Karin Fischer – The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/23/2012
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was in the university-building business.
A young, democratic India turned to MIT as the model for one of its leading Indian Institutes of Technology. Faculty members helped establish Brazil’s Technological Institute of Aeronautics, a breeding ground for its aerospace and defense elite. Another of MIT’s progeny, the Aryamehr University of Technology, which was split into two institutions after the Iranian revolution, is today at the heart of that country’s controversial nuclear program.
More than a generation later, MIT is at it again. In addition to the hundreds—no, thousands—of faculty research collaborations around the globe, the university over the past five years has once more engaged in ambitious efforts to create new, independent institutions, this time in Abu Dhabi, Russia, and Singapore. Other such projects, in Asia and Latin America, are also on the table, says MIT’s freshly inaugurated president, L. Rafael Reif.
Unlike New York University’s much-talked-about branch campus in the Persian Gulf, or Yale University’s proposed liberal-arts college in Singapore, MIT is not stamping its name on campuses overseas. Instead it has seemed content to be a less-showy, largely silent partner in its international ventures. And while there are hurdles, significant ones, that strategy may give it greater global reach than any other American university.
If branch campuses are often intellectual islands, with little local spillover, these upstart institutions are being built in the spirit of MIT’s motto, Mens et Manus, or Mind and Hand. They are meant to have real-world impact. Indeed, that’s precisely why foreign governments and foundations have opened their countries, and their checkbooks, to MIT—they believe the university’s brand of applied, innovation-driven education can help train a cadre of scientists and engineers, produce world-class research, and, ultimately, transform their economies.
“A culture of research to education to innovation, that’s what’s needed in Russia,” says Alexei Sitnikov, vice president for administration and development at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a new graduate research university near Moscow being developed with MIT. “It’s the secret sauce of MIT that we hope to get.”
And if, decades ago, MIT acted as more of a midwife to fledgling foreign institutions, guiding them through birth and then leaving them to their growing pains, today Mr. Reif and other university leaders say they want a more deliberate and sustained approach to international engagement. One option under strong consideration is to create a worldwide network of top-flight science-and-technology universities, both the well established and those with “MIT DNA,” to answer great global challenges.