Before an enthusiastic crowd under a huge pavilion in MIT’s Killian Court, the Institute’s 17th president, L. Rafael Reif, used the occasion of his inauguration to embrace the coming changes that he said are taking higher education in dramatically new directions.
From the crossroads where we now stand, he said, MIT can help set the pace in making education much more widely available to the people of the world, as well as ever more effective for those learning on the Institute’s own campus.
“The MIT I know loves challenges,” Reif said in a 36-minute inaugural address. “The MIT I know solves the unsolvable, shapes the future, and serves our nation and the world. The MIT I know and love does not stand on the sidelines.”
Presidential pomp — with a dash of rhumba, smoots and hacks
This afternoon’s ceremony included the three living MIT presidents emeriti: Susan Hockfield, now the Marie Curie Visiting Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; Charles Vest, now president of the National Academy of Engineering; and Paul Gray, professor of electrical engineering emeritus at MIT. The ceremony was also graced by a spirited rhumba composed in honor of the new president by Institute Professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison, who riffed on Reif’s alliterative name, as well as musical performances by the Institute’s Rambax drumming ensemble, the student a cappella group the Chorallaries, and the MIT Ceremonial Brass.
Harvard President Drew Faust — who noted that she had traveled “a distance of just 1.9 miles, or, in MIT units, 1,797 smoots” — congratulated Reif on behalf of the academic community. In playful remarks noting the two universities’ sometime rivalry, Faust observed that Harvard has often been on the receiving end of good-natured “hacks” propagated by MIT students.
“Now, despite silently suffering torment and humiliation these many years as the victim of MIT’s creative hackers, John Harvard has dressed himself for today’s occasion,” Faust said, unveiling a framed photograph of Harvard Yard’s iconic statue bedecked in MIT attire. “President Reif, on behalf of the ‘red brick school up the street,’ I present a symbol of our lasting friendship.”
‘An opportunity we must seize’
While looking ahead to MIT’s leadership in the changes that he sees coming — changes prompted by new technology and new global challenges — Reif emphasized the need to maintain the crucial role that great universities have traditionally played: “Society continues to need what the residential research university does better than any other institution,” he said, citing universities’ ability to “incubate brilliant young talent, and create the new knowledge and innovation that fuel our society.”
Reif added that “the pressures of cost and the potential of new technologies are presenting all of us in higher education with a historic opportunity: the opportunity to better serve society by reinventing what we do and how we do it. It is an opportunity we must seize.”
The Institute’s new president is no stranger to the reinvention of education: He was one of the prime movers behind MIT’s creation of an innovative system of online classes launched last December as MITx and later renamed edX after the effort was joined by Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley. The new initiative immediately garnered worldwide attention; MITx’s first course, last spring, drew more than 155,000 registrants, of whom more than 7,000 passed the course.
“I believe that, as institutions of higher education, we have an obligation to creatively exploit the power of these new technologies,” Reif said, “to make education more affordable, more accessible and more effective.”
‘This historic assignment is not optional’
Reif continued to emphasize that the development of these new, free and open educational technologies should be seen as a way to enhance, not replace, on-campus education. “We have a duty to explore ways in which these new technologies might make on-campus, in-person education even better,” he said, “better at helping students develop their potential, magnify their creativity, extend their networks, achieve their dreams.”
The Institute can help lead the way toward these goals, Reif said. “Can these new technologies help us do what we do well — and do it even better? And can they help us do things we can only dream of doing today? I want MIT to play a leadership role in seeking these answers,” he said. “My goal now is to position MIT, together with our partner institutions, as a creative hub. We should be a global source for insights into how these technologies can serve both our own universities and educational institutions everywhere.”
While some educators have decried the impact such changes might have on traditional institutions and ways of teaching, Reif said their fears are misplaced.
“We should not reject change, we should embrace change,” he said. “The printing press did not weaken universities; it strengthened them. These are huge opportunities for higher education, and the stakes are high. This historic assignment is not optional. It is our shared duty to make sure the outcome serves humanity.”
‘We must all be champions of basic research’
Reif emphasized that while the Institute embraces change, it must also continue to champion the fundamental values it has always embodied, and its role in cutting-edge research.
“We must all be champions of basic research,” he said. “If a society gives up on basic research, it is giving up on its future.” Toward that end, he said, “I will ask our faculty, working with the provost, to identify those great global challenges, where — through coordinated, Institute-wide, mission-driven research, and through the power of innovation and entrepreneurship — MIT could make an inspiring difference.”
MIT has long been a leader in such world-changing research, Reif said, adding, “With the right facilities, alliances and programs, identified by our faculty, we can build on that lead and continue to serve as one of the most powerful engines of innovation and entrepreneurship in the world.”
Reif cited the Institute’s many efforts to create new collaborations and institutions around the world. “MIT’s network of global collaborators has expanded in the last few years. Led by our faculty, it will likely continue to grow — slowly, deliberately and strategically — in the next few years.”
‘One of the most remarkable educational institutions the world has ever seen’
Striking a more personal note, Reif recounted the story of his own origins, and his path to the Institute. He described a couple who “left Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, during one of the darkest periods in its history, and found refuge in South America. This couple raised four sons under extremely difficult circumstances, but raised them with principles, with integrity and values, taught them neither rancor nor hatred, taught them understanding and respect for different points of view, and taught them the value of education and hard work.”
Reif concluded, to applause, “The youngest son of the couple in my story eventually became the 17th president of one of the most remarkable educational institutions the world has ever seen.”
That personal experience, the president said, helped shape his understanding of those who come from different places or backgrounds — and the importance of ensuring that everyone gets an equal shot at the advantages of an MIT education.
“I will lead MIT to continue to make significant contributions in the area of race and diversity, equity and inclusion,” Reif said. “We have many compelling suggestions for practical change. These include better ways to search for and mentor new talent, and to improve the orientation process for new members of our community.”
‘We are all in this great enterprise together’
But such measures are only a step along the road, he said. “My dream is that by the time MIT selects its 18th president, our diversity will no longer need to be a matter of presidential declarations, because it will be a welcome, obvious reality and a vital source of MIT’s creative strength.”
In the end, Reif said, what matters most is not the differences among members of the MIT community, but their shared goals and aspirations.
“We are all in this great enterprise together,” the new president said. “We have a great deal to accomplish, and the world is waiting. So let’s get started.”