MIT's Mission in the 21th Century
Written circa 2004
University students educated during the next decade will be people of influence at a time
uniquely alive with problems. Today, the end of the petroleum era is only dimly
imaginable; in a little more than a quarter century, the end will be in sight. Today,
we worry about the environmental impact of industrialization; tomorrow, the impact will
bear upon us. Today, we congratulate ourselves on the end of the nuclear terror of the
twentieth century; tomorrow, easily made weapons of equal terror are a probability.
But change brings opportunity, not just difficulty, as both new and
established fields shed light on the nature of our species and expand the
reach of our artifacts. Tomorrow, our world may be actuated by clean
energy sources, populated by healthier, better educated, and more
productive people, guided by better approaches to conflict resolution, and
inspired by explorations deep into our universe.
To deal with the problems and realize the opportunities, the nation and the
world will need political, industrial, military, and academic leaders who
think in terms of complex systems that evolve and operate over decades and
centuries, not just in terms of simple systems that track short-term trends
in profits and politics. Increasingly, leaders will need to be technically
grounded, not merely technically literate.
Thus, the mission of MIT should expand to recognize not only the high
expectations our students, staff, and faculty face with respect to their
creative understanding of engineering and science, but also the
increasingly important leadership role of MIT and its people in world
Accordingly, MIT ought to train leaderstechnical, political, industrial,
military, and academicwho are equipped to handle the refulgent
opportunities and colossal problems of the coming decades. MIT's
students, staff, and faculty ought to seize the most substantial
opportunities and to solve the most serious problems.
All this translates directly into the need for improved programs in
traditional science and engineering, new programs in leadership
and persuasion, and reinvigorated programs in the arts and humanities.