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President Gray speaks about future of education

Compiled by Thomas T. Huang

(The following is a summary of major points made by President Paul E. Gray '54 in "The Future of MIT as an Educational and Research Institution," Thursday.)

... I'd like to begin with a few reflections on the context of your experience at MIT, and then speak about some aspects of the future of MIT. While these remarks are perhaps assembled with MIT undergraduates in mind, they are by no means irrelevant for graduate students at MIT.

I have four comments about the context of your educational experience at the Institute:

1. There is much more to MIT than your formal term-by-term program. It's easier said than done -- I know it is hard to focus on other things when you're worried about problem sets and quizzes. But it is important to keep in mind objectives "satisfied only if you make your education much more than the sum of the parts" -- subjects, classes, papers and quizzes... The student should try to construct a program which, taken together, makes more than the sum of parts.

The student needs a balance in personal activities -- outside of the classroom, in living groups, activities, and on athletic fields. Strive for personal growth. Your success lies not just in the mastery of skills and knowledge, but in the manner in which you develop interpersonal relationships.

2. There is an inevitability of change in your personal goals and professional program...

One alumnus near retirement reported that when he was two or three years out of MIT, he wished he had been taught more about current technology. When he was ten years out, he wished he had been taught basic science and mathematical principles. When he was 25 years out, he wished he had been taught material so that he could face issues in the life of a manager. When he was 40 years out of MIT, and close to retirement, he wished he had been taught about philosophy.

Prepare yourself to be effective over a working lifetime in a context which you can't predict or anticipate. Strive as early as possible for educational self-sufficiency -- an independence and personal capacity to learn without formal structures, such as lecturers, quizzes, syllabi, course catalogs and recitation instructors. Define for yourself the important questions not asked before, and learn to discover the answers for yourself.

3. Think of science and engineering in the context of contemporary society. The support of science depends a considerable degree on the support of the public at large. Technological problems grow out of social needs. Their solutions must satisfy those needs and must be harmonious with the social context. Side effects must be accounted for, and consequences must be explored...

Thirty years ago, Sir Eric Ashby, a British educator, wrote an essay entitled "Technology in the Academics." He said, "The student who can weave his technology into the fabric of society can claim to have a liberal education. A student who cannot [do this] cannot even claim to be a good scientist."

4. I urge you to contemplate your experiences in terms of your responsibility to leadership. You are an elite, and I make no apology for that word. You are an elite in terms of intellectual ability, in terms of motivation, capacity for sustained effort, demonstrations and potential for creativity... You are an extraordinarily important and highly select elite of this nation and the world. When you leave this institution and go on to make your own life and career, those capacities will be called upon you to become a leader....

The future of this society ... is in your hands.

Future of MIT

Here are my remarks on the future of MIT -- my own personal vision. In my inaugural address in 1980, I addressed some needs at MIT.

1. In 1980, I said MIT must rededicate science and technology as socially powerful activities. The future of civilization is inexorably tied to continued scientific progress and through the humane and thoughtful application of science. We must understand and engage the larger social, cultural and historical domains of which science and technology are a part... We must continue to be a sanctuary for constructive criticism of the technological enterprise and of the larger society.

The humanities, arts and 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 share the values necessary to complete the education of our students.

In 1985, there has been an important reorganization in the Provost's Office. The Committee on Educational Policy has fissioned into the Faculty Policy Commitee and the Committee on Undergraduate Policy. There is going to be a curricular review, as well... The spectrum was too broad. With two committees, there will be an opportunity to bring faculty attention to bear on these questions in a way which ... was certainly more difficult previously.

Curricular review and resynthesis: school of eng and humanitand ss have together created joint committees (HASS - new synthesis of the human and ss one hand, basic sci and eng applic on the other hand in the structure of undergrad educ, Integrative Curric in the liberal arts - better integrated and educationally more structured, more approp offering for those students who wish to pursue a program with a primary emphasis in some aspect of the liberal arts, SCIEnce core - relationships with core subjects, ways in which core subjects can be integrated.)

2. In 1980, I said we should review the character of the MIT educational experience: the pace, the coherence and the intellectual impact. MIT students are highly motivated and committed to high achievement. Sustained hard work is the norm. The members of the faculty hold responsiblities to the Institute, to their professional commitments and to their personal families. This produces all too often a frenetic pace of life, self-rewarding, mutually reinforcing. But it is not without its costs.

It would be foolhardy to argue against the virtues of hard work. But 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 and pressure issue is still very much on MIT's agenda.

3. In 1980, I said that the issues centered on the human condition at MIT should be on the top of our agenda. All the great contributions of this institution rest on the quality and effectiveness of individuals, whose commitment to the first-rate have made the difference. We are concerned that we work to develop a community of the best faculty and student body 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. 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.

A good deal of learning at MIT is based on daily interactions among people of different backgrounds, experience and points of view. The international character at MIT has enriched the institution 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 benefit from their creativity.

Now in 1985, as I look back, I must report that it is a mixed record. With respect to women at MIT, we have for the most part done well -- not well enough -- but well enough to support a certain amount of justifiable pride.

The number of women on the faculty for first time in history exceeds 100. Women make up 30 percent of the undergraduates. Women make up 20 to 22 percent of the graduate students.

With respect to minorities, in particular black Americans, we have done very badly and have no reason for particular pride, no reason for complacency. There were more black Americans on the faculty five years ago than there are today. More black students entered MIT in 1975, than entered in 1985.

This dilemma is shared by the American higher education in general. The number of young black Americans pursuing collegiate studies has been in slow decline. The difficulties at the faculty level are to a large extent reflected by the fact that the fraction of doctoral degrees awarded to black Americans in the areas of engineering, physical science and life sciences remains at one percent.

The only thing we can be proud of is the number of engineering degrees awarded to black students: we are ninth in the nation. In general, there is much more cause for concern about how we do it better.

4. MIT has a pressing need to double the size of its underlying capital base -- its endowment. If you compare the size of invested capital with the size of the operating budget, you come up with interesting comparisons. The ratio is 1:1. At Harvard, 5:1. At Princeton 3.5:1. At Yale 3:1. At Stanford 1.5:1. The future of MIT depends significantly on increasing the capital base in the coming five- to ten-year period.

5. With respect to "Accuracy in Academia," there are volunteers in universities who attend lectures and take note of whether or not the teacher is -- in that individual's view -- presenting an appropriately unbiased view of whatever it is that happens to be the subject matter. Now it is of interest that this group which calls itself "Accuracy in Academia" is openly and strongly right-wing in its orientation. I have no idea whether it exists at MIT, but there are members of the faculty that are concerned about this kind of threat and the pressure which can arise from a group that is interested in presenting its own views.

We must not take for granted that an MIT education is a guaranteed freedom.