“I cannot tell you that this is a dream come true,” L. Rafael Reif said shortly after his election Wednesday morning as MIT’s 17th president, “because this is a dream I never dared to imagine.”
Reif — who grew up in Venezuela and didn't speak English until arriving at graduate school in his early 20s — said at a press conference announcing his selection by the MIT Corporation, “As a kid it’s impossible to think that any of these things are achievable.” But after seven years as the Institute’s provost, he said, “I am standing here ready, eager, excited and inspired to lead one of the most remarkable academic institutions in the world.”
“My story is not too different from that of many at MIT,” Reif said, describing his family as “wealthy in integrity and principles and values, but poor in everything material.” Coming from that background, he said, “What happened in my life was a set of good opportunities that I was able to take advantage of.”
John S. Reed ‘61, chairman of the MIT Corporation, announced Reif’s selection, saying it followed a search process that “captured the voice of the community in many ways.”
“The idea is to find someone who is right for MIT,” Reed said. “We have found that person.”
‘A place that I call home’
Reif described MIT as “a place that I call home” and a place “that nurtured me and made possible my dream for a better life.” He said that the entire MIT community perceives the Institute as “an extended family of curious, creative individuals who collaborate daily with each other to advance MIT’s mission. I am one of them.”
But Reif didn’t always see the Institute that way, as he recalled in remarks Wednesday afternoon to the MIT community: When he was first invited to apply for a faculty position at MIT after earning his PhD at Stanford University in 1979, he wasn’t especially interested.
“After all,” the president-elect said, to laughter, “I had seen pictures of the Blizzard of 1978.”
Not wanting to offend the MIT faculty member who was wooing him, Reif agreed to visit Cambridge. “So I came, I spent a day here, and I realized — ‘This is it,’” he said. “We packed the car with all our belongings, and drove all the way across the country. It took about three weeks, most of it camping. My moving expenses were a bunch of receipts for campsites.”
Preserving access, reimagining education
Reif made clear that he intends to remain accessible to members of the MIT community after he assumes his new post, describing a recent conversation in which MIT’s 14th president, Paul Gray, advised that Reif remain open to impromptu meetings with students and faculty. And Reif described his own habit of going out for a walk twice a day, to “pretend to go get a cup of coffee,” as a way of fostering casual meetings with people around campus.
Reif said one of his top priorities as president will be to advance the frontiers of education, and to find the most effective ways of harnessing the wealth of tools now at educators’ disposal. “We should focus on educational innovation,” he said. “It’s my belief that we should look at all the areas where MIT can make a contribution” to advancing the technologies and practices of higher education.
That focus will be a natural continuation of Reif’s recent work spearheading MITx, the Institute’s five-month-old initiative to provide free online interactive coursework both to MIT students and to the world.
“There is a lot of experimentation that needs to be done,” he said. “We’re entering a new era. Everything is up to us to discover.”
‘We should seize this opportunity’
Reif said that he intends to be guided by MIT’s values and principles, and that among those he cherishes most are its commitments to meritocracy and integrity, excellence, taking the high road, and to “do what is right, and to make a positive, constructive contribution to society.”
In this time of presidential transition, he said, “We should seize this opportunity to assess what we are doing that works well, and what we are doing that is not working well. I intend to spend the next few months listening to our community.”
Reif also thanked Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president since December 2004, for “giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“I learned a tremendous amount working with her,” he added.
‘A splendid appointment’
Hockfield, in comments at the community event on Wednesday afternoon, said, “It is impossible for me to imagine any person who is better prepared,” calling Reif “a brilliant, farsighted and strategic thinker.” She praised the president-elect for his “collegial, consensus-building leadership,” and for his “unfailing ability to listen and to learn from different points of view, without losing his sense of humor.”
Hockfield presented her successor with a copy of Roberts’ Rules of Order that had been given to her by her predecessor, Charles M. Vest, who in turn had received it from his predecessor, Paul Gray. She also presented the incoming 17th president with an MIT baseball jersey emblazoned with the number 17.
Vest, who was MIT’s president from 1990 to 2004 and is now head of the National Academy of Engineering, said Reif “is one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.” Noting “the warmth with which he’s being received,” Vest said that everyone he has spoken to about Reif’s selection “has commented first and foremost on his values and character.”
Gray, MIT’s president from 1980 to 1990, said that Reif “has a sense of strategic vision, and a great knowledge of the place.” He added he has “a manner of interacting with people that is superb, and very effective. … This was a splendid appointment, for everyone.”
“I am deeply moved by the trust you all are placing in me,” Reif said. “MIT is a great human treasure, and serving as its leader is a profound responsibility.”