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MIT President Says Higher Education At Crossroads

MIT's great dome in Cambridge (Nietnagel/Flickr)

MIT's great dome in Cambridge (Nietnagel/Flickr)

MIT has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding charter this year. Earlier this month, the institute held its centerpiece event: “The Next Century Convocation.”

The Convocation looked back at a century and a half of research and educational innovations that emerged from MIT and culminated with the signing of an unofficial charter for the next 100 years. While the event struck a celebratory tone about MIT’s past, when Susan Hockfield, the university’s president, rose to the podium, she said when she examined the present she saw a precarious time for the nation and the world.

Susan Hockfield in WBUR studios in January (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Susan Hockfield in WBUR studios in January (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“[It is] a very complicated time — one that tests the limits of human ingenuity and understanding,” Hockfield said. “A time when the world has never depended more on the science and technology that we study and invent at MIT, but seems, on the whole, dangerously unable to understand that science and technology. Yet, ironically, a time when many question the value of higher education and the utility of government-sponsored research.”

Studies have found that as recently as 1995, the U.S. ranked second in terms of college completion rates, globally. By 2005, the country had dropped to 15th. In this global economy, that’s troubling, Hockfield said.

“All around the world developing nations [and] developed nations have so admired what the United States has achieved over the last 50 years — and have understood that fundamental to those achievements is college education — that they have adopted our model and are excelling at that model at a greater level than we are,” Hockfield said.

In essence, other countries are beating us at our own game — the game we thought we’d perfected. As college graduates from other nations start snapping up jobs that used to go Americans, and as other countries develop industries faster than the United States can, we’ll start feeling the pinch.

Hockfield largely blames shifting national priorities.

“What’s missing in the United States is a deficit of ambition,” Hockfield said. “I think, as a nation, we hardly celebrate the achievements that one can attain if one has a college education. We are a nation that happily celebrates athletes and entertainers — and I think that’s great… But we do not have heroes that come out of a different kind of life.”

Most New England schoolchildren can name their favorite Red Sox player. But few, Hockfield lamented, can name their favorite inventor.

As the country struggles in a politically charged environment to budget its resources for the near future, some are advocating cutting federal funding to research institutions. That funding, and the research it pays for, is crucial, Hockfield maintains.

“The fact is that America’s economic excellence, our economic growth, has largely derived from innovation,” Hockfield said.

What role should institutions like MIT play in the future? If MIT’s president had her way, it would be a large one.

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  • Alex G.

    I went to the MIT Museum for the first time this past Easter Sunday. MIT could do its part begin to make innovators and science more appealing to the general public by making a better museum. I’m sorry, but the museum is sorry for a place like MIT. Technology innovations that are on exhibit, such as the search tool that takes in any phrase in the English language and brings up the answer for you in an instant, are typically 10 years old and make you go, “so?”

    • GentleMom

      The new Director is fast-closing that gap; go to the website and check out some of the plans. Also, great piece was in last MIT bulletin or “Spectrum” — cool things already in play. Perhaps you would like to help out? Strongly encourage you to get involved! Just given Andrew a call.

      • Alex G.

        I’m not part of the MIT community and have only a community college degree. I’m not sure in what capacity I could help out with the MIT Museum. But my visit there yesterday it certainly did leave an impression on me, but not in the way it should have.

  • Anonymous

    Well it depends on what people are studying. We NEED more engineers, more inventors. We are getting more Art History and English majors. The best schools in America and the world need to stop allowing students to spend four to six years drinking

  • GentleMom

    My kids — and perhaps I am guilty of failing to be a Tiger Mom — have shied away from sciences and “harder” loads. They seemed consumed with the arts and social sciences. We think this is partly a more leisurely lifestyle, or at least a “better GPA” path (sadly). So many suburban kids enjoy these days, but we also hear other comments periodically: “the Asian kids do it all, better” or “do I really need to study that if I am just going to be in sales or teach ?”

    We/they are blessed with a fanastic educational system; our fear is that they have taken it for granted (access, costs, and results). This has prob. made them complacement, and they don’t realize how competitive the world will be 20+ years from now — or even 5 yrs! International kids giving up family/home to leverage four years in the US for college/grad school. Major cut backs in funding student loans (for graduate school — if they go). Mega-shifts of white-collar jobs outside the US. The kids are not listening that the world is moving under their feet.

    The MIT, Yale, Stanford grads are in much better position. But those going to “second tier” liberal arts colleges will not see doors open automatically, yet they are shelling out very similar costs for the degree. And most likely will need a graduate degree on top, just to “keep up with the (Chinese, Indian, E.European and S. American) Joneses.”

  • ProfEcon

    Take out your blue books!

    Premise: College Costs — Affordable or Not? Those at the top earner/asset level can pay the bill (not cheap but high-income parents or asset-rich grandparents have the wherewithal). Those below 100k are getting huge help through grants, scholarships (and fewer loans). But those in the 100-$200k household income range are subsidzing the structure. Discuss.

  • Lee

    There’s no “at a crossroads”. Higher education NEEDS to be made more affordable. Period.

  • Anonymous

    The middle class cannot afford college. Some schools only offer loans, placing a huge burden on graduating students and families.

  • Dupaul1

    Is MIT apolitical? Does it share the political philosophies of the Koch brothers?

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