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Wrighton praises teaching and research

(Editor's note: The following is the text of the speech delivered by Provost Mark S. Wrighton at the colloquium on Wednesday afternoon in Kresge Auditorium, as recorded by The Tech.)

I've prepared a lot of notes and I can now lecture you for the next few hours. But I would like to say a few things in closing that I think may pass some additional illumination on some aspects of reality.

First of all someone commented that you're told every day that once you begin you are told that research is important. Let me tell you that research is important. Research is important to our university enterprise at MIT and in fact plays a big role in it and continues to and we hope that it will in the future. This enterprise is predicated on the notion that education and research are tightly coupled. [Garbled]

Today you heard many views. This community is 20,000 people, probably having 100,000 different perspectives on the importance of teaching in research institutions. But there are perceptions and there is reality. I think only a fraction of reality has been revealed in these discussions.

But it seems to me that one thing is very vivid, and the large participation in this room indicates a kind of strong reaffirmation of our commitment to excellence in both education and research and to those formal aspects of teaching that involve so many people here and is of importance to every person who is at MIT. Every one of those 20,000 people is getting some sort of educational experience here and our commitment should be to make it excellent.

I'll say in a moment why I believe research is so important, but let me emphasize to those who in fact prize teaching a great deal, let me emphasize that single individuals just as in research can make an enormous difference in the lives of other individuals.

Let me give you an example. I stand before you today as a person educated formally in the area of chemistry. I have an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Florida State University and a PhD degree in chemistry from CalTech. I started, governor, I started majoring in government at Florida State and in three weeks I changed to chemistry, not because the teaching in government is so weak or poor but because my chemistry professor was so great and inspired me.

But beyond that I think that in the evolution of my freshmen year I was looking around for support -- so to speak -- for my activities as an undergraduate, and I wrote to another faculty member and asked for a position as a dishwasher in his research laboratory. Three years later I had a half an dozen research publications in competitively reviewed journals.

But that experience is something that I envision for every undergraduate. Every undergraduate should have the thrill of discovery and that I think is what is important about the connections between education and research. At this institute and many other research institutions it's possible from the earliest days as a freshmen to become acquainted not only with the learning experience becoming acquainted with what has been done in science and engineering and other fields but in fact to be doing it.

That's far more interesting than simply sitting before lecturers heavily in their research. That's a participatory education and that I think can be a positive outcome from experience at a research university. One of the things that was missed from the discussion in my view were some critical comments: Why is it that faculty can never be found in their offices?

It is stated from time to time that the average elevation for the MIT faculty is roughly 15,000 feet. They're on airplanes traveling around the world, consulting, spending time away from their students. But in fact this is an institution belonging to other institutions which contributes to the creation of knowledge and in our charter we are charged to bring that knowledge to society's benefit.

I believe that we serve an important educational role as ambassadors of knowledge through our consulting activities. And let me say for the students that are here -- most of you are going to go into the private non-academic sector with your profession. Do you really want to be taught by people who have never set foot in an industrial setting?

Consulting provides for the faculty many opportunities to learning about industries needs, activities, problems, and can acquaint you with those. We are a $300 million research operation. Most of that support does come from the federal government, the taxpayers. We have a responsibility to communicate the results of that research and it involves travel and participation in meeting for that knowledge to be shared.

But of course it does create tension for the faculty member when they realize that they have to fly in from California on the red-eye to shuttle up for their 9 am class. These are some of the issues that I think that some of you may want to continue with this discussion. . . .

Finally, this colloquium was Chuck Vest's idea. This is, in fact, the concluding event of this inaugural year. I think that it's been an extraordinary colloquium. I've participated in several of the ones that preceded it, and this has been by far the most engaging in terms of participation, interaction. Let's go shape the future.