When L. Rafael Reif stepped up to the podium to give his inaugural address on September 21, he got straight to the point: MIT, like all institutions of higher education, is at a crossroads. And as the Institute’s 17th president, he plans to lead the way in making education much more accessible to students in all corners of the world, as well as ever more effective for those on the Institute’s own campus.
“The pressures of cost and the potential of new technologies are presenting all of us in higher education with a historic opportunity: the opportunity to better serve society by reinventing what we do and how we do it,” Reif told the enthusiastic crowd in Killian Court. “It is an opportunity we must seize.”
The Institute’s new president had already been playing a big role in the reinvention of education: he was one of the prime movers behind last December’s launch of MITx, an ambitious project that has begun reproducing the MIT educational experience online for a worldwide audience, using video lectures, virtual lab experiments, and automatically graded homework assignments and exams. Reif was also behind the move to expand the effort into edX as MIT joined forces with Harvard and, later, the University of California at Berkeley. The initiative immediately garnered worldwide attention: MITx’s first course, last spring, drew more than 155,000 registrants, of whom more than 7,000 passed. (See “Is MIT Giving Away the Farm?” September/October 2012.)
Reif emphasized that these open educational technologies should be seen as a way to enhance, not replace, on-campus education: “Can these new technologies help us do what we do well—and do it even better? And can they help us do things we can only dream of doing today? I want MIT to play a leadership role in seeking these answers.”
“The MIT I know loves challenges,” he said. “The MIT I know solves the unsolvable, shapes the future, and serves our nation and the world. The MIT I know and love does not stand on the sidelines.”
Some educators have decried the impact such changes might have on traditional institutions and ways of teaching (see “The Crisis in Higher Education”). But Reif said such fears are misplaced. “We should not reject change—we should embrace change,” he said. “The printing press did not weaken universities; it strengthened them. These are huge opportunities for higher education, and the stakes are high. This historic assignment is not optional. It is our shared duty to make sure the outcome serves humanity.”
Reif acknowledged that online education may ultimately challenge the very existence of the residential campus, but the research university “is not an ornament or a luxury that society can choose to go without,” he said. “Society continues to need what the residential research university does better than any other institution.” Among those things, he added, are to “incubate brilliant young talent and create the new knowledge and innovation that fuel our society.”
Presidential pomp, with a dash of rhumba
A sea of mortarboards, tassled tams, and MIT-red velvet caps topped the heads of the robe-clad faculty, visiting academics, and Corporation members who assembled beneath the large pavilion constructed for Reif’s inauguration. But of all the hats in Killian Court, a multicolored beanie with a propeller on top best captured the exuberant mood of the day. The wearer of said cap, Danny Ben-David ’15, summed up the afternoon perfectly: “It’s all of MIT under one big tent.”
The three living MIT presidents emeriti were in attendance: Susan Hockfield, now the Marie Curie Visiting Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; Charles Vest, now president of the National Academy of Engineering; and Paul Gray, professor of electrical engineering emeritus at MIT. Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust congratulated Reif on behalf of the academic community (see Seen on Campus). The ceremony was also graced by a spirited rhumba written in honor of the new president by Institute Professor and Pulitzer Prize–winning composer John Harbison, who riffed on Reif’s alliterative name (“Rafael Reif—has a rhythm all his own/Rafael Reif—is the one to set the tone/He brings a new solution/To the techno revolution/Rafael Reif—is already in the zone”), as well as performances by the Rambax MIT Senegalese Drum Ensemble, the MIT Ceremonial Brass, and the student a cappella group the Chorallaries, who got a thumbs-up from the president as he entered the pavilion.
A large contingent of alumni—many of whom were in town for the annual Alumni Leadership Conference—was on hand to mark the occasion, and students got a holiday from classes to attend. Among them was second-year EECS grad student Maria Rodriguez ’11, who pronounced it “really cool” that MIT’s new leader is from Venezuela and said the occasion made her feel proud. Freshmen Sally Miller and Ceili Burdhimo, who both plan to major in Aero-Astro, said they were excited to be coming to MIT at what Burdhimo called “a time when the president is a freshman too.”
“We must all be champions of basic research”
Although Reif made clear in his address that the Institute is ready and willing to embrace change, he also spoke of the need to uphold the values MIT has always embodied, including its dedication to cutting-edge research.
“We must all be champions of basic research,” he said. “If a society gives up on basic research, it is giving up on its future . . . I will ask our faculty, working with the provost, to identify those great global challenges, where—through coördinated, Institute-wide, mission-driven research, and through the power of innovation and entrepreneurship—MIT could make an inspiring difference.”
Reif also cited the Institute’s many efforts to create new collaborations and institutions around the world. “MIT’s network of global collaborations has expanded in the last few years,” he said. “Led by our faculty, it will likely continue to grow—slowly, deliberately, and strategically—in the next few years.”
Striking a more personal note, Reif recounted the story of his own origins and his path to the Institute. He described a couple who “left Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, during one of the darkest periods in its history, and found refuge in South America.” This couple, he continued, “raised four sons under extremely difficult circumstances, but raised them with principles, with integrity and values, taught them neither rancor nor hatred, taught them understanding and respect for different points of view, and taught them the value of education and hard work.” Reif concluded, to applause, “The youngest son of the couple in my story eventually became the 17th president of one of the most remarkable educational institutions the world has ever seen.”
That personal experience, he said, helped shape his understanding of those who come from different places or backgrounds—and the importance of ensuring that everyone gets an equal shot at the advantages of an MIT education.
“I will lead MIT to continue to make significant contributions in the area of race and diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Reif said. “We have many compelling suggestions for practical change. These include better ways to search for and mentor new talent, and to improve the orientation process for new members of our community.” He added, “We must find new ways to make sure that everyone who earns a place here can feel—as so many of us already do—that MIT is their home.”
“We are all in this great enterprise together”
But such measures are only a step along the road, he said: “My dream is that by the time MIT selects its 18th president, our diversity will no longer need to be a matter of presidential declarations, because it will be a welcome, obvious reality and a vital source of MIT’s creative strength.” In the end, Reif said, what matters most is not the differences between members of the MIT community, but their shared goals and aspirations. “We are all in this great enterprise together,” he said. “We have a great deal to accomplish, and the world is waiting. So let’s get started.”
Additional reporting by Alice Dragoon