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Excerpts from Vest's inaugural address


. . . On the banks of the Charles River an institution has arisen that is recognized throughout the world for its unique contributions to our life and times. Established 130 years ago this spring, MIT did not become yet another comprehensive university. Nor did it become simply an "engineering school" or a "polytechnic institute."

Rather, it became a wellspring of scientific and technological knowledge and practice, and a place where musical creativity thrives. Its inventive and entrepreneurial faculty generated a great economic engine, and they have created revolutionary insights into the structure of language and the nature of learning. . . .

MIT has been home to distinguished scholars from around the world, men and women who have stretched the human mind and spirit. Above all, it has provided an intense and effective education to generations of the brightest young men and women that this nation, and the world, have brought forth.

Now MIT prepares for the passing of the 20th century and the advent of the 21st. We seek form and substance appropriate for these times, even as we seek to shape the future of our nation and world.

But we enter more than a new temporal era. We stand at the dawn of a new global age. Our lives are interwoven across national boundaries in unprecedented ways -- connected through our earth's environment, whose stewardship we all share, through our economic and production systems, through instantly shared information, through universally shared dreams. . . .

MIT has played a remarkable role -- at critical moments -- in shaping our nation and our world. We have done so through individual creative genius and through grand institutional ventures. Like America itself, we have responded in an heroic and innovative manner to sudden challenges, such as the onset of World War II or the launching of Sputnik.

Today we are challenged once again on a grand scale. But this time by slow, corrosive forces rather than by sudden, galvanizing events. By the erosion of our global environment rather than by explosions at Pearl Harbor. By declines in scientific literacy and industrial competitiveness rather than by the launching of a satellite.

This morning I would like to share with you my view of the challenges that confront us and to offer a growing vision of the opportunities they present for the future of MIT.

A new global age

. . . We are connected, across time and space, as never before in human history. Many of these connections have been made possible by the advances in science and technology. We must learn to deal with this interdependence in new ways -- creating new forms of organization and incorporating new points of view.

Let me give three examples.

First, the earth's environment -- a fragile envelope that bears witness to the degrading effects of human activity. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, for individuals or nations to think that the way in which they treat their land, air and water has no bearing on their neighbors.

Nor is it possible for us to work on each aspect of this damaged environment as a separate problem. Ironically, many of the scientific and technological advances that so enhance human comfort and well being -- advances in transportation, energy and agriculture -- concurrently pose threats to our biosphere. . . .

The stage has been set at MIT by the establishment of the Center for Global Change Science and by the new Council on the Global Environment. Only with this kind of integrated approach -- drawing on faculty from disparate fields -- can we hope to meet the profound challenge of making and keeping our planet livable.

Another challenge -- and set of opportunities -- in our increasingly interdependent world lies in the realm of electronic communication. Instantaneous communication, both verbal and visual, has reduced our planet to the electronic global village once envisioned by McLuhan.

Knowledge has become a capital asset, at least as important as physical resources. Bits of information flowing through copper wires, optical fibers or satellite links have become a new currency: the currency of the information marketplace.

Increasingly, the commerce of this new marketplace will be conducted along fiberoptic information superhighways that will connect computers, telephones, high definition video systems, and hybrid technologies yet to be developed.

This information infrastructure already exists in rudimentary form. MIT has the opportunity to play a pivotal role in bringing increased capabilities and coherence to this system, and in defining the currency of the new information marketplace.

In doing so, we must not only increase the power and ease of computing and communications, but we must do so in ways that enhance our intellectual and social capabilities, that help us make wiser decisions, and that enable us to bridge cultural and political barriers.

Here, too, we must invent new ways of combining our talents across disciplinary and institutional boundaries in order to give form, substance, and humanity to the dawning information age. To this end, I am pleased to announce the establishment of the MIT Information Infrastructure Initiative -- a project that will bring together eight different organizations within MIT with the goal of working with industrial partners to develop a very high frequency, entirely optical network and to establish within our campus a working model of the information marketplace.

My third example derives from the increasing political and economic connections throughout the world. These connections pose the question of whether the MIT of the future will be a national or an international institution. What does it mean for MIT to be a citizen of a world where common problems or interests are often more powerful than geographic distances, yet where national differences exist?

The issue is complex. MIT is a national institution. But America is no longer isolated. . . .

. . . in order to serve America well, we must participate in the broader global community. Basic science has always prided itself in being the prototype for true international cooperation, but today this viewpoint and system are being strained -- strained because of the increasing economic value of university-generated knowledge and technological concepts.

There are those who look at this country's position on the economic balance scales and call for greater protection of our ideas, especially those having to do with science and technology.

Some look at this country's troubles in the world marketplace and are quick to blame our overseas competitors. Others cast the issue into the framework of Pogo Possum's famous saying: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." And still others quickly respond along the lines of Robert Reich, who asks, "Who is us?" -- that is, in this day and age, what defines an American corporation?

Clearly, we must be concerned with this nation's economic well being. We must not, however, endanger the very essence of our institution by retreating into simplistic forms of technonationalism. . . .

The changing face of America

Just as we develop new connections among nations, so too must we seek new connections within our own. The face of America is changing significantly and rapidly. Our society is increasingly pluralistic, yet our connections across racial, ethnic and sometimes even gender boundaries are frayed.

Securing America's promise for all remains a crucial goal. The nation's potential will not be fully realized until all racial and ethnic groups have full opportunity to realize their own potential and, in doing so, to contribute fully to the health and vigor of our society.

MIT has traditionally educated engineers, scientists and others to develop technologies, lead businesses, and serve as professors, researchers and scholars. To continue this leadership in the era ahead, we must better reflect the changing face of America in our students, faculty and staff. . . .

As one step, we will begin implementing during the coming weeks a program proposed by the Equal Opportunity Committee to recruit more women to our faculty. And we will reaffirm and reinvigorate our policies and programs for bringing more underrepresented minority members to our faculty.

As we succeed, and in order to succeed, with these and other efforts, we must work to ensure that MIT is a place that respects and celebrates the diversity of our community. Just as we celebrate learning about the physical universe, or the political and economic worlds or the creative arts, so must we celebrate learning about, and from, each other.

Such change is rewarding, but it is seldom easy. During the years ahead we must refuse to let the centrifugal forces of intolerance and injustice pull us apart. We must be held together by respect for the individual and by a commitment to the values we hold in common.

Education: To move a nation

Just as we as individuals are part of an interwoven social fabric, so too is MIT part of an interdependent educational system -- one that begins before kindergarten and extends through post-doctoral studies. Within this system, America's colleges and universities stand as national treasures.

But the strength of these institutions, and thus of our society, is imperiled -- imperiled by the state of our primary and secondary schools, and imperiled by the declining interest and ability among our young people to pursue rigorous advanced studies, particularly in science and engineering. These trends must be reversed.

It is my firm belief that national educational strength is the essential prerequisite for economic and social prosperity. Education can move a nation: The future belongs to those who understand it. . . .

Until we, as a nation, wake up to the fact that we must increase our investment in the growth of human capital -- that is, people and ideas -- our educational system will spiral downward, pulling our economy and our way of life with it. This is a danger of the first magnitude, and we must all work to address it. . . .

An MIT education for the future

The education that we most directly influence, however, is the education of our own students. . . .

In recent years, our faculty has been involved in a long-term review of the undergraduate program. . . . No one has been more engaged with these matters over the years than our engineering faculty. . . .

We need to infuse our engineering students with an increased respect for and enjoyment of effective, efficient and socially responsive design and production. Today, we must prepare engineers who have the self discipline, analytical skills, and problem-solving abilities, so highly valued in MIT graduates, but who are also prepared for the challenge of production and leadership in the world marketplace of the next century. . . .

All do not agree with this view. Many believe that our mission has become distorted and that education has been lost in our desire and responsibility to excel in research. This is clearly a central issue for MIT -- one that must be openly discussed in all corners of the Institute.

This fall, as an event of the inaugural year, we will hold a major colloquium on the topic of teaching and learning within the research university. I intend this to be a no-holds-barred debate that will illuminate our efforts to shape the future of education at MIT.

Educational success at MIT depends, above all else, on the commitment and inventiveness of our faculty. Excellence in undergraduate teaching must be rewarded and encouraged. To this end, we are establishing an endowed program to recognize faculty members who have profoundly influenced our students through their sustained and significant contributions to teaching and curriculum development.

A select number of faculty will be appointed as faculty fellows, each for a 10-year period, and will receive an annual scholar's allowance throughout their appointment. The first fellows will be appointed this year, and we expect their ranks to build to at least 60 during this decade.

The strength of an MIT education is its depth and intensity. Our graduates value above all else their self-discipline, analytical thinking skills, and their confidence to take on great challenges.

Today, science and technology, culture and policy, industry and government, production and communication, are interwoven as never before. The nation needs broadly educated young men and women to be leaders of the next generation.

An understanding of science and technology is surely part of what such leaders must possess. Similarly, those who practice science and technology need an ever greater understanding of the world in which they will work, and must be able to contribute wisely to policies affecting the development and uses of technology.

What does this mean for education at MIT? Surely it means a careful balance among the humanities, arts and social sciences on the one hand and mathematics and the physical and life sciences on the other. And it means a continuing look at our departmental programs to ensure that -- in content and approach -- they give our students the best possible foundation for intellectual growth and professional achievement. . . .

An MIT education should enlarge an individual's choices -- and so should include a common experience in science and mathematics, a serious exploration of the humanities, arts and social sciences, and a continuing conversation among these fields. . . .

Rebuilding trust in science and technology

. . . today, the American public is calling into question the value of our research universities, and no longer tends to view science and technology as the foundation of progress. The public's attention is caught not only by the debate over the costs and quality of undergraduate education, but by the debate over the costs and conduct of research.

The doubt of the moment, however, must not be allowed to weaken the basic concept of the American university system, one that is universally recognized as being the best in the world. This system is founded on a social contract with the American public and enhanced by partnerships with government and industry.

We cannot keep our flexibility, our vigor, our quality -- as a nation or as an academic community -- by taking this partnership for granted. We need to rebuild trust in this nation's research universities and its scientific enterprise. We must ensure that the foundation of scientific and scholarly research is secure.

What is this foundation? Jacob Bronowski stated it with deceptive simplicity when he wrote, "The end of science is to discover what is true about the world." . . .

Like all human endeavors, science is not, and cannot, be totally free from error or even occasional abuse. And so it rests upon us -- as scientists and scholars -- to do a better job of strengthening, continually renewing, and transmitting our system of values. . . .

Public confidence in our universities must be fully restored. Our social compact must be reestablished. But in the discourse required to do so, we must avoid the trap of justifying all that we do on utilitarian grounds.

Clearly, we have been great contributors to the nation's economy, and this must continue to be a cardinal element of MIT's mission. But we must take care not to overemphasize these contributions as the justification for investing in universities.

If we overuse such arguments, we might unwittingly endanger our traditions of intellectual excellence, innovation, integrity, openness, worldwide service, deep scholarship and independent criticism. Ultimately, our contributions to social progress and well-being rest on our ability to steer our own course, with imagination and intellectual daring.


What then is my vision of MIT a decade hence?

MIT will be a preeminent wellspring of scientific knowledge and technological innovation. MIT will foster the pursuits of individual scholars, whose work so often leads to truly fundamental discoveries.

We will be known for our ability to establish new and effective methods for analyzing complex and pervasive issues facing the nation and the world. In an invigorated partnership with industry, the government, and other educational institutions, we will contribute profoundly to their solution.

MIT will be known for educating engineers who combine the spirit of innovation and invention with a passion for the highest quality and efficiency in design and production.

MIT will better reflect in our students, faculty and staff the changing face of America. We will find ways to instill the excitement and romance of science and mathematics in new generations of young people.

MIT will spearhead efforts to rekindle our nation's belief in the importance of scientific research and education. We will have found renewed commitment to the deepest values of the academy. MIT will stand for integrity in all that it does. MIT will serve our nation well, but also will be of and for the greater world community.

Above all, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be a place to which the brightest young men and women will come for their educations. They will be able to attend MIT regardless of their financial circumstances. They will be taught and counseled by dedicated teachers who themselves define the leading edge of human knowledge and invention.

Their education will be robust: deep in scientific content, yet providing the flexibility and learning skills to serve them well in ever-changing and expanding circumstances.

They will be attuned to the complexities of their world, a world that they will help to change. Through that wonderful blend of undergraduate education, graduate education, research and creative activity that is MIT, our students will be enriched and they, in turn, will enrich the Institute.

Mens et manus: With mind and hand we set forth. Our promise will be secured by the collective energies and wisdom of those who are drawn to this great magnet for intellect and creativity. Together, we will give shape to the future -- the future of MIT, our nation, and our world.


We need to infuse our engineering students with an increased respect for and enjoyment of effective, efficient and socially responsive design and production.


It is my firm belief that national educational strength is the essential prerequisite for economic and social prosperity.