In my last post, I report­ed that MIT has just launched a bold, brave and pub­lic ini­tia­tive to reimag­ine what the uni­ver­si­ty could be in sev­en years.” MIT (as a com­mu­ni­ty) involves a lot of peo­ple (it employs 11,000 peo­ple — 1000 of which are fac­ul­ty, with a stu­dent-fac­ul­ty ratio of 8:1). Any­one who tries to tam­per with the sta­tus quo of that big of an organ­i­sa­tion had bet­ter be sure of what he or she is doing. I’m con­vinced MIT’s pres­i­dent, L. Raphael Reif, is very much on the right track. In this way, Reif can be seen as a role mod­el for any­one engag­ing in a sim­i­lar pur­suit, even if the chal­lenge is on a much small­er scale. In this post, I’d like to stress the three big things he did to start this daunt­ing nextsens­ing initiative. 

He chose two peo­ple to lead the charge, pre­sum­ably two peo­ple in whom he has sub­stan­tial trust. When an insti­tu­tion such as MIT con­sid­ers retool­ing or recon­fig­ur­ing itself, the impli­ca­tions on finan­cial income and out­go are only a part of the prob­lem. MIT has (like most uni­ver­si­ties) an embed­ded base of peo­ple who are enam­oured of the way MIT has been and is. This means that, while phys­i­cal facil­i­ties and bal­ance sheets are going to be in play, the emo­tions of all stake­hold­ers will be on full alert (and count in that cat­e­go­ry the 126,684 liv­ing MIT alum­ni!). Two pos­si­bil­i­ties are going to be high: some peo­ple could eas­i­ly become irra­tional in want­i­ng to replace the sta­tus quo com­plete­ly while oth­ers will irra­tional­ly resist any change. Mean­while, the pres­i­dent will have to over­see the day-to-day oper­a­tions of MIT. By pick­ing two top indi­vid­u­als (San­jay Sar­ma and Israel Ruiz), he will be able to focus on the here and now while they increas­ing­ly focus on the there and then. And, by allow­ing them to select the indi­vid­u­als who will serve on the spe­cial task force, he indi­cat­ed that he trusts them to lead this impor­tant team in a way that will be most ben­e­fi­cial to the university.

long road aheadHe spoke direct­ly to the MIT com­mu­ni­ty. Per­haps you have worked in a firm in which prospec­tive change was a hush-hush affair, some­thing rumoured but absolute­ly noth­ing was pub­licly spo­ken about it. This is not the way Pres­i­dent Reif did it. First, he pub­lished an open let­ter (lit­er­al­ly) to the entire “MIT com­mu­ni­ty” then he rein­forced it with a detailed expla­na­tion of his charge to the task force. Noth­ing hushed about this, as his com­mu­ni­ca­tions were emphat­i­cal­ly blunt. In his let­ter, he states: “Con­ver­sa­tions with lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton and at the World Eco­nom­ic Forum have con­firmed my view that we are rapid­ly reach­ing an inflec­tion point in the his­to­ry of high­er edu­ca­tion and that the out­come will be crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant for MIT, for col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties in gen­er­al, and for gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents around the world.” And his charge to the task force under­scores a stark real­i­ty: “For MIT — an insti­tu­tion pas­sion­ate­ly com­mit­ted to the kind of hands-on, team-focused, appren­tice­ship edu­ca­tion that depends on com­mu­ni­ty and human con­tact — the chal­lenge and the oppor­tu­ni­ty are par­tic­u­lar­ly urgent and direct. In short, to stay true to our edu­ca­tion­al val­ues, we must seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty to reimag­ine what we do and how we do it.” Make no mis­take, every­one who cares deeply about MIT soon learned about the task force, its char­ter and scope, and its strong poten­tial to change the way things are. And this move, to include every­one affect­ed from the very start, is high­ly commendable.

He set hard dead­lines and defined deliv­er­ables. If you only have time to read one doc­u­ment about this MIT ini­tia­tive, read the charge let­ter. It enu­mer­ates what the pres­i­dent (that is, the uni­ver­si­ty) needs the task force to do; and, as you might guess, it is very detailed in its scope. He’s ask­ing for a new ecosys­tem for edu­ca­tion in the future, a range of exper­i­ments and pilot projects that will involve MIT both on- and off-cam­pus, a review of the cur­rent finan­cial mod­el to project its future via­bil­i­ty — and this is all in the first 100 words or so. There are more bul­let points that both design to ener­gise the task force while keep­ing it on a nec­es­sar­i­ly well-defined path. And this is not work that is to be com­plet­ed “some­day”. He asks for a pre­lim­i­nary report in six months, the com­plete report in a year. “The task before you is seri­ous and press­ing,” he says at the end of the charge let­ter as a not-so-gen­tle nudge to all task force mem­bers to ele­vate the pri­or­i­ty of this assign­ment to Job One.

Reif is the 17th pres­i­dent of MIT; he took office in July 2012. To say the least, he is off to a fast start. Yet, if you read his offi­cial bio, you will find that he is, first a man of sci­ence: he “is the inven­tor or co-inven­tor on 15 patents, has edit­ed or co-edit­ed five books and has super­vised 38 doc­tor­al the­ses. He focused his most recent research on three-dimen­sion­al inte­grat­ed cir­cuit tech­nolo­gies and on envi­ron­men­tal­ly benign micro­elec­tron­ics fab­ri­ca­tion.” I note that here because he per­son­i­fies those indi­vid­u­als who seem to make the best lead­ers: they have one eye on what needs to be done today and are active­ly engaged and pro­duc­tive. But their oth­er eye is always look­ing toward the demands of tomor­row — the long road ahead, and they make time now to pre­pare for what needs to hap­pen to make the future a favourable one for the peo­ple they lead.

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