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Hockfield Addresses Ethics in Universities

By Brian Keegan 
and Kelley Rivoire

A university has a responsibility not only to its members, but to the world, said President Susan Hockfield yesterday, delivering the 2005 Arthur Miller Lecture on Science and Ethics. In her lecture, Hockfield repeatedly highlighted the importance of a university’s faculty governance structure in “fulfilling our responsibilities.”

She made only brief mention of two recent cases of ethical problems raised at MIT, namely the dismissal of a faculty member over scientific misconduct and an ongoing investigation into allegations of fraudulent missile defense test data. Hockfield focused instead on the universals of university ethics.

Responsibility prominent

Hockfield described the evolution of the university, from a keeper of knowledge in medieval times, to the emergence of the modern research university as a locus for both teaching and innovation. She said MIT’s example challenges those who believe that research and education are mutually exclusive.

Hockfield emphasized a need for MIT to be a place of “high moral standards” to meet its two goals of educating students to become leaders and advancing knowledge for humankind. “We must fulfill our responsibilities to each other if we are to fulfill our responsibilities to the world,” she said.

Because scientific knowledge is cumulative, researchers “must be able to rely on the work of their colleagues,” she said.

Members of a university must also have academic freedom and be able to “explore unfashionable hypotheses,” she said, emphasizing the need for the campus to remain “intellectually open.”

As a university, MIT must also fulfill its mission to engage with and improve the world, through innovation, education, and the power of example. “Work at MIT generates new knowledge. It generates new jobs and new industries,” she said.

Though “inventing the future and preparing our students to invent the future is hard work,” it is not without reward because “the chance to do work that you love generates profound commitment.”

MIT must “educate global leaders” because “quite simply, the world needs our students,” she said.

Hockfield said that MIT’s review of the General Institute Requirements has led many departments to begin rethinking their curricula, an important re-evaluation in maintaining MIT’s lead in education.

Additionally, she emphasized MIT’s commitment to need-blind admissions, need-based aid, and meeting student’s financial needs, as well as the Institute’s commitment to bringing in the most talented students and faculty from around the world.

In terms of innovation, “MIT is a tremendous engine of economic growth,” Hockfield said, generating 133 new patents last year. Areas needing this innovative spirit today are energy, “one of the great challenges facing the world today,” and human health, she said.

MIT must also serve as an example to the world, Hockfield said. With U.S. achievement in science lagging, Hockfield pointed to MIT’s 85 percent of students with science and engineering degrees, compared with 17 percent nationwide.

The faculty governance structure must serve as a demonstration of the highest ethical standards, even as ethics problems in government and business appear daily in the news. The faculty must “carry out our mission with the highest standard imaginable,” she said.

In concluding the lecture, prior to a brief question and answer session, Hockfield reminded the audience that a university should aim “to serve” and “make the world a better place.”

Controversial ethics

Referring to Luk Van Parijs and allegations of fraud in National Missile Defense, Hockfield said she did not “want to dwell on their particulars today.” She described the Department of Defense investigation and “the complication in resolving this case” as “a source of frustration for all of us.”

In Hockfield’s early remarks, she said that Provost L. Rafael Reif has appointed an ad hoc committee to “review the lessons that have emerged from this case,” referring to the alleged Missile Defense fraud. It is not an investigation of the charges, but “an assessment of the process” as part of a need “to continually review and renew our policies.”

Hockfield described the recent dismissal of Van Parijs as a “tragic case, as are all departures from our shared standard of conduct.” But the case is also a demonstration of “how our process can and should work,” in this case through a “careful and thoughtful investigation,” she said.

She cited the “fundamental strength of faculty governance” in “a remarkable process for investigation of allegations of misconduct, a process that demands confidentiality, but most importantly protects those who may be under investigation.”

There were several tense moments when Professor Theodore A. Postol ’67, sitting in the second row directly facing Hockfield, interrupted her during questions and confronted her afterwards. Postol has been a public critic of the willingness of the administrations of both Hockfield and former MIT President Charles M. Vest to investigate his charges of research misconduct at Lincoln Laboratory relating to the National Missile Defense.