to invent technologies that change the game and create companies that change the world. I want our students and faculty to continue to extend MIT’s reach and impact around the globe. And I want every single member of our community to feel at home at MIT.

Leading MIT to make significant contributions in all of these domains may appear ambitious – too ambitious. However, knowing MIT the way I do, I do not think it is ambitious at all. In fact, I am certain that MIT will accomplish much more in the next few years, some in areas that I outlined and some in areas that I cannot imagine today. The secret to leading a place like MIT is to learn what faculty and students want to do, and to help them find the resources to do it.

When I was first selected for this position, I promised you that I would listen to the community. I have begun that process, through meetings with faculty members, students, Corporation members and friends of MIT. Since I have been at MIT for more than three decades, you might think that there would not be much for me to learn about this place, but already, I have learned a great deal. Students have told me to remember that MIT is their home. Faculty members have reminded me of the importance of including them in conversations about the future of the campus. And everyone has urged me to make sure that MIT embodies the highest human ideals.

I plan to spend the fall having many more such conversations with different members of our community, including our host city of Cambridge. I promise you: keep teaching me, and I will keep listening and learning. All I ask, in return, is the following: continue to be open-minded, understanding and collegial — about your views, and toward each other. MIT cherishes values and principles, so continue to pursue your commitment to meritocracy, integrity, and excellence; to be actively caring and respectful; and to always take the high road. And of our faculty: I ask you to continue your almost sacred commitment to our students, for whom each of you is a role model and an inspiration. 

I still have a great deal to learn about the task of leadership, and I have been blessed with remarkable teachers. I have worked at the Institute under four MIT presidents. Three — Paul Gray, Chuck Vest and Susan Hockfield — have already provided me with superb advice on many subjects, and I know I will continue to seek and benefit from their wisdom. And I will always be grateful to Susan for the opportunity to serve as MIT provost in her administration.

The fourth of my MIT presidents was the first one I encountered — the late Jerry Wiesner. He was coming to the end of his presidency as I joined the faculty — and I find now that he, too, has been advising me through his legacy. Every MIT president has brought a unique perspective and personality to the Institute, exactly what was needed at the time. History is recognizing Jerry Wiesner as a visionary president. He is remembered for his fascination with improving education, his humanistic breadth, his warmth, his deep human sympathy and his intense need to look at every angle of an issue. As I seek the best path forward for today’s MIT, I hope to be inspired by him as well — although my wife has already made it clear that, no matter how charming it looked on Jerry, for me, smoking a pipe will be absolutely out of the question.

I want to conclude by celebrating and thanking the good people of this world, while at the same time honoring a most important couple in my life. Each of you listening may recognize a couple like them in your own family, the kind of couple that dreams of a better life for their children. The couple in my story left Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, during one of the darkest periods in its history, and found refuge in South America. This couple raised four sons under extremely difficult circumstances, but raised them with principles, with integrity and values, taught them neither rancor nor hatred, taught them understanding and respect for different points of view, and taught them the value of education and hard work. Out of the goodness of good people, this couple escaped direct catastrophe to eventually see their children have a better life than that they had. Today, I want to honor everyone who is struggling and who dreams of a brighter future for their children, and to tell each of them that there is hope — because the youngest son of the couple in my story eventually became the 17th president of one of the most remarkable educational institutions the world has ever seen.

Let me now close by telling our faculty: I come from you, and I am one of you. We share the same principles and values. To our students: I know that MIT is your home; for my wife, Chris, and me, it is now also our home. To our staff: thank you for the vital work you do that gives MIT the power to serve the nation and the world. To our Corporation and alumni, and to our many friends: thank you for your support, shared commitment and high expectations. We want you to be proud of us. In short, to all the members of the remarkable MIT community: we are all in this great enterprise together. We have a great deal to accomplish, and the world is waiting. So let’s get started.