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MIT leader Hockfield to step down

MIT President Susan Hockfield MIT President Susan Hockfield (Globe File Photo/2005)
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / February 17, 2012
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Susan Hockfield, the 16th president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will step down but plans to stay in place until her successor takes office, the university announced today.

Hockfield, who turns 61 next month, decided to leave the presidency only a few weeks ago and told almost no one until now. She said in an interview that she felt the university would be best served by a new leader as MIT embarks on a multi-billion-dollar fund-raising campaign -- an activity that can become an all-consuming, exhausting task for university presidents.

“We have set out an agenda that I would say is appropriately ambitious and very exciting, but it is a ten-year agenda,” she said. “Campaigns of the magnitude that we anticipate require, boy, seven years, eight years of concerted work. And it’s not that I don’t like fund-raising -- I love fund-raising, and I have to say quite modestly I’ve been kind of successful at it -- but I don’t imagine that I could commit to being in this position for another eight years.”

She added that “no one is driving the decision besides me and how I think about MIT and MIT’s future. I think the best legacy I can leave the institute is having increased our strength, increased our momentum, and had the reasonableness or the modesty or whatever it is to hand it off in a transition that I hope will be as smooth and as without hesitation as possible.”

Hockfield has retained a professorship in brain science during her presidency and intends to remain on MIT’s faculty after taking a sabbatical.

She is the school’s first female president, as well as the first life scientist to lead it, and is routinely named to lists of the most powerful people in science and academia. Her presidency has been marked by ambitious interdisciplinary initiatives, often in partnership with the American government, multinational groups, or major corporations.

“Susan Hockfield is a transformative leader and a great friend,” said Governor Deval Patrick in a statement. “Her vision and intellect has strengthened MIT’s global standing and she has partnered with my administration on many projects to make Massachusetts the world’s incubator for innovation. I will miss her good counsel and I thank her for her leadership.”

In some respects Hockfield’s departure is not surprising: university presidents typically stay in their posts for about seven or eight years, and Hockfield has been in hers since 2004. It is rare for university presidents to oversee more than one major fund-raising campaign.

But in a 45-minute informal interview last week, Hockfield gave no indication of her plans.

“I only arrived at the decision personally over the winter break,” which ended Feb. 7, she said in the interview today. “The job doesn’t allow much time to do deep, reflective thinking.”

She informed the school’s board of directors shortly afterward, but asked when she revealed her decision to other key MIT officials, she said, “everyone knows today.”

MIT Provost Rafael Reif, appointed by Hockfield in 2005, said repeatedly that he was “extremely surprised, as I’m sure everyone else is. ... Frankly, this is a shocking set of circumstances.”

Provosts often leave with their presidents. “Typically when there is a new president, the president chooses his or own leadership team,” he added. “So we’ll see how that goes. Right now the most important thing is to make sure the transition goes smoothly.”

And as for pursuing the presidency himself? “Am I interested? Well, I would like to have a job,” he said.

Outsiders who might have been expected to know also said they were out of the loop.

“This caught me by surprise,” said Lawrence Bacow, the former chancellor of MIT and recent president of Tufts University who is one of Boston higher education’s most well-connected and prominent figures. “I only know what I read in Susan’s letter.”

Regarding the possibility of the MIT presidency, he wrote in an e-mail, “I am very happy doing what I am doing. I have a very full and interesting life.”

Candidates will be chosen by a search committee of MIT professors, students, and board members. That group will pass on names to the board’s executive committee, which in turn will name finalists, with the new president to be chosen by a majority vote of the board. Presidential searches typically take six months to a year, though they can run as long as 18 months.

Hockfield said the new president would inherit a bright and insightful academic community. “The joy of being in the president’s office is to have the opportunity to engage with so many inquiring, creative, brilliant minds,” she said. “My advice is so obvious it hardly bears saying, but: listen, listen, listen.”

During Hockfield’s tenure, MIT has raised nearly $3 billion, the most successful period of fund-raising in the school’s history, despite hard economic times. The university, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2011, brought in $534 million in donations last year. Its endowment -- valued at $5.9 billion when Hockfield arrived -- now stands at $9.9 billion.

In the last year alone, Hockfield has launched several major projects, including a partnership with a Russian group that hopes to build a research hub – similar to Kendall Square and anchored by an MIT-like university -- in that country.

Just this week, the university announced that it would offer a full course in electronics and circuits to all comers on the web, for credit, at no cost – the beginning of a project called MITx that could shake up higher ed worldwide by providing a highly credible alternative to traditional, campus-based diplomas. Hockfield said that project, like all the others for which her administration has laid groundwork, would proceed as normal.

Hockfield has also led an effort to reinvent American manufacturing, co-chairing a large work group of academics, government officials, and corporate experts, and exhorting the university’s faculty and students to unite behind the cause. That effort will release its major findings in a month or two, and Hockfield said she “will certainly see it through to its completion.”

The manufacturing campaign mirrors an initiative that became a signature of her early presidency: a similar, successful attempt to rethink energy production, focusing on advanced technologies and policy.

But Hockfield’s initiatives have not all been large-scale, multi-year projects. This year, she took on a much more intimate role: for the first time, she is serving as an academic adviser to a small group of freshman students.

Reif, the provost, said Hockfield had been a brilliant leader.

“Everything that MIT has accomplished [in recent years] has been really thanks to her,” he said. “Susan brought the energy initiative to MIT. That had a tremendous impact on campus and outside campus. Her focus on the convergence of life sciences and engineering has been very important. How MIT handled the financial crisis -- that was a big deal for MIT, how relatively smoothly everything went. MIT has been very fortunate in its recent presidents.”

But he added that the initiatives launched under Hockfield’s presidency would continue apace with the support of enthusiastic faculty even after she leaves. “Once they go, they go,” he said. “They’ll run very well regardless.”

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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