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MIT leaders look ahead to growth, innovation

MIT's new administrative team gave an overview of key issues before the MIT community at a "State of the Institute Forum" sponsored by the Administrative Advisory Committee on May 20.

The presenters -- President Charles M. Vest, Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow, Provost Robert A. Brown and Executive Vice President John Curry -- spoke to a standing-room-only crowd consisting primarily of members of the MIT administration in Kresge Little Theater.

President Vest opened the panel presentation, setting a context for a vision of the Institute and portraying its place in the world over the next decade. Swiftly sketching a view of the present, he noted the international stature and diversity of recent visitors to the campus as an indication that "we are a major stage for world leaders."

The three most recent political and corporate world leaders to visit MIT -- all in two days last month -- were Secretary of Energy William Richardson; Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft Corp.; and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. Mr. Richardson visited Bates Laboratory; Mr. Gates delivered the keynote speech at the Laboratory for Computer Science's 35th anniversary celebration and presented President Vest with a check for $20 million from his foundation; and Premier Zhu spoke on topics ranging from the World Trade Organization to the need for managers in China.

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, President Vest anticipated great advances in science. He mentioned the Human Genome Project, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, the International Space Station, and LIGO, a joint MIT-Caltech program to search for gravity waves, as well as dramatic changes in the ways research and scholarship are supported and practiced. And although major advances have been made in distance learning technologies, "the residential campus experience will still be most important," he said.

"Innovation is going to be the coin of the realm. In the US, research universities are going to be The Place, and there will be a new paradigm for research -- one that arises from universities, industry and governments in close partnerships," said President Vest. MIT itself would be a "strong presence" on the national and international level, building on preeminence in science and engineering and with "deep engagement in the arts and humanities," he added.

"This team has already provided exemplary leadership" as MIT positions itself to meet the challenges of the next decade, said President Vest, who went on to provide job descriptions for each of his three colleagues.

"MIT will continue to influence the way the world works, but we will also continue to face stiff competition. We have to enhance the living experience here for students and reduce MIT's dependence on the federal government for funding. We will do this relying on our three-pronged approach of advocacy for strong federal funding for science and engineering research, of fiscal discipline and management, and of widening private support," he said.

"We must increase private support to MIT. Beyond core needs such as student financial aid and competitive compensation, there are three areas on which we must spend more. We must increase support for graduate students. We must get on the job with maintaining and renewing our physical plant. And we must increase capital contributions," President Vest said. He closed on an assertively positive note, describing the Institute's situation as a "period of excitement and change unseen since World War II."

Chancellor Bacow spoke first of his roles as an MIT student and then as chair of the faculty by way of focusing the audience on "the student area."

"Shortly after I became chair of the faculty, I worked with President Vest and Dean Rosalind Williams to help define the mission of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning. The Task Force produced an exhaustive study and many great proposals. When I became chancellor, President Vest handed the Task Force report to me and said, 'Make it happen. Make it a reality,'" he said.

"For those of you present who have not read the Task Force report, I recommend it to you. Central to its major recommendations is the idea of the educational triad -- to be a truly excellent university, we must integrate teaching, research and community. At MIT, we already have world-class educational and research programs. We need to do more to promote community," Chancellor Bacow said.


He went on to note how, from an architectural and planning perspective, Massachusetts Avenue divides the MIT campus, literally and figuratively. Student activities dominate west of the street and faculty control activities on the east side.

"Student life has been largely the responsibility of students. The principal recommendation of the Task Force is to break down those barriers between students and the faculty and to build a larger sense of community, one that integrates social, classroom and scholarly life," Chancellor Bacow said.

He outlined the majors steps MIT is undertaking to accomplish the goal of an enhanced residential experience, including construction of a new undergraduate residence in which social spaces will serve as magnets for building community. He also noted that the new undergraduate residence will incorporate space for five faculty apartments in addition to housemaster and associate housemaster suites, representing a further integration of faculty into residential life.

"One aspect of community life that we have to promote is dining -- people come together around food -- and the new dining facility inthe new residence will encourage that," he added.

Other initiatives MIT is pursuing to promote the triad include "greatly expanding" the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program,as well as developing more opportunities for hands-on learning and for study abroad.

"Thanks to gifts such as the $10 million d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education, we have the support to focus on diversifying and broadening what we teach so we can better prepare out students for the types of careers they'll actually seek in the next century," Chancellor Bacow said. "Following the recommendations of the Task Force, we are interested in strengthening the communications skills of our students, enhancing opportunities for students to develop team-building and leadership skills, and providing additional access for undergraduates to do coursework at the Sloan School."

"We have a simple goal -- to keep MIT as the quintessential research university -- and to do so during a time of major transition for all research universities," Provost Brown said. "This past year represents the tail end of a decade-long shift in the way research universities are supported and run. The pressure on us to maintain excellence has been especially severe since government grants have not grown, while the costs of research and particularly of supporting research assistants have grown rapidly."

The provost cited his own experience. In 1979 he received a then-standard grant of $75,000 for research, paying $14,000 for a research assistant. In 1999, the standard NSF is still $75,000, but a research assistant costs $37,000.

"We have to be tremendously good to attract the best and brightest graduate students. And we are. But to maintain our preeminence, we must find ways to support those graduate students in an increasingly competitive world," he said.

Noting that there is not a great deal of interest at MIT in becoming a "broadcast university through distance-learning technology," Provost Brown cited engagement in industry and programs such as the Merrill Lynch program as evidence of the vitality of new collaborations among government, industry and academia.


Introducing himself as the "clean-up batter" among the four speakers, Mr. Curry reiterated Dr. Vest's quotation from the chair of the executive vice president search committee that his job is "to make MIT's administration 'hum.'"

Mr. Curry first outlined MIT's current fiscal status. "In the past five years, MIT's financial assets have approximately doubled. In the next five years, its physical plant assets will double. This dramatic change in MIT's financial position -- a function of the markets, of choices made by the treasurer and the investment committee, and more fundraising -- accounts for what is about to take place on campus.

"We are about to experience the most extraordinary building boom MIT has seen since the postwar era," Mr. Curry said, listing, among other projects, the Stata Center, the Okawa Center for Future Children, the new undergraduate residence and the new central athletic facility.

"While we are at an extraordinary moment, we can't lose sight of reality. For one thing, our competitors have all experienced the same run-up in assets as we have, and are deploying them very competitively. Also, let us remember 1973-74, when the stock market plunged 40 percent and devastated endowments across the country.

"We now have the opportunity to use our financial assets to build our physical infrastructure and to increase summer tuition support of graduate students doing research and our provision of graduate fellowships. But we cannot relax our work to improve administrative processes and manage costs. The lesson of 1973-74 tells us to use our larger endowment strategically and gradually to hedge against economic cycles," Mr. Curry said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 32).

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