Tsinghua Honorary Degree Acceptance and Global Vision Lecture

Friday, December 16, 2016

Honorary degree acceptance

Thank you, Professor Chen, for the kind introduction.

  • Vice President Yang.
  • Dean Yao.
  • Distinguished guests.
  • And members of the Tsinghua community.


To have been awarded this degree by such a distinguished global university as Tsinghua is a profound honor. I express my deepest personal gratitude. And I also offer the respect and friendship of my home institution: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

As you know, Tsinghua and MIT have built many bonds of collaboration, from management education to online education.

At MIT, we take great pride in our connection with Tsinghua, and we cherish the opportunity to learn from our colleagues in China. As in all the best relationships, we appreciate one another’s strengths, and we inspire each other to even greater accomplishment. I look forward to finding new opportunities for our communities to collaborate in solving the world’s great challenges.

On behalf of the MIT community, I offer this last wish: that the bonds between our two institutions will continue to flourish and grow…in a spirit of friendship, collaboration and a shared passion for making a better world.

Thank you.


Global Vision Lecture


Good morning!  I am honored to be with you and grateful for such a warm welcome.

As I was preparing my remarks for this morning, I spent some time reflecting on President Qiu’s message to the Tsinghua community last spring. And I was struck by the extent to which our two communities share the same concerns and the same values:

  • A passion for “continuous innovation in teaching and learning.”
  • A focus on “technology innovation and entrepreneurship”
  • An instinct for “interdisciplinary cooperation”
  • Exceptional standards for research, and a growing interest in the “comprehensive development of life sciences” 
  • A drive to turn outward toward the world, in your case, through your new Global Innovation Exchange, “the first time a Chinese university has established a physical presence in the United States.”
  • And a commitment to “advocate a real impact on society in general.”


In effect, although we may come from different parts of the world, those shared values remind me that, in many ways, we already speak the same language.  And so I hope that what I say this morning will resonate with you, as well.

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As we look around the world, this is a time of more uncertainty than most of us can remember.  Voters in a number of nations are redefining traditional parties.  Countries are reconsidering their relationships.  Societies are questioning their ideals.  And institutions are re-evaluating their missions.

As society navigates these rough waters, I believe we must remind ourselves, and the world, that universities can be powerful, steady forces for good.   Our institutions have lengthy records in educating leaders, in answering fundamental questions, and in solving complex problems through global collaborations.

Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to build on that record of service and to lead—with clarity, confidence and purpose.

This morning, I will outline three areas where we have come to see that MIT can make a difference, and where I think research universities in general can play a vital role.  By amplifying our strengths in those areas—in education, research, and innovation, in service to society—we aim to remind the world that at a time when it can feel that there are just too many questions, institutions like MIT and Tsinghua can help provide some very important answers.

Let me start with the work that many people believe is our only mission: education.

MIT has always taken a hands-on, problem-focused and curiosity-driven approach to educating our students on campus. 

But today, as technology opens pathways for universities to extend their global reach, we see new opportunities to share MIT’s distinctive educational style and values with learners around the world. In effect, with so many people around the world crying out for the opportunity to improve their skills and their prospects, I believe that research universities have a tremendous opportunity to be leaders in digital learning, to serve students everywhere.

As you may be aware, four years ago, MIT and Harvard launched the open online learning platform called edx, and Tsinghua chose to become a charter member.  So, I don’t need to convince you about the potential of digital learning!  But I do want to tell you about a recent step we took to create a new way to certify learning.  It has benefits for universities and employers—and especially for people striving to build their skills to become more helpful to society.

At MIT, when we assess someone who applies for graduate school, we look primarily at the student’s academic record. That approach works for applicants who go to schools that we know very well. But for those outside of that familiar circle, it can be hard to break in. 

We wanted to make it easier for disciplined and motivated students from lesser-known schools to clear that hurdle. So, a little over a year ago, we launched a new kind of credential for online learning: the MicroMasters. The first MicroMasters we are offering is in a field that matters very much in China: supply chain management.

Here’s how it works: students anywhere who are interested in supply chain management register for courses online.  After one semester, if they do well in all their classes and score well on the comprehensive exam, they earn a MicroMasters credential.

This credential alone is a benefit for the students. And if they choose to apply to the full MIT master’s program, they gain two advantages. First, they already proved that they can succeed in MIT coursework, so that can definitely help them to gain admission. And second, they can apply the MicroMasters credits to earning the full master’s degree.

We started with supply chain management because it gave us a perfect way to demonstrate the value this credential would have for employers. As you know well in China, healthy supply chains are vital to the global economy. All around the world, more and more companies need people who can design, manage and operate complex global systems. And the demand for those skills is much greater than the supply.

Through our new MicroMasters credential, I hope MIT can help solve that particular problem.  And, building on that model, I believe we can use the MicroMasters approach to help people in many other fields acquire the knowledge and skills to gain better jobs, and perhaps even to create new jobs, where there are no jobs.

The second area where I believe universities need to lead today is in research, all the way from the most fundamental science, to the kind of applied research that helps turn discoveries into solutions for the world’s great challenges.

For a university, “research” is an obvious assignment. But I have found that many institutions tend to emphasize either one kind of research or the other: either fundamental, or applied. But I believe institutions like ours can make the biggest difference for society when we emphasize both, and when we foster the interdisciplinary connections between them.

To illustrate, I want to talk about an MIT faculty member who has been in the news over the past week: Professor Li-Huei Tsai. As you may have heard, she and a team of researchers have just published the results of a groundbreaking study.  MIT’s Dean of Science describes it as “an entirely new direction” for treating and preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

When she joined our faculty in 2006, Professor Tsai already had an impressive reputation for fundamental research on how the brain works. But at MIT, thanks to our entrepreneurial environment and our cultural drive for societal impact and problem-solving, she gradually came to see that her discoveries suggested new avenues for ways to treat brain disease.

Today, as Director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and Director of the MIT Aging Brain Initiative, she is applying her remarkable scientific findings, and collaborating with colleagues in a range of disciplines, to tackle the great global challenge of finding a practical Alzheimer’s treatment.

Worldwide, 46 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. The annual global economic cost—already about 1 percent of world GDP—is rising fast. As Professor Tsai explains, “If we don’t address the need for treatment now, the economic burden will soon become unbearable.” And of course, for patients and their families, the cost in human suffering is beyond measure.

As the world learned last week, using the latest techniques of optogenetics, Professor Tsai and her team have found that by using LED lights flickering at a specific frequency, they can substantially reduce the plaques seen in Alzheimer’s disease in the visual cortex of mice. The technique works by stimulating the brain’s natural processes for fighting this kind of build-up. So far, this is the only technique that has ever been shown to treat the underlying mechanism that causes this form of dementia. We are a long way from knowing whether this will be effective in humans—but it surely represents a very exciting advance.

Professor Tsai’s work embodies the paradox of fundamental science: that it is painstaking, rigorous and slow—but also electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic.  When basic science advances, society advances, too. Thanks to Professor Tsai’s extraordinary work in both basic and applied research, we may now have a powerful new tool to relieve human suffering, and to make a better world.

This example leads me to the third and final way that I hope universities can lead in the 21st century, and that is by fostering innovation: finding new and better ways to help our best ideas move from the laboratory to the marketplace.

To pursue tests in humans, Professor Tsai and one of her colleagues have started a company: Cognito Therapeutics. And because the new therapy they hope to develop would be completely non-invasive, and inherently safe, they have high hopes for progress. Thankfully, their research drew the interest of a visionary private and patient investor who is backing the company. 

But companies like theirs—companies that seek to develop some powerful new concept, based on new science—are not always so fortunate. Too often, they find that there is no comfortable fit for them in our current U.S. venture capital (VC) system. VC funding works beautifully for start-ups that can reach market profitability, initial public offering (IPO) or buyout in three to five years; that’s the case for most digital start-ups. But the VC system is not as well geared to support breakthrough technologies built on new science and engineering, which typically take more time.

MIT has been the birthplace of many transformative inventions and companies that have gone on to change the world. And the future being invented at MIT today is remarkable, with concepts like self-fertilizing plants; bacteria that can synthesize biofuels; safe nuclear energy technology; early detection and treatment of cancer and other diseases; affordable desalination at scale; and much more.

But being able to see the future doesn’t mean it will happen. If we hope to deliver serious technological solutions to urgent global challenges—like clean water, climate change, sustainable energy, cancer, Alzheimer's, infectious disease and more —we need to make sure the innovators working on those problems see a realistic pathway to the marketplace.

To support those “tough-tech” innovators working on big societal problems, this past October MIT announced an effort called The Engine. 

The Engine is an accelerator specially geared to serve new ventures based on cutting-edge science and technology. It will offer a distinctive package of resources: patient capital; affordable local space; access to highly specialized equipment; streamlined legal and business services; and expertise, from prototype to scale-up.

It will also connect innovators with a network of MIT alumni, like-minded entrepreneurs, and major corporations in other innovation nodes near and far.

What truly sets The Engine apart is the emphasis on impact: In assessing candidate companies, it will prioritize breakthrough answers to big problems over early profit.

Not everyone believes it is obvious that universities should be involved in fostering innovation. But I know that at Tsinghua, you certainly do. That’s how you have become the top Chinese university in terms of earning US patents—and among the top five of all the universities in the world!  At MIT, our mission demands that we bring “knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges,” and innovation is simply the most useful and effective way for us to deliver our ideas to the world.

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The title of this talk was “Inventing the Future.”  At a moment when “the future” feels particularly uncertain, I believe today’s research universities can be a profoundly important force of good—if we seize our opportunities to lead, by reinventing education, pursuing both basic and applied research, and speeding the process of innovation.

As we do that, I know that we in academia will naturally draw on our long, rich tradition of openness and global collaboration.

So, to that point, I will close by noting that although MIT has many new collaborations and relationships across China, the roots of our connections run deep:

Next year, MIT will mark 140 years since welcoming our first student from China. In the decades after that first student enrolled, MIT became one of the most popular international destinations for Chinese students. Between 1877 and 1930, nearly 400 students from China attended MIT. During an era of rapid modernization, they brought new technology and science back to their home country. And they actively promoted American understanding of China and its people.

In February, MIT will open an exhibit called “China Comes to ‘Tech’: 1877 to 1931.”  The exhibit captures the early years of MIT’s relationship with China—a relationship that has proven to be one of our most enduring and most productive.

As we move into the discussion portion of the program, I will be very interested to hear your views on how we might build on this long shared history, so that together we can invent a future rich in opportunity and growth—for our institutions, our nations and the world.

I am delighted that we have so many like-minded colleagues on your campus.  And I look forward to finding new opportunities for us to collaborate as we strive to make a better world.  Thank you.