Speech by SUTD President, Professor Thomas Magnanti

07 May 2012

Your Excellency President Tony Tan Keng Yam

Mr. Philip Ng, Chairman of the SUTD Board of Trustees

MIT Associate Provost, Philip Khoury

Zhejiang University Vice-President, Wu Ping

SUTD Colleagues

Distinguished guests

And, especially, the pioneering SUTD students, the Class of 2015

We are here today to celebrate a milestone event, the inauguration of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, a truly bold initiative in higher education. 

We have developed the nucleus of a world class university—a world class faculty and staff, superb and deeply committed board members, and unique and exceptional students. We have fashioned an exciting vision and mission, are fortunate to be shaping the university in one of the world’s most vibrant countries and regions, and have the steadfast support of the government. 

The members of the pioneering student cohort that stand before us today begin their journeys to shape the university and to change the world. 

With these building blocks firmly in place, SUTD strives no less than to be one of the world’s great universities. Needless to say, this is a colossal, perhaps outrageous, ambition. The enormous task of building a leading university from the ground up can, at times, seem overwhelming, but we welcome the challenge. It is impossible to reach high by aiming low, so let us keep our splendid goal firmly in mind and proceed with pragmatic optimism. Let us work with enthusiasm, vigour, and conviction to create a new type of university. 

SUTD is established in collaboration with MIT to advance knowledge and nurture a new generation of technologically-grounded leaders—innovators equipped to create a better world through Design. 

SUTD is distinctive in many ways. Its focus on technology and what SUTD calls Big-D design lies at the core of SUTD’s unique and innovative framework. SUTD’s novel structure, curriculum, and degrees focus on products, services, and systems—the very foundations of today’s and tomorrow’s worlds. This outward-in focus, which emanates from society’s basic needs, propels the university and its curriculum. SUTD’s approach sharply contrasts with how most universities are organized—inward-out from the disciplines. 

Our approach fosters multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary collaboration. But rest assured: the curriculum and SUTD’s research draw heavily on foundational disciplines—mathematics, basic sciences, humanities, arts, social sciences, architecture, computer science, and mechanical, electrical, and other fields of engineering. Our graduates will be very well rounded and very well prepared. 

SUTD will be a truly global university. With significant collaborations with Zhejiang University, the Singapore Management University, as well as MIT, and with the benefit of being located in Singapore, SUTD is beautifully positioned to bring together the very best of the East and the West.

Through these collaborations and various programmatic initiatives, its engagement with the world and, more importantly, the creation of an open, empowering culture, SUTD also aims to become an innovation zone, a glowing hotbed of entrepreneurship and innovative design.

Like our partners MIT and Zhejiang University and all the world’s great universities, SUTD will be research-intensive. We have already launched the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre. It focuses on cutting-edge design methodologies and concepts with applications of important practical significance. SUTD has also launched the Lee Kuan Yew Center for Innovative Cities. It is intended to draw upon the best thinking and creative ideas in technology and design to address important challenges facing today’s and tomorrow’s urban environments. All very, exciting, wouldn’t you agree. 

Inevitable Change

Our journey requires patience: a deeply rooted commitment to excellence at every turn, a commitment to building for the long haul, and a commitment to the concept of Q not Q—quality not quantity. 

The great universities of the world have all celebrated centennials, several more than one. Their recognition did not come overnight. Of course, here in Singapore everything happens at warp speed and so we can surely hope and strive for a rapid development and recognition.

It is impossible to stand here today and say exactly what SUTD will look like decades from now. The great universities of the world have all evolved over time. The leading European universities of the middle ages, with guild-based instruction, as well as the emerging colonial colleges of the United States offered a lock step curriculum anchored in the classics. As Fredrick Rudolf notes in his classic book The American College & University; A History, the original mission of Harvard was to "Train the schoolmasters, the divines, and the rulers (the cultured ornaments of society)." Harvard founding called for “A learned clergy, a lettered people.” Hardly the Harvard that we know today.

We can expect much of what we are putting in place now for SUTD will change. Are there, however, basic and enduring tenets?

Enduring Tenets

Technology and design have been, are, and will always be essential to society’s prosperity and well-being. 

The harnessing of fire, the creation of basic tools and weapons, clothing, and even early modes of transportation, such as canoes, provided the necessities of life in the stone ages. Such essentials as gears, screws, pumps, and chain drives were both the result of extraordinary human ingenuity and opened the doors to extraordinary expressions of that ingenuity. 

The creation of the printing press and affordable paper in the 15th century as well as electrification in the last century literally changed the world. And the list goes on and on---developments in transportation, communications, health care, water purification and distribution. 

To stress the point, with advances in food preparation and preservation, housing, clothing, control of the elements, and heath care, life expectancy at birth has more than doubled since the Middle Ages, and even in Singapore life expectancy has improved steadily over the last three decades from 72 years in 1980 to 82 years in 2010. 

The influences of technology are so important that we characterize the evolution of society through the lenses of technologies – the stone, copper, bronze and iron ages, the renaissance and industrial revolution, and, finally, the information age. 

In the examination of culture, anthropologists such as Leslie Alvin White have pointed to technological systems as the determinant level of culture or as he stated "The hero of our piece" and "the leading character of our play."

To borrow from Mr. White, let us dispel for today and forever the notion that technically grounded institutions of higher education are niche players, mere side players on life’s stage. They are indeed the leading characters of our plays. Even though the technologies of the day will change, just as in the past, technology and design will continue to be the driving force in society. SUTD should and will play an important and enduring role in the future technology “ages” of the world, whatever they might be.

Let us also dispel the notion that we need to make harsh trade-offs in what we do and how we do it.

We often hear about that universities must decide between

  • Education and research
  • Basic and applied research
  • The general and the particular
  • Multidisciplinary and disciplinary approaches
  • Science-technology and the arts and social sciences
  • Industrial collaboration and freedom of inquiry
  • Institutional initiatives and faculty autonomy
  • Project base instruction and efficient knowledge transfer
  • Knowledge, skills and attitudes
  • Aesthetics and function
  • The iconic designer and the design team.

Let us in the deepest sense reject the concept of an “Either-Or World” and embrace an “And World” mentality, and welcome the notion that we need not make such unambiguous trade-offs. Let us have a high enough university IQ to meet the challenge put forth by F. Scott Fitzgerald when he stated “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” 

Early in the last century, technical education as well as education in fields such as medicine and management focused largely on craft skills. Over time, fuelled by both knowledge explosion and remarkable advances in science, education increasingly emphasized knowledge, and in many cases the curriculum became overly crowded so much so that knowledge delivery came at the expense of active engagement and the thrill of learning. 

Let us recognize that we can provide students with firm foundations in the basics and substantive cores of knowledge, but only cores. We should also be equipping them with life-long skills, especially the ability and appetite to learn. Excitement for learning is as central to any university’s educational offerings as anything else it can and will do. 

With all this in mind, SUTD embraces its footprint, the anchoring on technology and design as its enduring persona, one that is central to Singapore, to the region, and to the world. It also embraces a blending of methods, approaches, perspectives, and an “And World.” 

Elements of a Great University

Are there other enduring characteristics that SUTD should embrace? What makes a great university and how might SUTD passionately pursue being great? Building upon the remarkable success of higher education, especially in the United States, let me suggest eight building blocks that foster greatness.

(1) Distinctiveness

The great universities are distinctive in several ways: in context, in people, in thrusts – they are universities that mean something to the world. The mention of MIT or Caltech conjures an image of science and technology, Yale an image of the humanities, Harvard images of arts and sciences in addition to leading professional schools in medicine, law and business. These universities and other great universities such as Cambridge, Princeton, and Oxford have come to mean something to the world.

(2) Culture

The great universities are open to ideas, to people, and to risk. They provide their faculty with autonomy to pursue their dreams and ambitions, an environment with a can-do attitude, and the willingness to change and lead change. They have great aspirations, aspirations to change the world in very significant ways. They have the confidence and courage to try to new ideas and approaches.

(3) Ecosystem

Great universities have profited from supportive ecosystems. This starts in many ways with government support and policy. Three signature pieces of legislation by the federal government in the United States had an enormous impact on the evolution of higher education: 

  • The Morrill Act of 1862 established agriculture & mechanics universities in each state (MIT was one of these) “to teach such branches of learning that are related to agriculture and mechanic arts … to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes and the several pursuits and professions of life.” This initiative added to the great pastoral and scholarly institutions in place and broadened the reach of education. Higher education would never again be the same. It would now be engaged with the world at large, drawing upon the practical application of the sciences and technology.
  • The GI Bill in 1944 opened the doors to higher education to the masses, particularly to the soldiers who were coming back to the US after the Second World War.
  • The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 granted the universities ownership of intellectual property that they developed. It provided faculty and the universities a direct incentive to bring the fruits of research to the marketplace and was a great stimulus for moving ideas from university laboratories to the marketplace.

Another instrument, the signature report “Science as an Endless Frontier” led to the founding of the US National Science Foundation. It laid out a fundamental covenant between the Federal Government and the universities. The Federal Government would have the responsibility to fund university research and the universities would have the responsibility to carry out the research and educate a technical workforce. The report successfully argued for a hands-off relationship between the universities and the federal government, governed only by certain broad and basic responsibilities for each party and by several guiding principles such as freedom of inquiry. The report fuelled the university and the individual investigator autonomy that has become a hallmark of the US university system. 

The universities also benefited enormously, of course, from government immigration policies that opened the door to some of the most outstanding talent around the world (the US as the proverbial melting pot).

The long term success of the US economy should not be overlooked. Many of the prominent universities in the US were born in emerging commercial markets that would attract talent and supply attractive employment opportunities for university graduates. 

Another essential component of the ecosystem has been the conduits and resources for engaging the world. Engagement with industry has provided meaningful stimulants as well as valuable resources and access to the financial community and to capital markets, and has helped to fuel the universities’ growth. 

I might add one more element of the ecosystem, the large scope and variety of the US university system. As a result, historically, faculty have enjoyed considerable mobility which has had two important consequences. First, the universities faced significant and healthy national competition. Second, because of many opportunities, it was easier for the top universities to maintain very high standards for faculty appointments. Those not appointed long term at one university often had outstanding opportunities elsewhere. 

(4) Access

Access along several dimensions has been important to the rise of American universities.

The mass immigration from Western Europe in the early 1900’s, the influx of scientific horsepower to the United States after World War II, and the continued immigration from Asia and elsewhere have all supplied extraordinary talent for the universities. 

It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the most renowned universities in the US are on the coasts. Because of their coastal locations, the world has easy access to them. 

Education, especially technical education, has always provided a road to upward mobility. I speak from experience. My grandfather, an immigrant, was a pick and shovel labourer. My father was the only of his siblings to go to college and he did so by loading railcars at night to support his young family, while attending school during the day. And here I am honoured to stand before you today as an MIT Institute Professor and former Dean and as the President of our wonderful new university, SUTD. Talk about access and upward mobility.

I believe that another element of easy access, which sometimes we take for granted, is language. American universities have profited enormously from the fact that English became the language of the world. As such, it was easy to assimilate people from all over the world into the US universities. 

(5) Commitment to excellence

Strong and excellent programs fill the air at the world’s best universities. The universities attract, nurture, and retain the very best people. They commit to excellence in everything they do. The idea of ultimate meritocracy is a guiding principle at the best technical institutions. It shouldn’t matter what your ethnic origin is, it shouldn’t matter what your gender is, what should count are your talents. To be the very best, one has to attract the very best people, independent of origin and background. A university should be about talent, not circumstance, and not for any privileged class.

(6) Leadership

To become and sustain a great university requires outstanding leadership, both administrative leadership and faculty leadership. 

MIT, Cornell and Johns Hopkins, for example, benefited by having visionary founders who laid out, respectively, a new type of technical university (MIT), the United States’ first comprehensive university (Cornell), and the United States’ first university modelled after the German research intensive university and graduate school (Johns Hopkins).

Along the way other leaders added new elements to the mix. At MIT for example, former President Karl Compton and Dean of Engineering Gordon Brown pioneered what we today call Engineering Science, transforming engineering education after World War II, from vocational crafts skills to a foundation of basic sciences, mostly physics at that time. That’s administrative leadership. 

Of course faculty provide leadership as well, though their research, education, student supervision, and engagement with the world and with the many programmatic offerings and initiatives that they pursue. 

(7) The Fly Wheel

One might not think of it in quite this way but I would add another element: “The fly wheel.” Attracting the best students attracts the best faculty. And, attracting the best faculty attracts the best students. A fly wheel effect. By the same token, conducting the best research attracts research funding, and attracting research funding is instrumental in conducting the best research. Again, the fly wheel at work. 

How to set the fly wheel in action is an interesting question--a proverbial chicken and egg question. But it is clearly a powerful force at the great universities. Because of the fly wheel, they develop renowned brand names and they become magnets for talent. A powerful force indeed.

(8) Luck

Lastly, I would point to luck. In the United States, the first technical-based university was West Point, the second RPI. MIT came along quite a bit later, 60 years after West Point. Harvard and William and Mary were the first two American universities, both founded before 1700. All these institutions are outstanding but only MIT and Harvard are universally recognized as among the world’s top ten universities. Why? We could point to the elements outlined before, but it would be hard to argue that some element of luck didn’t play a role. 

To reiterate, today I have emphasized several elements that foster greatness in universities: distinctiveness, culture, ecosystem, access, commitment to excellence, leadership, the fly wheel, and luck.

The Road Ahead

Looking back is instructive, but we should heed Thomas Jefferson’s wise counsel “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” 

Some of the parallels between these eight building blocks and the evolution of SUTD and its environment are striking (some less so). 

SUTD, by design, has a distinctive footprint--along many dimensions. 

The Singapore government’s initiatives in establishing autonomous universities as well as in establishing the National Research Foundation are instruments not unlike those from the US. Moreover, the government’s funding model for supporting university endowments is unparalleled. The emergence of Singapore and Asia as commercial hotbeds is reminiscent of the emerging American markets at the founding of many of the U.S’s universities. 

Adopting English as the language of instruction opens the doors of SUTD and other Singaporean Universities to much of the world. The University is committed to attracting the very best talent and to open access, especially for those in financial need. 

It is also deeply committed to excellence and to an open, engaging and entrepreneurial culture.

It will strive to have thoughtful and able leadership, but time will tell. 

The fly wheel is already been set in motion though the development of important international collaborations with brand name institutions, the creation of exciting and novel research programs and curricula, and, as importantly as anything, the attraction of outstanding human capital: the superb faculty, staff and students seated before us.

As a result, many of the ingredients for becoming a world leading institution are firmly in place as is momentum toward that goal. Needless to say, to become "A hero of our piece" and "a leading character of our play," there is much, much yet to be done. 

  • Let us move forward with thought, passion, confidence, and pragmatic optimism.
  • Let us reward the public for the trust it has placed in us.
  • Let us lead in the foundations of technology, design and other areas of scholarship.
  • Let us create knowledge that will inform and transform the world, and curriculum and teaching approaches that will be a model for higher education globally.
  • Let us be innovative and flexible, embrace the And World, and become an innovation zone in all that we do.
  • Let us prepare our students as technically-grounded leaders for stimulating and productive lives and as informed and responsible citizens who will change the world.

And, let us along the way enjoy the fruits of the last building block—luck.

Thank you.