MIT President Hockfield Leaving 'Enormously Exhilarating' Post

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Susan Hockfield at WBUR in January 2011 (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Susan Hockfield at WBUR in January 2011 (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Susan Hockfield, has announced that she will step down. She made the announcement Thursday, taking many at MIT by surprise.

Hockfield took the helm of the world-renowned school seven years ago as the first woman — and the first biologist — to hold the position.

Hockfield's decision to leave the president's office comes as MIT launches a multi-billion dollar fundraising campaign, which she said in a letter to the MIT community will "require the focus and sustained attention of the Institute's president over many years." She told WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer that she thinks that all-consuming task is best left to a new leader.

Susan Hockfield: These campaigns inevitably take seven, eight or nine years, and my decision was based on thinking about what was best for the institute. I have never anticipated serving more than 10 years, and it's hard for me to commit to another eight beyond the seven I've already served.

Sacha Pfeiffer: While you have been president, MIT's endowment has increased by 65 percent. That's, of course, despite these tough economic times in recent years. Beyond that, what do you consider to have been your biggest accomplishments, and also simply the biggest changes at the school while you've been there?

Almost 20 percent of the faculty have participated in energy research over these last five years. We're celebrating the fifth anniversary of the energy initiative today. We've raised over $350 million. We've engaged with governments and with companies, and educationally we've produced important policy pieces. So the energy initiative is certainly fulfilling what I heard was probably the greatest ambition of the MIT community.

When you became MIT's president, its first female president, that happened at a time when a female faculty member accused the school of having been gender biased in hiring tenure-track faculty and administrators who were women. But then a report last year found substantial progress in that area. How satisfied do you leave the president's office feeling in terms of MIT's record of hiring and advancing women?

I think many people hold a stereotype of MIT that would suggest that we haven't done as well as we have. Today 45 percent of our undergraduate students are women, and among those women undergraduates, 85 percent will take majors in science and engineering. Eighty-five percent of our men take their undergraduate majors in science or engineering. So we have done very well.

We continue to do well, and I would say this is a kind of project where our work is never done. We've made important advances on women on our faculty and among our graduate students. But I think most importantly for any institution, for our nation, it's critically important that we provide opportunities for people from any background to have success.

One of the things that you've said today, which I thought was very interesting, was that you made your decision to step down over winter break, which for MIT just ended last week. And you had said that in many ways your job now, in your words, "doesn't allow much time to do deep, reflective thinking." Have there been some things about this job that had been frustrating?

I would say the job is enormously exhilarating. One always wants a little bit more time to do some deep thinking than one is granted. But I would say the number of opportunities to engage with some of the most interesting people in the world and some of the most creative minds in the world is a source of continued excitement and inspiration.

You're planning, I believe, to take a sabbatical but then stay on the faculty. Do you know what you intend to do during your sabbatical?

I'm a member of the brain and cognitive sciences faculty, and I will continue that. I don't know what I will do after MIT, but I have been blessed in my life with any number of fascinating opportunities. It's been a huge privilege to spend part of my career on the frontier of discovery and then another part of my career in academic leadership, and I'm certain that some interesting intellectual challenge will come along that I will also enjoy enormously and will provide me an opportunity to serve the nation and the world.

-- Hockfield's letter to MIT is below:

To the Members of the MIT Community:

I write to share with you my decision to step down from the presidency of MIT. Over the past seven years, working together we have accomplished far more than I set out to do. The Institute is now moving forward on a new set of ambitious goals, and I have concluded that the powerful momentum we have built makes this an opportune moment for a leadership transition.

I came to MIT in December 2004 with a profound sense of the privilege and the responsibility of the president’s role. But nothing could have prepared me for this remarkable community of creative minds. Together, we have made tremendous progress in dozens of ways, strengthening MIT’s foundations and setting our sights for the future. We are designing the policy, technology and education required to address the global need for sustainable energy. We have accelerated MIT’s ability to synthesize the strengths of science and engineering to fight disease and to invent new powers of computation. We have expanded the Institute’s global connections. We are charting a course to a new future for American manufacturing. We have also built a framework for the future of our campus and neighborhood, fortified the Institute’s financial structures, strengthened MIT’s culture of inclusion and increased the number of undergraduates we can educate. With the recent introduction of MITx, we are changing the conversation around affordability, access and excellence in higher education. Through last year’s celebration of MIT’s Sesquicentennial, our community emerged reenergized and refocused on our mission of service to the nation and the world. And we achieved all this and more while steering the Institute through the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The momentum of all that we have accomplished has tempted me to stay on to see our many efforts bear their full fruit. But to support our ambitious goals for the future, MIT has begun the crucial work of planning for a significant new fundraising campaign. A campaign on this scale will require the full focus and sustained attention of the Institute’s president over many years. I have concluded that it would be best for the Institute to begin this next chapter with new leadership.

Presidential searches generally take time; I will serve until my successor is selected by the MIT Corporation and is ready to assume the role. I look forward to continuing to be a member of the MIT faculty.

The coming months will offer many opportunities to reflect on our work together, but for now, let me simply thank the faculty, students, staff, alumni and friends of MIT who have given of themselves to advance the mission of MIT. While I expect new intellectual adventures ahead, nothing will compare to the exhilaration of the world-changing accomplishments that we produced together.

Most sincerely,

Susan Hockfield

This program aired on February 16, 2012.

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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