Remarks During the Penn Global 10th Anniversary Conference

Friday, March 17, 2023

I am delighted to join this conference in honor of Penn Global’s 10th anniversary. And my message to all of you is, please keep on going.

The world greatly benefits when its greatest universities build bridges across cultures, including the cultures of nations with very different political systems. The benefits are many, including the opportunity to understand and learn from each other—while we all work to advance our collective knowledge, solve common problems, and educate our young people.

Admittedly, it is a very difficult moment to engage in such bridge-building. The world is more dangerous now than it seemed a decade or two ago—when policymakers in the United States and Europe believed that increasing trade would slowly but surely liberalize authoritarian governments—or, at a minimum, turn them into rules-abiding members of the international community. 

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasingly threatening posture, such a view is no longer plausible. Globalization is in retreat, fragmentation is on the rise, and many countries are now focused on self-sufficiency, i.e., the opposite of globalization.

 The field on which the world’s economic and national security concerns are playing out is, of course, advanced science and technologies—many of which are first envisioned in university laboratories. In the United States, we have seen a number of federal policies in recent years that say plainly, we don’t want unfriendly nations to beat us with our own technologies.

Clearly, our universities cannot support collaborations that could help other nations use advanced technologies against the United States—or against their own citizens. 

So, in making and maintaining international engagements within this changing world, we cannot simply go about business as usual. In order to preserve what is best about collaborating globally, we need to keep one eye on the risks, and one on the possibilities. 

Please allow me to tell you how MIT has tried to navigate these choppy waters. 

I will begin with the form of global engagement where the risks are smallest and the benefits most outsized—that of educating young people from around the world, whether we bring them to our campuses as students, or help to raise the level of educational opportunity in other countries.  

As is often noted, the ability of American universities to attract the best talent from all the world is key to our success—and a key asset of the United States.

Yet, these days I sometimes hear the question, why would MIT even want to educate the human capital of unfriendly nations?  

On balance, educating international talent, including that of unfriendly nations, has been overwhelmingly beneficial to the United States. At MIT, 40% of our graduate students are international, and they make enormous contributions in our research laboratories.  

This is true nationwide. And the overwhelming majority of the international doctoral students we educate try their best to stay in the United States after getting their degrees. In 2017, 90 percent of the STEM students from China who’d earned doctoral degrees in the United States between 2000 and 2015 were still in the United States. Instead of contributing their considerable talents to their home country, they preferred to contribute to ours. 

Unfortunately, as a country, we have been undermining ourselves with a new hostility to international students in recent years. This has been expressed in many ways, including with a travel ban that affected students from Muslim-majority nations and a proclamation that denies visas to many Chinese graduate students. With these actions, we are telling thousands of brilliant students to stay home.  Or to go elsewhere.

And while there is much disagreement in the United States on immigration policy in general—there is general agreement that it is merely common sense to make it as easy as possible for international students who earn advanced degrees in STEM fields to stay here and work here. Although I know the odds are long—I am hoping such reforms are enacted in the near future. 

What if the students we educate don’t stay, and instead return home to help our geopolitical rivals build their own capabilities? 

Well, educated young people are the only hope for social progress in countries that oppress their own people today, and they will return home with the perspectives gained on our campuses. If the United States has not succeeded in spreading freedom and openness through trade—education may be the superior vehicle.

Of course, I can share a piece of my own story to help you understand why I consider the United States’ educational largesse so important. I was born in Venezuela, the child of Eastern European Jewish parents who fled the Nazis. In the early 1970s, I was studying at the Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela. 

At my university, there was a single copy in the library of a textbook called Electric Machinery, written by two MIT faculty members. The engineering students would pass it around and share.  We were too poor to buy our own copies.

Since I didn’t speak English, I could barely understand the text. But I could work through the equations. And I took some very important information from that book: That there was a place called MIT that seemed to be a kind of nirvana, where people created knowledge and shared it with the rest of the world. It made a strong impression on me.

My own experience encouraged me to imagine how much more empowering it would be, if students from around the world could actually learn directly from an MIT professor—or any other world expert—alongside thousands of other students. 

It is one thing to study from an MIT textbook and do well in a test you are taking with your classroom peers—but it is a much different story when you do well compared to thousands of students worldwide, learning at the same time and in the same way.

MIT was already releasing its course content online through an initiative called OpenCourseWare—at no cost to anyone hungry for such knowledge. I wanted to make that course content not just available, but also tutorial and interactive—i.e., easier to learn from. 

So, we founded MITx to offer something closer to the MIT experience. Then we joined forces with Harvard in the spring of 2012 to create edX, an open-source learning platform to offer free college courses from a number of institutions. Clearly, this was not a unique idea: Penn was a founding member of the Coursera platform—which now has reached over 100 million learners around the globe.

People all over the world should be given the opportunity to receive an excellent education, because it is the surest path to a better, more fulfilled, and more meaningful life. And it is the surest path to a better, more prosperous, more understanding society and world—a common good that we can and should share everywhere we can.


Other kinds of global engagements, including collaborations in research and institutional partnerships, demand more circumspection.

 Without question, the actions and intentions of some foreign nations run counter to peace and human rights. MIT, unfortunately, has had to terminate relationships for these reasons.  

For example, we had an institutional relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that began in 2007, when I was MIT provost. MIT faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering had begun working with the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) on projects such as solar energy and seawater desalination, which led to the creation of a joint Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy. 

Because KFUPM was entirely male at that time, we conditioned this engagement on the creation of a path to scientific education for women—using our relationship to contribute to social progress in Saudi Arabia. The result was the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship, which brings Saudi women postdocs to MIT—a fellowship that continues to this day.

In late 2018, however, we hit a crisis point with the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It brought to a head the MIT community’s unease with the Saudi regime’s history of human rights violations and treatment of women, as well as its conduct in Yemen

MIT took two key steps: First, we utterly condemned the Saudi regime’s abuses. If we had done any less, our ongoing projects would have appeared to be a tacit endorsement of state-sponsored brutality.

Then we accelerated an effort that was already underway to make our own review of major international commitments much more systematic. We elevated our faculty-led International Advisory Committee to a standing committee that vets all large, institutional-scale international engagements. We created an International Coordinating Committee to assess all proposed projects involving Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, as well as other projects that may have special risks—and we tasked a senior risk group with addressing the most challenging cases. 

With this process—and the concurrence of the principal investigators involved—engagements deemed too close to the Saudi regime were not renewed. 

In the case of Russia—in 2011, we were invited by the Russian government to help develop, on the outskirts of Moscow, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, now known as Skoltech. After consulting the U.S. State Department, MIT began working with our colleagues in Russia to launch what became a vibrant graduate university with first-rate faculty and students. 

However, within a day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we concluded that we had to terminate MIT’s involvement with Skoltech, and by extension, the Russian government.

While many members of our community saw ending MIT’s exchanges with Saudi Arabia and Russia as self-evident, the only possible choice—to me, these were more anguished decisions, unavoidable steps nonetheless taken with sadness.  

During our engagements, I had the privilege of getting to know many Saudi and Russian citizens. Their commitment to open science and scholarship—and to research and education as tools of progress—has been a piercing reminder that individuals are not their governments. Even as we take the necessary actions against their governments, we must accord our colleagues in these nations respect. They can be a force for good, they need and want our help, and we help ourselves, and the world, by helping them.  We are all interconnected. 

So, as MIT considers the particular risks involved in each international engagement—we also ask the important question: “What do we risk by not engaging?”

As a country, if our universities choose not to engage globally, we risk understanding much less about where the rest of the world stands—and not just in terms of technology development, but also in terms of other peoples’ goals and aspirations.

Some of MIT’s bridge-building efforts in countries with different political environments from ours have been extremely successful. For example, we have worked well with and in Singapore for close to 25 years, by being careful about whom we work with—and what we work on.

In 2007, MIT joined forces with the National Research Foundation of Singapore to establish our first research center outside the United States, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, or SMART. Then in 2010, MIT began a collaboration that helped to launch the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). Our faculty drew up much of the blueprint for its curriculum, and student and faculty exchanges between MIT and SUTD brought that curriculum to life, while enriching our own curriculum.

We have sometimes been criticized for such university-building. Why would we want to help other nations create their own MITs? 

There are so many reasons to help.

Given our enormous resources, I view us—the U.S. and MIT—as the mother ship. As we help other countries build their academic capacity, we not only learn from their evolution, but we also improve ourselves in the process.  We improve partly thanks to collaboration, and perhaps even competition—but also partly due to our increased ability to attract great talent from these universities and nations to MIT and to the U.S. 

And by encouraging other nations to advance academically and become more capable of addressing global challenges such as climate change and preventing the next pandemic—we collectively make progress faster. Altogether, humanity advances. 

Let’s also keep in mind that while challenges such as climate change affect the whole planet—very often the solutions are local. So, we need local talent engaged around the world, as well as the academic infrastructure that enables such engagement.


By far, the most challenging case for American universities is that of China—first, for reasons of geopolitics and national security. 

China aspires to rival the United States in economic, diplomatic, and military power—and to develop a new world order that promotes different principles from the world order the U.S. and its allies have built since World War II. Our government now expects more caution when American universities engage with Chinese institutions, believing they may target our research to gain advantage. 

The second reason China challenges American universities is the sheer volume of engagements. China is by far America’s greatest partner in science and engineering collaborations, and by one measure, now produces more highly cited research than the United States. So, putting blanket limitations on collaborating with our Chinese peers would mean limiting our own progress.

With growing pressures in both countries to construct higher barriers to research and educational exchanges, we recognized that MIT needed to develop a new China strategy. 

We commissioned a group led by Dr. Richard Lester, our Associate Provost for International Activities, and Dr. Lily Tsai, our Chair of the Faculty, to advise us on that strategy, and they finalized their report, University Engagement with China: An MIT Approach, last  October. MIT is now implementing its recommendations. 

The goal of the report was to find a balance between gaining the benefits of scientific and educational collaboration—and avoiding undermining U.S. national or economic security, or human rights in China. The report lays out principles and procedures, but constant evaluation and recalibration are necessary.

If we hit the right balance, we will safeguard open scientific research, open exchange, and the free flow of ideas and people—while recognizing that, when we are dealing with an authoritarian government, even the goodwill of individual researchers does not guarantee a good outcome.

Since most engagements with China are initiated by our faculty, the report is particularly important in offering principal investigators clarification on what activities can and should be undertaken—as well as those that should not.  

Sometimes, however, when it comes to China, the government from which we must protect our faculty is our own.

In 2018 the Justice Department launched what it called “The China Initiative” to address the theft of sensitive data and technologies by people connected to the Chinese government. Many members of the MIT community felt stigmatized in these investigations because they were born in China or were of Chinese descent. Add to this a wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic, and the result was a sense of fear and anxiety among people whose talents we had long welcomed.

At MIT, this quickly became personal, as one of our colleagues, Professor Gang Chen, an expert in heat transfer, was arrested. We had faith in him from the beginning, and the case against him was ultimately dismissed by the Department of Justice itself. Many such “research integrity” cases at universities were dropped or dismissed.

With help from your faculty here at Penn—the Department of Justice has since recognized the unfairness of the China Initiative name, which suggests that there is a lower threshold for prosecution for people with Chinese ties or heritage—and retired it.  We have a lot to thank you for. 

But the effects still linger, with researchers such as Professor Chen who were wrongly accused now much more cautious in what they research, whether they seek federal funding, and which students and collaborators they take on—costing our national science and technology enterprise.

It is a great relief that NSF is now working with universities to share more pointed information on which Chinese institutions and fields of study may be problematic.  And it is a relief that it is working with the other major federal funding agencies and universities including Penn to develop security training for the entire American research community—so that we all share a common understanding of where the lines are. 

MIT has a long history of contributing to national security, including developing the radar technology that helped the Allies win World War II. In the realm of classified research, we have managed the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, funded by the Department of Defense, where we advance technologies for national security, since 1951. We are keenly aware of research security risks. 

All universities must consider these risks. And, clearly, the United States government must take action on defined threats. But it is up to us to protect academic cooperation that poses no defined threat. 

On this small planet of ours, we cannot do, and we should not do, without the open-mindedness, patience, and understanding generated by joint academic research and problem-solving. I have seen it at MIT, and I am sure you have seen it at Penn: Faculty and students from countries with long-standing animosities—once they begin working together for a higher cause—overcome their cultural biases and learn to respect each other as peers.

Even during the height of the Cold War, the United States saw that it was in our interest to cooperate with the Soviet Union on some scientific endeavors

Everywhere possible, whenever working together promises to achieve more and faster than working alone, we should welcome mutually beneficial collaborations with our colleagues in other nations.


I have been talking about bringing people together, but we clearly live in a world that is being fragmented. 

On both the domestic and the international front, there is too much us versus them. There is too much hubris among people who believe that their own point of view is the only right one—and among nations that believe their own narratives tell the entire story. 

We are setting the stage for dangerous confrontations at all scales. I would even argue we are in danger of sleepwalking into World Word III.

We have to find ways to develop a fuller understanding of our strategic competitors, both to challenge them—and to seek common ground with them for the sake of peaceful coexistence. This would allow us to deal together with the issues, risks, and existential threats that extend far beyond any single country’s borders.  

Universities like ours are uniquely able to build bridges across countries and cultures through education, research, and joint problem-solving. Because we can take the long view and put the tensions of the moment aside—and because we employ the shared common language of science and scholarship—we may be the only institutions in our society able to build those bridges. And I believe we should accept the responsibility and help build them, despite the political headwinds. 

I want to conclude by applauding the efforts of the University of Pennsylvania in the global arena. Penn Global is a force for good. So, I will end where I started: Do, keep on going. The world needs you.

Thank you.