Q&A with the Dean 

In the Spring of 2008, MIT Tech Talk interviewed Dean Fitzgerald, leading to a lively, far-reaching conversation that illuminates the School's contribution to the Institute, and the Dean's vision for the School in the global era.

Tech Talk: How do you see the role of the School at MIT?

Dean Fitzgerald: MIT champions the power of combining a world-class science education with the critical thinking and cultural literacy of the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We have all seen the tremendous advantage this approach gives MIT students, how crucial it is for their success as leaders and global citizens.

At the School, we are dedicated to educating future leaders. MIT students thrive on their multidimensional education, and alums report that the perspectives they gain at the School are crucial to their success and satisfaction.

Q: What are some of your major goals for the school?

DF: We are focusing on a cluster of goals that strengthen our contributions to MIT education and research. These include: providing opportunities for international education; interdisciplinary research and teaching; strengthening our graduate programs; and a focus on public understanding of science and technology.

Q: Is there an MIT way to teach humanities and arts?

DF: First, of course, the MIT way is unsurpassed excellence, and here at the School, our world-class faculty are leaders in their fields. We also think deeply, as a community, about the value our disciplines have in this particular university—to educate people with an uncommon ability to make a positive difference in the world. We teach in ways that resonate with the MIT ethos of innovation. Like our colleagues in the sciences, the School’s humanists, artists, and social scientists are inventive scholars who work in a global landscape. 

Q: What role does the School play in MIT's approach to international education?

DF: All of us at MIT, and at our peer institutions, are alive to the demands of the globalizing economy and knowledge systems. Giving MIT students deep knowledge about languages and cultures of other countries, and engaging students in international opportunities, is a vital part of a 21st-century education, and critical to the Institute's leadership position.

The School has a central role in this area: the great majority of MIT faculty involved in international education are based in our School. We are also the home for Foreign Languages and Literatures, where students become fluent in the languages and cultures they need to be global citizens. All of the School's disciplines have an international flavor and many of our faculty have strong relationships abroad. 

MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives) is our standard-bearer, a hugely successful program and one of the principal ways MIT students gain the cultural understandings that prepare them to be global citizens. Another standout in our international program is J-PAL (the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab), which works across the globe, doing transformative research on poverty alleviation and health care. 

We also have specialized programs that deepen students' capacities to operate well around the world. There are several month-long IAP programs—to mention just two, one in Italy run by History, and in Spain and France run by FL&L. 

We know that MIT students want to make a positive difference in the world, and our international programs are designed to help them do that.

Q:  Can you describe some of the public understanding of science projects? 

DF: A great array of MIT's programming for public engagement with science and technology exists in our School—including the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, the Graduate Program in Science Writing, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships, and Comparative Media Studies. These are superb programs, and my goal is to keep this vital area growing.

We have also initiated a series to bring remarkable people to campus to give students more understanding of how science and technology interact with large social issues. We brought Paul Farmer here to talk about his work partnering with poor communities to combat disease and poverty, and David Macaulay, the illustrator/author of The Way Things Work. Both events were standing room only, and we see that students are eager for models of how to do important, exciting work at the juncture of science, humanities, art, and technology.

Q: What kinds of education innovations are you envisioning?

DF: We want to sustain and strengthen our distinguished graduate programs, and we are focusing on providing incredible quality in our undergraduate courses. We are always creating interdisciplinary learning experiences that are as engaging as they are rigorous, and I am encouraging even more collaborative and interdisciplinary classes, projects, and research. 

Q: Do you have much contact with alums?

DF: Yes, and I have been delighted by our alumni. They remember their experiences in the humanities, arts, and social sciences with tremendous passion. The alums recognize the value their School experiences have had in their own success and happiness, so they are eager to keep the School strong for next generations. Our alums are brilliant, engaged, full of ideas—they are just great, inspiring people. They're just like MIT students actually!

Q: You have great enthusiasm for MIT students. Can you say more about your hopes for them in the world?

DF: We want to educate our students to be leaders and global citizens. MIT is the very best, hands down, for training students to be scientifically and technically superior. At the School, we play a strong role in helping MIT  students also understand that they are poised to be leaders. 

Our challenge is to help students enter the global world in the best way—with creativity, perspective, humility, and grace. We want them to be able to write and think critically, to be wise problem-solvers, with cultural and aesthetic literacy, with the ability to engage with other cultures respectfully.

We want them to feel confident expressing ideas, to understand cultural references in India or France; to envision how an end-user will experience an engineered product. These are all areas where the qualitative, contextual knowledge cultures of the School are invaluable to MIT students.


Excerpted from Dean Fitzgerald's interview with Tech Talk, 15 April 2008
Full interview at MIT News