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Thinking globally

Scholar and administrator Bernd Widdig holds a newly created position at MIT: director of international affairs.
Bernd Widdig
Bernd Widdig
Photo: Allegra Boverman

When Bernd Widdig first experienced the international dimension of academia, in 1983, the world was a very different place. Widdig had just graduated from the University of Bonn, in his native Germany, and embarked for Stanford University to pursue his PhD. At the time, there were two Germanys; the Cold War was frozen in place; and China and India together accounted for about 10 percent of global economic activity, a figure that has since doubled.

This fall, Widdig has joined MIT in a new position for the Institute, director of international affairs, where he will help to expand MIT’s global programs and engagements in a world of complex changes. To further advance knowledge and educate students, Widdig will develop partnerships with overseas universities, governments and industry, while giving students the chance to engage with the world.

“MIT is a thoroughly international community,” Widdig says. “At the same time, the big problems today are global problems. And to help solve them, MIT needs to engage with others on an international scale.”

But while Widdig may hold a new position, he is returning to a familiar setting: He spent 18 years at MIT, starting in 1989, mostly as a professor of German studies, before leaving to oversee international-studies programs at Boston College and then Boston University.

“Bernd is very much a person who understands the ethos of this place, and why we are what we are,” says Philip Khoury, MIT’s associate provost and the Ford International Professor of History. “He’s thoughtful, he’s a great listener, and he’s an action person.”

MIT Vice President Claude Canizares, the Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics, who oversees the Institute’s international engagements, concurs.

“Bernd’s perspective is very compatible with the things MIT is doing,” Canizares says, noting the deeply international nature of the MIT community: About 40 percent of the Institute’s graduate students today are from overseas, and nearly 15 percent of its graduates live overseas.

Creating MIT-Germany

After obtaining his undergraduate degree from Bonn in economics, political science, and German literature, Widdig received his doctorate from Stanford in German studies in 1989. After joining MIT as an assistant professor in 1992, Widdig’s specialty was Weimar Germany, the ill-fated democratic republic that existed from 1919 to 1933; he is the author of “Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany” (University of California Press, 2001), which surveyed the traumatic social effects of Germany’s inflationary crisis during this period.

Widdig has also published multiple articles about international education, and as a faculty member at MIT, he became very active in developing international programs for students.

While MIT has never emphasized study abroad as it exists at many other colleges and universities, the Institute created its own international program for students: the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), which helps students secure paid internships and research projects at overseas companies. MISTI has grown to include partnerships with 17 countries; as part of this larger effort, Widdig founded the MIT-Germany program. As associate director of MISTI from 2001 to 2007, he was involved in the growth of these international programs.

“When I started at MIT, almost no students would go abroad,” Widdig says. “I thought I needed to create a hands-on opportunity for those young engineering and science students to experience present-day Germany.” Doing so proves valuable in multiple ways, Widdig believes: “Students come back appreciating many things, from being able to work in a different, international environment to the personal experience of living and working side-by-side with people from other cultures.”

The participating overseas firms and research labs, he adds, “are impressed by the quality and motivation of our students. And it [can be] very important for them to have international students in their work culture.”

In 2007, Widdig left MIT to become director of the Office of International Programs at Boston College; in 2011, he became executive director of study abroad programs at Boston University, which sends more than 2,500 students overseas annually.

Building capacity

Now back at MIT, Widdig will manage much more than international study. MIT’s international efforts include prospective collaborations similar to those it has already developed in Abu Dhabi, Portugal, Russia and Singapore, among other places.

In those cases, a key goal is capacity-building: MIT seeks to expand its own reach, and amplify its mission globally, by working with local partners to establish new institutions that aim to generate knowledge and innovation themselves.

“Some of the large projects MIT has undertaken are about helping give support and expertise to international partners to create first-rate research and teaching facilities,” Widdig says.

“In the end those projects always have to be connected to faculty interests,” Canizares adds.

MIT’s international efforts also include programs in the evolving world of education, both online and off — “I’ve been impressed by the thought and creativity here that goes into the questions of acquiring and distributing knowledge,” Widdig says — and aim to maintain the Institute’s visibility among accomplished students and scholars worldwide.

To some extent, MIT’s international aims include better integration of its existing programs. As Khoury suggests, that could include projects in Africa, where scholars from all five of the Institute’s schools have engaged in research and human-development efforts that might now become more fully coordinated; MIT would also like to enhance its work in China, while renewing efforts in India and the Middle East, among other places. In short, MIT’s international efforts, like the Institute itself, will involve diverse goals on multiple fronts.

“MIT has a culture that comes out of the unique mix of its five schools,” Widdig says. “People ask about the secrets of MIT’s success; an entrepreneurial spirit that crosses disciplinary borders is one of those secrets. I see the same great ability of our community to cross international borders when we tackle those big problems that we all face globally.”

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