Interview with President-elect Susan Hockfield


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You have been at Yale for nearly two decades. What was it that attracted you to the presidency of MIT?

MIT is an inspiring place, populated by inspiring people. It has been a fount of innovation along the entire continuum of science, from the most fundamental, basic research to the most advanced applications. In addition, from my first conversations in the search process, the Institute's central themes - the pursuit of truth, integrity and the great meritocracy - have resonated with my own core values.

What do see as the key challenges and opportunities facing MIT in the coming years?

Over the past several decades, the revolutions in the physical and life sciences and engineering have created enormous opportunities on which we can build. Similarly, globalization provides new opportunities - and challenges - for scholars in economics, political science, management, humanities, the arts and architecture to make a better world. With its outstanding record of accomplishment in these areas, along with its distinctively collaborative culture, MIT is uniquely positioned to make enormous contributions.

The challenge is that other great universities have come to realize that in order to remain world-class, they need to invest in these areas of scholarship and become more like MIT! The competition for students, faculty and resources has, accordingly, intensified, requiring MIT to continue to re-invent itself to remain the pre-eminent institution for innovation across the entire spectrum of the five schools.

Academic rigor is a hallmark of the MIT undergraduate experience. Will you seek to lessen the "firehose" approach that is very much a part of the traditional experience?

I must confess to being a fan of the "firehose," having learned most during the most intensive educational periods of my life. However, it is our responsibility as educators to provide not only a torrent of input, but also a map for navigating its currents. Faculty, alumni and more advanced students can help the newcomers understand how to manage the information flow and how to enjoy the personal growth that comes through uniquely challenging experiences.

How does it feel to be the first woman president of MIT?

It is a very great honor to be the first woman president of MIT, but it is as great an honor to be the first life scientist to serve in this role. I hope that my service in this position will give confidence to women and girls, as well as people from all backgrounds, to believe that they, too, can take on roles that perhaps have not previously been open to them.

How will you work to bring out the best of MIT?

I believe on building on strength. MIT has the strongest engineering school in the world and I will work to be sure that tradition of preeminence continues. Each of the schools and activities at MIT must continue to be strong and distinctive. At the same time, we must look for opportunities where those strengths can be amplified through shared vision and shared work. As science, technology and management become more interdisciplinary, our engineering prowess provides an enormous opportunity for successful innovation and discovery that other institutions do not have. This is one of the most exciting opportunities I see as uniquely available at MIT.

Will you be playing a role in Washington - working on behalf of MIT?

Yes, I will. As recognized by past MIT presidents, one of the responsibilities of this position is to be a national educator for science and technology and for higher education. I will do my part to continue that tradition, keeping a strong voice for the good that comes from solid investments in, and sound policies for, higher education and science and technology. I strongly believe that if we continue to educate the citizens of our country, as well as our representatives in Washington, about the benefits we enjoy as a result of these investments, then federal support for our work will continue.

You are also a proponent of strengthening math and science study at the K-12 level. How do you intend to do that in your role as MIT president?

I hope that as MIT's president I can help the people of America and the world understand that the dramatic improvements in our lives over the last several decades that have been made possible by innovations in science and technology will continue only if we invest in the science and math education of our children.

MIT has been, and should be seen increasingly, as a beacon for those who are passionate about education and who understand the critical need for early education to provide every child with the ability to understand the technologically complex - and fascinating - world in which we live. High quality education, particularly in math and science, is the only route to a nation of responsible citizens in a rapidly changing world.

Do you believe that diversity on campus is an important issue for MIT?

The last few decades have been a time of rapid change, bringing increasing opportunities for people from all sectors of our society. I have benefited enormously from the pioneers who blazed the trail for the women of my generation. It is essential that MIT is in practice, and is seen as, a welcoming and supportive place for anyone with the ability and ambition to make the most of its great resources. We owe it to this generation, and the next and the next, to continue the progress toward what we can truly and proudly call a great meritocracy, on this campus and across the nation.

How do you balance the traditional openness of universities to international students and the need for heightened national security?

National security is a very real and very serious issue for all of us today. American universities have served as the gateway for some of the best minds on earth to join our nation's commitment to improving the lives of people around the world. Balancing these risks and opportunities requires insightful development of national policies that take into account the important role and distinctively open cultures of universities. MIT has had a powerful voice in the articulation of national policies, a tradition I will continue.

How will you involve students in institutional decision-making processes?

I was very impressed, and inspired, by the students with whom I met during the search process. They articulated with remarkable clarity the overarching values of MIT, as well as their devotion to the Institute. The incredible intelligence and energy of the students is clearly one of MIT's greatest strengths. I am eager to meet more students, to hear about their concerns and aspirations, and to learn more about how students are currently engaged in the activities of MIT.

Quality of life is a concern for staff and faculty. What do you see as the major challenges and opportunities facing quality of life in the coming years?

Increased competition and increased opportunity have driven all of us to work harder and longer, bringing quality of life issues into serious discussion. I am committed to finding ways to enable each member of our community - faculty and staff alike - to get the most productivity and enjoyment from their work lives, while preserving and enhancing their engagement in their lives outside of their work

What are among the first things you intend to do as president of MIT?

I believe deeply in the strength in communities and the power of ideas that come from the people in those communities. From the beginning I will be meeting with, listening to, and learning from the people - the students, faculty, staff and alumni - who know MIT from the inside.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 27, 2005 (download PDF).


Topics: Inauguration, MIT presidency

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