MIT president: Trump ‘will not change our mission’

But L. Rafael Reif admits the university may have to look for alternative funding sources and new ways to ‘stay connected’ to world 

January 19, 2017
Rafael Reif, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source: Dominick Reuter

The leader of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has said that Donald Trump’s presidency “will not change” the university’s mission and values, claiming that the worst-case scenario is that the institution will have to find new sources of funding.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, L. Rafael Reif said that the institution will “stop being MIT” if it cannot stay true to its core principles, which he said include mutual respect, meritocracy, integrity and a culture of collaboration.

Professor Reif wrote a letter to staff and students at MIT on 10 November, the day after Mr Trump won the US election, claiming that “nothing can change our commitment to tackling big, important problems for humanity – climate change, clean energy, cybersecurity, human health – with colleagues of every identity and background”.

When asked whether it was a realistic goal for universities to remain insulated from the new political environment in the US, Professor Reif said: “I think it’s perfectly right for us to stay with our vision and mission.”

He added: “We believe, say, in climate change and we have a whole climate change action plan that we started over a year ago. That’s one of the biggest challenges the world is facing. That’s something we have to continue.

“The worst that can happen is that [the federal government] says, well, there are no funds for that. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do it. We’re going to have to find new partners, we’re going to find other institutions that can help us, we’re going to have to find new sponsors.”

He said that achieving this will require the university to be “much more connected” with the world and demonstrate much better how it makes an impact on society.

“I do recognise that at MIT we have to do a better job [at showing] society what we’re doing because we don’t advertise what we do. It’s actually very uncomfortable for MIT people to advertise,” he said.

However, he said that MIT is “completely embedded within our society, not isolated from it”, noting that only 9 to 10 per cent of undergraduates at the university pay full tuition fees and that 18 per cent are among the first generation in their family to go to college.

“They understand what it is to suffer and what it is to have a hard time,” he said.

Regarding the future of globalisation, he said that he would “like to think” that tightening immigration policy would have “such a negative consequence that it just cannot possibly be allowed to happen”. But, if changes in visa policy meant that there was “no way” for “the best worldwide talent” to come to MIT, then the institution will find other means to “stay connected”, he said.

He cited existing initiatives at MIT, such as free online courses, a programme creating a global community of problem-solvers and an enterprise designed to support innovative start-up companies, as ways in which the university is already well prepared to remain working across borders.

“I may have to put more stairways there if I cannot bring them to campus. But the mission will stay, I will have to figure another way to do it,” he said.

He added that while MIT has helped to establish other higher education institutions, such as the Singapore University of Technology and Design, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, in Russia, and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, in Abu Dhabi, he has been “reluctant to create an MIT presence abroad”.

“At the moment, I still think that the best model is to do what we’re doing,” he said.

When asked whether the institution will do anything differently given that Mr Trump was elected, Professor Reif said that he has been “thinking about what change in public posture” he should adopt but that he has not yet come to a conclusion. 

“One point is clear. There is a change in Washington, and the change in Washington will not change who we are,” he said.

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