Ethics education at the Institute

In his letter to The Tech last Friday, Gregory Kravit ’15 presents our community with a profound challenge. He describes with gratitude hearing an MIT professor take a principled stance on financial ethics in research. But Gregory goes on to explain that his own education at MIT has not given him clear ways to think about the moral, ethical and societal context of the advanced technical work MIT is preparing him to do.

He then offers this challenge:

“As MIT seeks to reach beyond the residential campus and teach ‘the next billion people,’ the Institute cannot lose sight of its responsibility to provide a framework and context for the knowledge it provides to the world. Initiatives like edX provide the Institute with enormous power to lead and define this decade and the 21st century as it did in the 20th. But with this power comes the responsibility to provide a solid ethical framework for all the members of the MIT community.”

Gregory’s thoughts resonate with the research findings of the preliminary report of the Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, released yesterday. In offering a possible future vision of MIT education, the Task Force authors argue that.

“Finally, there is a need to better develop our students’ ethical skills. This encompasses ethical behavior and academic honesty as it relates to their conduct in education and research — an even more pressing issue with online classes — as well as the broader ethical issues arising in their technical disciplines. A greater emphasis on contextualizing the technical education is one possible way to address this issue.” [p. 27]

In every School at MIT, there are many good, significant ongoing efforts to help our students develop their personal and professional ethics. Do these efforts go far enough? We owe it to our students — and the world we send them out to serve — to provide a deep, effective ethical education. Can we really say we are teaching problem solving, if we leave ethics out of the question? Surely right and wrong should be among the explicit boundary conditions in solving any important problem. If we aim to give our students the intellectual tools to solve real-world problems, we must also give them the ethical tools to understand the real-world consequences of their choices — and the moral tools to do the right thing.

Last June at Commencement, I shared one of my ambitions with our graduating class: that I want MIT to be famous not only for its scientific and technical achievements, but also for how we treat people — famous for sympathy, humility, decency, respect and kindness. In that spirit, I believe we should strive to make our community one where — as with the example of the MIT professor Gregory described in his letter — all of us instinctively operate with the highest integrity and ethics, too. As an institution, MIT has a notable history of taking the high road, and we must teach our students, and remind each other, why that is important and how it is done.

Like Gregory, I am not yet certain what path we should follow to enhance the ethical awareness of our community and the ethics education of our students. But I am certain that we must work together to find that path. This task will be an important responsibility of MIT’s next Chancellor. I also welcome reflections and ideas from anyone in the community on the best way to get this done.

L. Rafael Reif
MIT President