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Susan Hockfield
Susan Hockfield
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Susan Hockfield Interview (page: 7 / 8)

President Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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  Susan Hockfield

While you were Dean of Graduate Studies at Yale, you also tried to foster more communication between disciplines. Could you tell us about that?

The other program we started when I was Dean was a lecture series called "In the Company of Scholars." Jonathan Spence gave a lecture yesterday morning -- he's a historian of China. Arguably, certainly, the nation's best Chinese historian. So I had a thought. I was walking down the street one day. Remember, I was in the Neurobiology Department in the Medical School -- I knew the name Jonathan Spence -- and I walked by the Yale bookstore and there was a display of his most recent book. And I looked at the book and I thought, "You know, if Jonathan Spence passed me on the street, I wouldn't recognize him, because as a neurobiologist I know many of the neurobiologists. I don't know any of these historians." And it struck me that this is another necessary consequence of graduate education being narrow and deep. Necessary, but not exclusionary. And so I started -- I and my colleague started -- this program "In the Company of Scholars," where three times a semester I would invite a faculty member from science, the humanities or the social sciences to give a lecture to the graduate school community. The graduate school at Yale had 2,200 students and roughly 600, 700 faculty were affiliated with the graduate school. So these lectures were expressly for the graduate community: graduate students, faculty in the graduate school. And the charge I gave to each of the faculty speakers was, "Tell us about your topic, but in a way that an intelligent person from another discipline can understand it." Well, this became a wonderfully exciting series of lectures. Of course, the first person I invited to give the lecture "In the Company of Scholars" was Jonathan Spence, and he gave a magnificent lecture. And I don't know, there were over 100 people in the audience, and then we had a reception afterward. And as I went from group to group around the reception, they were talking about the lecture, and that continued, as I said, three times a semester. It was a wonderful way of bringing the graduate community together, and giving students and faculty an opportunity to hear from the masters outside of their own disciplines.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

What does it take to make a university competitive?

Susan Hockfield Interview Photo
Susan Hockfield: That's a great question. What does it take for a university to be competitive? Probably every university president would give you the same answers. I've been trying to articulate why MIT is different from some of the other great universities, but we have to begin by understanding what an extraordinary benefit it is to this country to have a set of the best research universities of all time, and a large set, here in this country. These universities sprang from the bottom up. They weren't determined by the government. They were not put in place by a single source. So each of these universities is very different from the other, and yet we compete fiercely with one another, and I think that's a source of much of our strength. So to be competitive, a great research university obviously has to have very high standards, and those standards really have to reside in the faculty. So the faculty at any great university or college really do come first. They're the source of our inspiration and direction around education and also around research. In a very important way, they don't just set the standards, they also determine the culture. So the faculty are key. When you've got great faculty, you can attract great students. When you've got great students you can attract great faculty. So it's a self-perpetuating equation. You have to have high ambition. I believe you have to have a high purpose.

MIT was founded in 1861 to serve the industrializing nation. It was founded with a very practical ambition, which was to prepare engineers and scientists to provide the kind of understanding and technology that the nation needed. By the middle of the 19th century we had colleges that were in place from early in the 18th century and before that. But by the middle of the 19th century, graduate education was not available in the United States. It was only available in Europe, and frankly, technical education was not really available in the United States. There was a brain drain of U.S. intelligence -- intellect -- to Europe. What's happening then was actually what we see in the United States today -- they would go and stay. Now people come to the United States and they stay, and I wish we had made it easier for them to stay from all over the world -- brilliant people around the world who want to come and study and work in the United States at our research universities. In any case, around the middle of the 19th century the first graduate schools were started in the United States, and MIT and a number of technical universities were also established to begin to serve this industrializing nation's needs.

You've maintained some programs at MIT to extend science education beyond the university itself. Would you like to talk about that?

One of the things we do at MIT, as you may know, is we put all of our courses online, a program called Open Courseware. We don't give any credit for it, but the materials for all of our courses are online. Some of the courses are present in full video. Most of them not, but you could take a course just using those materials rather than going to a textbook. In the fall, we launched a new portal for Open Courseware called Highlights for High School, because we learned that many high school students and teachers are accessing the Open Courseware site. So high school students and teachers around the world, where the high school curriculum has been exhausted and they want to go a little further, were turning to MIT's materials. The Open Courseware site is not so easy to navigate. It's targeted, at the lowest, for a freshman at MIT, and the freshmen at MIT, let's just say, are pretty advanced. So we opened a portal to make it easier for high school students and teachers to navigate the site. As I said, it's called Highlights for High Schools. But one of the things on the site that I particularly love is that we've taken three of the AP courses -- biology, I think it's chemistry and calculus, I think those were the three -- and mapped the curriculum for those courses to Open Courseware material. And again, I just feel enormously envious of the students who were like me in high school, who want to take AP biology but their school doesn't have an AP biology course, and so instead of trying to figure it out on their own, they can actually go to MIT and access all the marvelous materials that we have so that they can study what's equivalent to AP biology with our stuff.

Was that your idea, because it's something you had to do without?

Susan Hockfield: Open Courseware was an idea that came about long before I was at MIT. It's really brilliant. It came from a brilliant insight. What years must it have been? Probably the late '90s. A lot of schools were concerned about the impact of distance education on residential education, and a lot of schools embarked on various experiments in distance education. People were concerned about what it would cost, or interested in whether these could be revenue-producing enterprises.

My predecessor, Chuck Vest, convened a group of faculty to think about how MIT should approach distance education. So this very extraordinary group of faculty went off and thought about it and came back and the report was "Oh, we've looked at it every possible way and we've concluded that you can't make money at it, so we should give it all away for free." And so MIT embarked on what has become Open Courseware, and it is a really quite remarkable force for the democratization of education. We get emails from people all over the world who have used it and describing how it's changed their lives. Then, when I arrived, there was information coming from people who had used the site, and we discovered that there were a lot of high school students and teachers using it. And there were faculty and staff at MIT who were anxious to provide an Open Courseware opportunity that would be actually targeted to high school students and teachers, and I encouraged that development, because I think it's so important. I think that there are a lot of students who have interests in the kinds of things MIT does -- science and engineering -- and yet because of a paucity of educational materials or educational insight, while they're in high school, lose that passion. And it's very important for our nation that we help those young people understand just how wonderfully exciting and rewarding advanced science and engineering are, and how important it is for them to keep their interests focused, and graduate from high school, and then aspire to study science and engineering at the college level.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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