Retaining MIT’s Uniqueness

MIT competes intensively with the other top tier universities for the best and the brightest students, particularly in science and engineering. As in the past, this ever-increasing competition will always require us to adapt and change over time.

One of our challenges in competing with our peer universities is deciding what elements of the unique MIT culture should be preserved, and what should be changed. We have a culture and history that makes an MIT education distinctive. We need to discover what changes we should make while still preserving those attributes that make MIT truly exceptional.

As both an alumnus and a long time faculty member, I have my own list of core attributes worthy of preservation. I thought I’d use this space in The Tech to share these entirely personal views.

First, we must continue being a specialized university centered in science and technology. This means a commitment to a rigorous core curriculum and major programs that require a deep understanding of a discipline. My intent is not to exclude other areas of excellence outside science and technology; we must also sustain a diversity of intellectual disciplines so that our students have the opportunity to become well-rounded and well-informed. However, we must continue to pick and choose those other areas carefully so that we don’t try to be everything to everybody.

We need to preserve the true spirit embodied in “Mens et Manus.” This means a sustained commitment to doing things of practical value to society, not just observing and analyzing. This will require continuing our historical engagement with industry and government in translating new knowledge into useful products and services that meet human needs. MIT should never be solely a bystander, just doing research solely for its own sake.

We also need to retain a culture which supports the view that integrity, well-reasoned ideas, and verifiable evidence are what matter in determining scientific truth, rather than ideology, intellectual fashion, simplistic beliefs, or the unsupported assertions of people of great stature.

We must expand our efforts to be as inclusive as possible in all aspects of our work. Intellectual excellence can come from anywhere, and we must be a place where the best minds come together without regard to race, gender, religion, economic class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

One of MIT’s great strengths has been the deep sense of community that covers the entire administration, faculty, staff, and student body. The recent controversy surrounding MIT’s comments about Star A. Simpson’s ’10 arrest may be symptomatic of emerging fractures in the strong ties that have traditionally bound us together. We need to continue efforts to sustain these ties and the implicit social contract that has kept the community unified around a shared set of values.

MIT must continue to serve both the nation and the world. This means being a global university that embraces international students as a source of new talent and opportunities. Our recent emphasis on providing students with a broad array of educationally meaningful opportunities outside the United States is just the down payment on our becoming truly global. MIT-educated students will be leaders in a world that our grandparents could never have envisioned. Ideas flow seamlessly across international boundaries, businesses operate at a global scale, and new challenges to our core values can arise from anywhere on the planet. We need to resist the emergent xenophobic tendencies that arise in society as knee-jerk reactions to globalization.

Finally, we must retain the quirkiness that is quintessentially MIT. “Nerd Pride” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a style of education and life that we need to respect and embrace as an essential element of MIT’s culture.

Steven R. Lerman ’72 is the dean for graduate students.