September/October 2020Vol.XXXIII No. 1

Beyond Risk Management? How to Learn from MIT’s International Engagements

Bish Sanyal

I was inspired by Richard Lester’s article in the May/June 2020 Faculty Newsletter (“On the Risks and Benefits of New International Engagements”) in which he laid out a comprehensive process to assess the risks of MIT’s new international engagements. The article addresses many of the concerns MIT faculty have been raising for years, with the steady expansion of MIT’s international engagements since the early 2000s. MIT should be applauded for considering the faculty’s reservations seriously and for putting forward a well-articulated process of risk assessment.

Risk management is, however, only one aspect of any international engagement; it does not fully address the central purpose of such engagements – namely, knowledge creation and learning. To be sure, we are now more aware of risks, but do we also have a better sense of what kind of international engagements lead to what form of learning? I realize that starting in the 1990s many universities advocated for global engagements primarily to take advantage of the increasing flow of international funding. Even though that euphoria about how to quickly expand university endowments has somewhat receded after the market collapse in 2008-2009, it still remains one reason, among others, by many universities for continuing international engagements. At MIT, which regularly receives multiple requests for co-operations from abroad so other nations might create their own MITs, the issue of international engagements has not been as financially driven. As far back as the 1960s, when MIT first assisted the Indian government in creating the Indian Institute of Technology, MIT has been involved in international engagements primarily to contribute to the creation of learning environments.

This emphasis on learning was proudly displayed in President Charles Vest’s decision to create MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which was not intended for revenue generation. It is that noble attitude which still inspires me after all these years, and I remain deeply interested in the issue of learning. In particular, what type of international engagements by MIT would flourish new knowledge creation and learning? The answer is not as obvious as it may seem at first glance; there are multiple mostly untested assumptions we carry about what leads to learning as a result of international engagements.

As a learning community, MIT has acted on many assumptions about the best modalities of external engagements. As the Institute engages in risk assessment, I hope it will also be open to testing the key assumptions about learning benefits which have shaped its international engagements so far.

I raise this issue because I am curious as to what extent the assumptions that guided MIT’s global engagements in the past proved to be accurate, or which need to be revised based on evidence from our experiments abroad. I believe this is a fair question to raise, because as an institute of science and technology emphasizing that all research findings be grounded in empirical evidence, MIT should formulate its future policies based on evidence from past efforts. But does such evidence exist, based on rigorous evaluation of MIT’s past international engagements?

Take the case of the recently concluded MIT-Cambridge University joint effort. Masterminded by MIT’s then-Chancellor, Larry Bacow, this effort rested on a central assumption: that by exchanging students between MIT and Cambridge University a better learning environment would be created than if learning was restricted to students confined to one university alone. There were a few corollary assumptions as well: that Cambridge University represented a distinctly different learning tradition than MIT, and that students would benefit by tapping into both traditions of excellence. On the Cambridge side, there was much hope that their exchange students would inherit the entrepreneurial spirit of MIT students and learn to innovate rather than simply analyze problems in the old European tradition. Which is why the British government agreed to pay a significant amount for this student exchange.

But how did the exchange program actually work out? Are the students on both sides who participated in the program any different in their learning capabilities compared to the students who did not participate in the exchange program? If so, how so? Which aspects of the exchange program produced what kinds of benefits? Were there any surprises? Any unintended consequences, good or bad? An anecdote may be helpful here. I had a few students from Cambridge University enroll in a course I taught with Amy Smith from D-Lab on the design of intermediate technologies. One day after class as I walked back with a few students to the main building at 77 Mass. Ave., I asked the exchange students if they agreed that MIT offered a different learning environment than Cambridge University. The students unanimously responded “Yes!” “What was different?” I asked. The students responded that at MIT there is more class discussion and more back and forth between faculty and students than at Cambridge. Then I asked: “Did you make any new friends at MIT?” Underlying this question was the assumption that students often learn more from each other than from faculty, which is often the reasoning behind why MIT should enroll international students. The Cambridge University students responded, “Not really.“ “Why?” I asked. One student answered with a laugh: “American students are either studying or running; they do not socialize the way we are used to at Cambridge.” This anecdote opens up a whole range of questions, answers to which can only be found if we formally evaluated the exchange program.

Another example is MIT’s involvement in the King Fahd University in Saudi Arabia. When I was Chair of the Faculty (2007-2009) many faculty complained to me that it was a mistake to engage with an undemocratic regime which discriminated against women, Jews, and the LGBTQ community. When I raised this issue with colleagues who were supportive of MIT’s engagements in Saudi Arabia, I was told that by working with an undemocratic regime with biases with which we disagree, we may be able to usher in gradual changes from within by simply demonstrating the way we work at MIT. I heard a similar argument about why MIT should continue to engage with fossil fuel companies: that we can raise their awareness of environmental issues more by engaging with them than by boycotting them.

Some may recall that similar arguments were made in the 1980s when many wanted the United States government to boycott South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Boycotts do not work, the argument went; it would only make the Apartheid regime dig in its heels deeper in defiance of boycotts. Who is right?

The end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa did prove that boycotts matter; while the Saudi Government does not show any inclination to change, unless one considers granting women the right to drive a major reform at a time when in the West self-driven cars are ready to enter the market! Richard Lester’s article suggests that MIT has learnt a lesson or two from our past engagements with Saudi Arabia. It will be good to build on those lessons and probe the efficacy of various types of engagements. But that would require a serious evaluation, which could be a learning experience for both those who still believe that they could change policies of institutions by working with them, and those who do not.

Let me provide a third example of why serious evaluations of MIT’s past international engagements can be very useful to better understand what creates the best learning environment. Many MIT faculty are engaged in some form of joint research around the world.

This trend was somewhat formalized and celebrated when MIT, under Charles Vest’s leadership, joined hands with four other leading international universities to address the challenges posed by environmental degradation. What kind of assumptions regarding the benefits of joint research motivated MIT to participate in this effort? One assumption, I remember, was that in an increasingly integrating world, many problems – particularly related to environmental issues ¬– could no longer be addressed adequately by research conducted within any one national territory. Since globally produced problems require a global consensus on how to address them, leading universities in any one nation should encourage joint research with leading universities in other nations.

This argument, of course, dates back to pre-China-bashing days when globalization was seen as a benefit for humankind. But, as the national mood changes and new restrictions are imposed by the federal government, do we have concrete evidence about the benefits and costs of joint research? To what extent did the initial assumptions prove to be accurate? Did such efforts really have a global impact? Why or why not? What were the surprises we must learn from to revise our guiding assumptions about what kind of multinational research efforts lead to new insights? What are the factors that deter that form of knowledge generation? It is customary to hear the benefits of co-production of knowledge, but once one probes the modalities of cooperation – who provided the leading research questions, who designed the research methodology, who paid and who is likely to benefit from new knowledge – the answers may not be as obvious as they seem at first glance.

Let me conclude by restating what we already know: that we do not fully understand what creates the best learning environment. There are multiple “hypotheses” about what works and what does not. The most current one I hear is about the benefits of competition which is driving the search for a Covid-19 vaccine. We will all be better off the sooner we have a safe vaccine, and if competition hastens the process, so be it.

So between cooperation and competition, which one works better, when, and why? Answers to such questions require rigorous evaluations of past efforts, lacking which we continue to lose opportunities to learn. I realize that formal evaluation of any effort is never simply a technical exercise: the process of evaluation and its findings often have political implications as fingers get pointed towards those who made “mistakes.” I am hoping that as a leading knowledge institution MIT can transcend such an attitude and expand our knowledge of not only which type of international engagements are most risky, but which ones offer the most benefits and why.