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 affairs.

Accordingly, MIT ought to train leaders—technical, political, industrial, military, and academic—who 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.