MIT150 Convocation Mind and Hand: Learning from the Past, Inventing the Future

Sunday, April 10, 2011

We gather today to celebrate MIT's founding 150 years ago. However, I will focus my comments on our responsibilities for the next 150 years, because we come together at a precarious time for our nation and for the world: A time when the world increasingly seeks – and suffers for the lack of – safe, sustainable, clean energy, and when the climate speaks to us through rising seas and retreating glaciers. A time when technological progress has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but the demands of their higher quality of life will test the planet's already strained resilience. A time when billions more remain trapped in the interwoven problems of famine, drought, poverty, ignorance and disease. A time when the human demographic is shifting rapidly from rural to urban on an unprecedented scale, but without systems to accommodate this century's most important migration. A time when life expectancy at birth in developed nations has leapt almost 10 years since 1970, but when most people in most other parts of the world lack rudimentary medical care, and when even developed societies struggle to supply healthcare effectively and sustainably for all. A time when technology fosters democratic revolution, but when, even with unlimited technology, many governments can neither master the complexity of their finances nor maintain the security of their data. A time of growing economic inequality, when Americans across the country long for the return of good jobs and strong economic growth but most have given up on American manufacturing.

A very complicated time that tests the limits of human ingenuity and understanding. A time when the world has never depended more on the science and technology that we study and invent at MIT, but seems, on the whole, dangerously unable to understand that science and technology. Yet, ironically, a time when many question the value of higher education and the utility of government-sponsored research. In such a time, I believe that MIT bears unique responsibilities. Fortunately, we can find in MIT's past guiding insights to address a daunting future.

The legacy of MIT's founder, William Barton Rogers
MIT's story begins with our founder and first president, William Barton Rogers, and his ambition for the Institute. In photographs, he looks imposingly stern. His writings, however, reveal a brilliant, charismatic dynamo, a groundbreaking scientist and riveting teacher with a revolutionary educational vision.

Over the course of decades as a professor at the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia, he watched America's early industrialization and lamented the lack of people who could work with their minds as well as their hands, people who could grasp the basic principles of science and engineering firmly enough to develop new machines, new materials and new processes. Rogers envisioned serving his young country by founding a "polytechnic institute." He chose to launch it here, in Boston, because, as Rogers wrote, "the great practical value of the results at which we aim, although freely admitted by the friends of genuine progress everywhere, must be recognized with especial heartiness in a community like our own, where material prosperity and intellectual advancement are felt to be inseparably associated." (That's how you say "innovation cluster" in Victorian.)

After years of passionate advocacy, Rogers finally secured MIT's charter. Two days after the signing, however, America descended into civil war. MIT's first students would not enroll for another four years. Yet Rogers did not relent, because he knew the nation needed the Institute he envisioned. It still does, perhaps more than ever.

A revolutionary vision for education and research
Rogers founded the Institute on principles that were revolutionary in his day and that animate our work even now. To accelerate America's development as an industrial powerhouse, he designed MIT to make science more useful, and the "useful arts" (technology and engineering) more scientific. Rogers himself was a thinker and a doer; he was, for example, president of the National Academy of Sciences and Gas Inspector for the state of Massachusetts. For his new Institute, he championed the purest discovery-based research and the most practical applications, and MIT still promotes this vibrant interplay of exploration and innovation.

MIT also stood apart in the style and substance of its teaching. Instead of the rote memorization of a classical education, Rogers offered science and engineering, mastered through hands-on research and problem solving, with students and professors working side by side. Rogers would not only appreciate our Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, UROP, he would likely say, "What took you so long?"

Rogers also laid the cornerstone of MIT's commitment to meritocracy and hard work. Having spent much of his career battling "idle and mischievous" students spoiled by privilege, he launched MIT with a very rigorous curriculum. His new Institute would quickly earn its reputation for rigor; and it did not take long for students to observe that, "Tech is _ _ _ _"… very, very hard. In the same vein, Rogers refused to let MIT grant honorary degrees; he "barred the door against the demands of spurious merit and noisy popularity." Today, much as we would love to grant honorary degrees to many in this audience, MIT still forbids them.

In addition, Rogers was guided by a profound vision of service. In fact, he saw the creation of MIT itself as an act of service to society, and that same spirit still shapes our work every day. From these steel-strong values – useful work founded on science, hands-on learning, meritocracy and hard work, and service – Rogers forged a new kind of institution that became a new kind of "innovation machine."

A brilliant vision, strengthened over time
Roger's innovation machine has evolved over the years: hacked, tweaked and optimized, in the great MIT tradition of irrepressible tinkering. Today's MIT is larger, slightly more northern (by the width of the Charles River), and improved. For example: MIT's RadLab contributed decisively to winning World War II through the development of radar, but it also gave us a compelling model of our now-ubiquitous matrix organization, where interdisciplinary labs and centers focus on problems too complex for any one discipline alone to solve.

After World War II, following Vannevar Bush's visionary blueprint, MIT reinvented itself as a preeminent example of the modern research university. Fueled by federal investment in peer-reviewed technology and science, MIT became a new engine for progress. The "Lewis Commission" called out the essential wisdom of a liberal education, and in the 1950s MIT revived the humanities and social sciences as core educational requirements for all MIT students. The cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 70s accelerated MIT's transition to a more diverse community, making room in the lab and the lecture hall for more women, underrepresented minorities, and talented people from every sector of society. More recently, MIT has magnified its longstanding international engagements to become a global institution.

In all these ways, MIT is stronger and better than it once was. In a fundamental sense, however, we bring to the problems of our own time the same mighty machine that President Rogers founded.

Our responsibilities today
Facing the 21st century's challenges, I believe we have a responsibility to turn our founder's tools to the tasks of today. We must apply our skills in interdisciplinary problem solving to the looming problems of the planet: clean energy and climate change, poverty and famine, the health of our oceans and the future of our cities. We must deploy the historic convergence of the life, physical and engineering sciences as a catalyst for new approaches to diagnose, treat and prevent disorders from cancer to autism to AIDS; and for new technologies to make health care more accessible, more effective and less expensive. We must also harness the power of that convergence far beyond biomedicine, to new energy technologies, bio-inspired devices and new industrial methods. As the torrent of information becomes a deluge, we must help bring intelligence to information. We must develop financial models to make our economies more resilient and less inequitable, and to make sustainability the only sensible model in business. Building first on the strengths of our own region, we must help reinvent American manufacturing and deliver the innovators and innovations that will drive the next wave of new jobs and economic growth.

At a time when the world urgently needs more people who understand science and engineering, we can share our educational innovations – like UROP, MISTI and OpenCourseWare – to extend the power of hands-on, problem-based learning to students around the world. We must also explore new models that integrate digital technologies to augment and improve residential education. Above all, we must inspire the next generation of young people, from every background, to understand that science, math and engineering can give them the exhilarating power to participate, rather than sitting passively as spectators and consumers – the power to become the active explorers and inventors who will design the future.

The pursuit of truth
Beyond all these plainly useful assignments, we must also stay true to our passion for basic, curiosity-driven research. We must stay hungry for exploration, from the great unsolved problems of mathematics, to the lyrical heights of music, literature and art, to the deepest recesses of nature and outer space. Resolutely reaching toward the unknown is prologue to every important practical advance; it is also among the supreme expressions of the human spirit. As MIT's 3rd President, Francis Amasa Walker, wrote, for William Barton Rogers, "the truth was always beautiful, and the most solid and substantial structure of scientific principle stood, in his view, against a sunset sky, radiant with a light which no painter's pencil ever had the art to fix on canvas." We must pursue the truth because it is beautiful and because it gives our lives meaning.

We live in a time when people question the purpose, the cost and the methods of universities. Those of us in higher education must take those questions seriously. But at MIT, our answer will ring out most clearly if we pick up the tools that William Barton Rogers left us, sharpen them for the great tasks of our own day and get down to work. I thank all of you who join us today for recommitting to the great, lasting principles and values that have brought MIT to the present and that will guide us as we chart our course into the future.