Below are remarks delivered by President-Elect L. Rafael Reif at an MIT community meeting and reception held following Reif’s election as the Institute’s 17th president on May 16, 2012.
It is incredibly humbling for me to stand before you as the president-elect of MIT. I cannot tell you that this is a dream come true, because this is a dream I never dared to imagine.
My story 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. I came to the U.S. as a graduate student to prepare myself for an academic career, which was the dream I envisioned for a better life. I did not speak English. A few decades later I am standing here in front of you — ready, eager, excited and inspired to lead one of the most remarkable academic institutions in the world.
I want to start by thanking the Presidential Search Committee and the Student Advisory Committee. I want to thank all the faculty, students and staff who participated in the search process. I want to thank the MIT Executive Committee, and the MIT Corporation.
I am deeply moved by the trust you all are placing in me. MIT is a great human treasure, and serving as its leader is a profound responsibility.
Before I say anything more, I want to take this opportunity to recognize and to thank an exceptional individual whom I worked closely with for the last seven years: MIT’s 16th president, Susan Hockfield. We will have more appropriate occasions to honor Susan for her many accomplishments for MIT, and to honor her and her husband, Tom Byrne, for their service. But today, I want to personally thank Susan for the opportunity she gave me to work at her side to help advance the mission of MIT. It has been an intense, fascinating and stimulating assignment. I learned a great deal working with her, and I want to say to her today: Susan — thank you for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.
As I said, given my history, becoming the president of MIT was very, very unlikely. My dream was to have an academic career back in Venezuela, not even in the U.S. But there was an incredible turning point. I earned my PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford, and I had stayed on for a year to do research. But it was May, and I had told everyone that I was moving back to Venezuela that fall. I was, in fact, already packing.
While attending a conference, I bumped into a colleague who’d left Stanford for MIT. He said MIT was looking for someone: Would I be interested? I said I was flattered, but I was noncommittal. (After all, I had seen pictures of the Blizzard of 1978.)
Then another MIT professor who chaired the faculty search committee started recruiting me very hard. He would call every other night at home, trying to convince me to interview. Then at one point he said, “What are the chances that if you came to interview at MIT, you might like it?”
I didn’t want to say, “Zero” — I didn’t want to offend him. So I said, “Five percent.” He said, “Five percent is not zero — why don’t you come?” My brother was actually doing a PhD at MIT, so I thought I could visit him and interview at the same time. So I came, I spent a day here, and I realized — “This is it!”
MIT made me an offer, and I accepted right away. 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.
I finally got here — MIT became my home, and I never left. MIT is a place I call home because it is the institution where I grew up as a faculty member, and that I am indebted to for providing the stimulating, collegial and collaborative environment that nurtured me and made possible my dream for a better life, my academic career. I know I am not alone when I call MIT my home. All MIT faculty, students, staff and postdocs view MIT as their home: the home of an extended family of curious, creative individuals who collaborate daily with each other to advance MIT’s mission. I am one of them.
In leading MIT, I will be guided by MIT’s values and principles. The values I most cherish include:
- A commitment to meritocracy and integrity;
- A commitment to excellence;
- A commitment to always take the high road and do what is right, and to make a positive, constructive contribution to society;
- A commitment to care for the MIT community, to respect all members of our community, and to recognize everyone’s contribution to the mission and well-being of MIT;
- A commitment to equity and inclusion, and to keeping our community open and diverse by every measure, including race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, disability and socioeconomic background;
- And a commitment to our students. Every member of our faculty knows the thrill of teaching our incredible students. The questions they ask make you grateful that the future is in their hands. To prepare them for that future, we need to teach them not only the rigor of their disciplines, but also how to use their gifts, and the human values that make those gifts worthwhile.
In leading MIT, I intend to honor and practice these values — within the following guiding principles:
- I believe that the job of the administration is to support our faculty, students, and staff, to enable them to do what they came to do at MIT: to advance knowledge, to educate students, to address today’s great global challenges.
- I believe the job of our faculty is to educate and inspire our students, sometimes in our classrooms and laboratories, sometimes through research, and always by example.
- I believe the job of our students and alumni is to make the world a better place, to leave it better than they found it.
- And I believe the goal of our whole community is to leave MIT stronger than we found it, for the benefit of those who come after us.
- Above all, I believe that MIT — because of what it stands for and because of its distinctive strengths — has been, and must continue to be, a force for the good, for the nation and for the world.
In the next few months, I will seek your help in collectively imagining the MIT of the future. I suggest we use as our guide the following words of MIT’s mission statement:
- “To advance knowledge and educate students”
- “To bring knowledge to bear on the world's great challenges”
- “With the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse community”
- “For the betterment of humankind.”
Educating students is central to our mission, so let’s focus, Institute-wide, on innovations in teaching and learning, to further enrich the powerful MIT formula of “Mind and Hand.”
Advancing knowledge is central to our mission too, and so is the responsibility to help understand and overcome the world’s great challenges. So let’s continue to identify those challenges where we, as a community, can make a significant contribution, for the betterment of humankind. And let’s continue to work together to strengthen MIT’s diverse and intellectually stimulating environment, so that every member of our community can grow and thrive.
A time of transition should also be a time for reflection — a time to assess where we are and where we are going. Let’s 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: our faculty and students, our staff and our postdocs, our Corporation members and our alumni. I will start with the Presidential Search Committee and the Student Advisory Committee, since they generously invested so much of their time understanding the needs and aspirations of our community.
As I embark on this listening tour, I have one important request: Please be candid with me!
I love the fact that the people of MIT tell you what they think — even when it’s not what you want to hear! That is part of the secret of our success — and I hope you will not allow the “president” title to stop you from speaking to me frankly.
Before I conclude, I want to introduce you to my family — my wife Chris, my daughter Jessica, her husband, Benjamin Caplan, and my son Blake — who are here with me today. They graciously understand that they have to share me with my MIT extended family. I am profoundly grateful to them. They are the source of my strength.
MIT has been privileged in its presidents. This is a community of inspiring values and bold aspirations. Over and over, it has chosen presidents who have lived up to those values and aspirations. By listening to the collective wisdom of our community, I hope I can do the same.
Let me conclude with the obvious recognition that there is a great deal to do, and that the sooner we start doing, the more we can get done. Which means that I will be approaching you and seeking your help soon, much sooner than you expect.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you all.