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MIT set to pick its first female president

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is expected to name Yale University provost Susan Hockfield its next president today, according to MIT officials.

Hockfield would be the first woman to head MIT. As a neuroscientist, she would also be its first president with a background in life sciences, which are assuming greater importance at a university whose national reputation has been built on engineering.

If approved at a special meeting of MIT's governing corporation this morning, Hockfield, 53, will replace Charles M. Vest, whose 14-year administration has overseen a great expansion of MIT's endowment and who has played a prominent role in Washington as an advocate for federal funding of university research. Vest announced his retirement in December.

Hockfield's arrival would have great symbolic importance at a school that has publicly examined its own history of bias against women and still struggles to recruit female faculty members in the sciences and engineering.

Vest startled the world of higher education in 1999 when he acknowledged that MIT had discriminated against female faculty members in pay and other areas, and set a goal of achieving gender equity in the future. MIT has boosted the number of female professors from 96 to 169 during Vest's tenure, though they still are only 18 percent of the faculty.

MIT officials said that Hockfield's gender did not play a role in the presidential search. ''We are pleased to have a woman as our president, but that was by no means a basis or the basis of the choice," said James A. Champy, a member of the MIT Corporation who headed the search committee.

Champy said that Hockfield's background in pure science, rather than the practical realm of engineering, would be helpful as the school tries to bridge the two fields. ''We think there's a need for many of the engineering disciplines to rethink and reinvent their focus," he said. ''The lines between the work of scientists and the work of engineers at MIT is certainly blurring."

Hockfield spent less than two years as provost at Yale and was dean of Yale's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for four years.

MIT search committee members said they were impressed with her handling of Yale's long and divisive battle over graduate student unionization. Although Yale opposed the union, Hockfield boosted graduate student stipends and began giving free healthcare to PhD students, according to a Yale statement when she became provost.

''She spoke to many students to try to understand what was needed," said MIT physicist Jerome I. Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner who headed MIT's faculty search committee. ''She developed a plan of action, which really improved the life of graduate students immensely."

Hockfield did not return a call yesterday.

According to a biographical sketch provided by MIT, as provost she helped guide Yale's $500 million push to renovate and build facilities for the sciences. She worked to improve collaboration between different parts of the university, such as the humanities and sciences, another attraction for MIT trustees and faculty, who see interdisciplinary research and teaching as vital to the school's future.

While she was Yale's graduate school dean, the number of applications to the graduate school doubled, and the ranks of minority students grew. She also worked to increase the number of women on the faculty.

Duke University president Richard H. Brodhead, who until recently was Yale's dean of the college, worked with Hockfield for several years and said she won respect at Yale for her ability to listen to students.

In a telephone interview, Brodhead described how, as dean, Hockfield, her husband, and daughter ate in the graduate school's dining hall weekly, so anyone could come up and talk.

''People are going to love her," said Brodhead, adding that she has a ''humane and buoyant sense of humor."

She also impressed a group of MIT students who interviewed several candidates at the request of the search committee.

''Her manner alone was fantastic; she was very open and incredibly easy to talk to," said Mike Folkert, who is studying for his doctorate and was on the student advisory committee. ''She was very precise and thorough and at the same time not businesslike."

Hockfield told the students that she would use the presidency as a platform to try to improve K-12 education in the United States, he said.

Hockfield, a professor of neurobiology, joined the Yale medical school faculty in 1985.

Friedman said her research has significantly contributed to the understanding of the molecular diversity of brain cells and certain brain tumors.

Hockfield's area of expertise aligns with major recent initiatives at MIT to boost its standing in brain and cognitive sciences and biomedical research. Those initiatives include McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Picower Center for Learning and Memory, and the Broad Institute, a partnership on genomic medicine with Harvard University.

Champy said he thought Hockfield could emerge as a significant spokeswoman for science and engineering, something for which Vest is well known.

Hockfield received her bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Rochester and her doctorate in anatomy and neuroscience from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Before coming to Yale, she was an investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Hockfield has no previous relationship with MIT. The same was true for Vest, and marked a departure from MIT tradition. Five presidents, dating to 1948, were all working at MIT when they were tapped for the job.

The six-month presidential search was conducted under a veil of secrecy. From an initial list of about 100, the search committees talked to about a dozen, Champy said.

''She's an extraordinarily talented person whose work has the respect of the faculty, which is very important," he said.

Bombardieri can be reached at

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