No one can be all things to all people. But President-elect L. Rafael Reif is regarded by many members of the MIT community as “warm,” “humble” and “human,” and as someone who cares deeply about education.
Those traits were a central theme of the reaction on the MIT campus to Wednesday’s announcement that Reif, currently MIT’s provost, will become the Institute’s 17th president on July 2. Faculty and students alike anticipate that Reif will bring core elements of his character to bear on a diverse group of institutional challenges.
Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, a cognitive scientist who served on MIT’s Presidential Search Committee, called Reif a person of “deep humanity” with “total dedication to MIT’s goal of improving the human condition through the unique set of talents brought together on our campus.” Graybiel added: “He is humble yet strong, gentle yet determined, and has a clear sense of how to push toward MIT’s goals.”
Thomas Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who also served on the search committee, called Reif the “right person for the right time for MIT.” During the search process, Kochan added, the committee “heard loud and clear from a broad cross section of faculty, students and staff that we need a leader who embodies the MIT values of commitment to excellence and inclusion and who can both build community among us all.”
Members of the Student Advisory Committee who helped MIT’s search lauded Reif’s understanding that “students see MIT as their home.” Reif echoed that sentiment in his introductory remarks on Wednesday, saying in describing his career and life, “MIT became my home, and I never left.” In the same talk, Reif pledged that MIT “has been, and must continue to be, a force for the good, for the nation and for the world.”
“The warmth and vision Rafael expressed in his message to the community demonstrates that the search process worked,” Kochan stated.
Up close and personal
Many undergraduates had the chance to meet Reif on Wednesday afternoon, at a student reception for the president-elect in MIT’s Stata Center, and said they had a positive first impression of him.
“It does seem like he’s interested in what’s going on in the education realm,” said junior Chinua Shaw, a computer science and theater major. “It’s good to see that he’s thinking about the students.”
Freshman Priyanka Chatterjee, who is studying mechanical engineering and ocean engineering, said she had actively followed the presidential selection process, “saw a lot of names,” and came away convinced that Reif was “the most well-equipped for the job.” Because Reif has been at MIT since 1980, she added, “He has that knowledge of what is going on already” at the Institute.
In remarks at the student reception, Reif emphasized — as he did in his comments when first being introduced as president earlier on Wednesday — that his life history “is not too different from that of many of you. I grew up in a home wealthy in integrity and principles and values, but poor in everything material.”
Students said they relate to that story. “He has a high degree of humility and honesty,” said junior Naren Tallapragada, a student in electrical engineering and physics. “I think that comes from his family background.” After talking with Reif at the reception, Tallapragada said it was “like speaking with my father.”
For his part, Reif has said he will embark on a “listening tour” of the Institute, in which he hoped people would “be candid with me,” and express their unvarnished views. That kind of approach would seem to suit MIT’s students.
“We want to really feel like we’re part of the planning process around here, not part of the approval process,” Shaw said.
The view from Venezuela
Away from MIT, news of Reif’s selection earned considerable attention in Latin America, particularly in his native Venezuela, where he earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the Universidad de Carabobo. The independent newspaper El Nacional featured the news prominently on its website on Wednesday.
As Leopoldo A. Guinand ’64, like Reif a Venezuelan who studied electrical engineering, wrote in an email to MIT News, “I am very proud as an MIT alumnus. … This has been for me and all Venezuelans wonderful and exciting news.”
And Moises Naim, Venezuela’s former minister of trade and industry and now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a widely read columnist throughout Latin America, wrote Wednesday on Twitter that he was “so proud” of Reif.