"Pursuing the Endless Frontier: Essays on MIT and the Role of Research Universities" (MIT Press), a new book by President Charles M. Vest, explores controversial and significant issues facing academic institutions through the prism of Vest's 14 years of leading MIT.
"A journey that began in a warm family in a small town in West Virginia has led to center stage in Killian Court--where my path and that of the Institute have come together," Vest writes in the introduction to his 1990 inaugural address, titled "MIT: Shaping the Future," the book's opening essay.
Vest developed the essays in "Frontier" from his annual year-end messages, adding an introduction to each essay that places it in a wider historical context.
Themes including managing the "fragile envelope" of th Earth's environment, human interconnectivity, political and economic connections, and divisions affecting higher education persist throughout the book.
In "Higher Education and the Challenges of a New Era" (1993-1994), Vest provides a lucid view of the rapid changes in relationships among industry, government and research universities. Emphasizing the importance of federal funding for basic science, Vest goes on to discuss the impact of the marketplace on R&D and the potential clashes between industrial and academic values.
"Industrial issues have become intellectually challenging and exciting from the perspective of faculty and student interest, and we need each other as never before," he writes.
"Three Questions in Search of Answers" (1998-1999) is both contemplative and journalistic. The questions concern merit-based financial aid, the faculty's collective responsibility, and the impact of industry sponsorship of research. They "speak to what principles we rely on to guide our future," he writes.
The last two essays in "Frontier" juxtapose the international and the individual spheres. Following Sept. 11, 2001, MIT and other research institutions had to address the balance of security and openness, an issue Vest took on directly and passionately in favor of openness.
In "Response and Responsibility: Balancing Security and Openness in Research and Education" (2001-2002), Vest writes, "As we respond to the reality of terrorism, we must not unintentionally disable the quality and rapid evolution of American science and technology â€¦ Openness in education and research must prevail. But this will be possible only â€¦ if the federal government and academia maintain a respectful, substantive and effective dialogue between those who do science and those who are charged with protecting the nation."
At the book's end, Vest stands again on Killian Court, reflecting on the roots of academic excellence; the values of perseverance, boldness and optimism; and his experience leading MIT through an ambitious program for campus renewal. He closes these essays with an eye to the future.
"Through its own work, and especially through the lives and works of its graduates, a great university can strive to make the world well. The knowledge we generate, the things we come to understand, and the devices we build, can improve health, economies, security and the quality of life. MIT must continue to be optimistic in its vision of why we are here and what we can do. For then our students will be inspired to take on the great challenges," he writes.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 27, 2004 (download PDF).