CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Students, alumni and faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are welcoming a new president, MIT’s 17th overall. Rafael Reif will succeed Susan Hockfield, who is stepping down after eight years.
Reif is the current provost at MIT. The electrical engineer has been on the faculty since 1980. But his selection is far from a conventional insider choice.
Reif was born in Venezuela to Eastern European emigrants. He grew up in a household that spoke Spanish and Yiddish. Now, the 61-year-old married father of two will be MIT’s first Latin-American president.
“I came to the U.S. as graduate student,” Reif said. “I did not speak English. A few decades later I’m standing here — ready, eager, excited and inspired — to lead one of the most remarkable academic institutions in the world.”
Reif will be leading MIT at a time of change in education, a time when universities around the world are getting better, more competitive. A time when rising tuition costs are pressuring students. A time when learning increasingly happens outside of classroom lectures.
Through his involvement in new online initiatives called MITx and edX, Reif has earned a reputation as a strategic thinker about the future of higher education.
“It is very clear to me that the future involves some sort of a hybrid education in which you do in a classroom environment more the apprenticeship style of educating a student,” he said. “And you can use online things that can be done easier online. And I believe the future for the campus model is a combination of these two.”
“Super excited, quite excited,” said soft-spoken student Ellan Spero, who is looking forward to Reif leading MIT. She’s a fourth-year grad student and she said even as provost Reif has stopped to talk to her and ask about her research.
“And I think that’s kind of a reflex question that everyone asks, because that’s what you ask graduate students,” Spero said. “But I’ve always been really pleasantly surprised at how much time he makes for people. And tries to connect. And get into what’s important.”
That quality of personal warmth showed through Wednesday at a meeting of faculty, alumni and students. Reif spoke of his past, growing up in Venezuela, then earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford before teaching at MIT.
“And as he just spoke from his heart, people were just crying in the audience,” said professor Richard Locke, who was there. “Which is not a usual thing that you see at MIT and certainly not when an administrator speaks.”
Locke was on the selection committee, along with professor Susan Silbey. She was at that assembly, too. She said as Reif spoke of MIT’s mission to improve the world, he never once used the word after which MIT is named. Silbey said he never once uttered the word “technology.”
“I think that’s remarkable because he understands how we use technology, what kinds of communities and organizations we build with around technology that is as important as the machines themselves,” Silbey said.
Silbey said some people will just choose to see Reif as the right-hand man of the outgoing president, Susan Hockfield. But she said he will not simply be a continuation of the current administration. Reif said he’s taking charge at a promising time.
“The good news is that we’re beginning a new era,” Reif said. “The good news is that not much is known. So everything is up to us to discover. And that’s the most exciting part of it.”
Reif’s tenure as president starts in July.