Sharp nominated to be next president
By Reuven M. Lerner
Phillip A. Sharp, professor of biology and director of MIT's Center for Cancer Research, has been nominated for the office of president by the MIT Corporation's Executive Committee.
Corporation members will meet on March 2 to vote on Sharp's nomination. If the selection is approved, the biologist will become the 15th president of MIT on July 1, replacing President Paul E. Gray '54. Gray is replacing David S. Saxon '41, the current chairman of the Corporation.
The announcement was first made public in a letter sent on Wednesday to all faculty members by Faculty Chair Henry D. Jacoby. While Jacoby's letter noted that "it is the vote of the members of the Corporation as a whole that determines who will be our next president," the March 2 vote is widely expected to be a formality.
Sharp made his own announcement to members of the cancer center at 11:45 am on Wednes-<>
day, according to several of his colleagues. He declined to comment on his nomination until after the Corporation vote.
The Executive Committee nominated Sharp upon the recommendation of the Corporation and faculty presidential search committees, which have been working together since April 1989 to find Gray's successor.
Sharp was the first presidential nominee in many years to be named before an official Corpo-<>
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ration vote. This was mostly attributed to widespread rumors that circulated throughout the faculty and administration earlier this week. Dean of Science Gene M. Brown said that "it was becoming well known among administration and faculty [that Sharp] was probably going to be the nominee."
Institute Professor Robert M. Solow, who chaired the faculty search committee, said there was too much time between the Executive Committee nomination and the Corporation vote to delay an announcement until March 2. "It is very hard to keep a thing like this quiet for three weeks," he explained.
Faculty and administrators aware of Sharp's selection refused to confirm or deny the rumors as late as Tuesday. According to sources in the administration, the committees had originally planned to release the nomination information today, but decided otherwise after so many people learned it was Sharp.
Sharp's nomination came as a surprise for many reasons, not least of which was that he had been vice chairman of the faculty search committee until his resignation in the fall. It is not clear whether his candidacy began before or after he left the group. His name had not been mentioned by any publication until Feb. 3, when The Boston Globe spoke of him as a "dark horse" contender.
Praised as both an
administrator and a scientist
Sharp has received almost universal acclaim as a molecular biologist in the field of cancer research. His most prestigious award to date was the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 1988, which is regarded by many as second only to the Nobel Prize in prestige. He has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1983.
Many of Sharp's colleagues are confident that he will win the Nobel Prize within the next several years. Sharp was mentioned prominently after the most recent round of Nobel nominations, in part because some felt he deserved to share the medicine award with those who received it.
Professor Richard O. Hynes PhD '71, chairman of the biology department, said on Wednesday that many in the faculty, including Sharp himself, have been disappointed over the last two years that he has not yet received the Nobel Prize for his work.
"RNA splicing is one of the great discoveries of our time," said Professor of Biology Har Gobind Khorana, a Nobel laureate, referring to the research which had won Sharp the Lasker Award. "His science is marvelous," he added.
Biology Professor Robert A. Weinberg '64 described Sharp as a "spectacularly successful scientist," and called RNA splicing a "landmark" achievement.
Solow said that one reason for Sharp's selection was the committee's feeling "that the president of MIT be someone that the faculty respects. Phil Sharp is a superb scientist and a leader of American science."
One researcher in the cancer center said, "We are very happy for Phil, but it is a loss for science." The biologist added that "how [Sharp's] decision affects the individuals in his lab weighed in his mind."
Brent H. Cochran '78, professor of biology, felt that Sharp's nomination would create a void within the biology department -- a "leadership loss [and a] loss of continuing science." However Cochran went on to say that "MIT could not have made a better choice."
Although he has only been in a major administrative position for five years, Sharp is also considered a first-rate manager and administrator by many of his colleagues.
Biology Professor Phillips W. Robbins called him a "great administrator," and said that "we loved having him as head of the Cancer Center."
Weinberg agreed, saying "if Phil Sharp had been a member of the chemistry department," he would have been an "equally strong candidate."
"I have worked with [Sharp] for many years ... it is a wonderful decision to nominate Sharp," Mary Lou Pardue, a professor in the biology department. She continued, "He will be excellent, but we will miss him in the department."
A relative unknown
Solow said Sharp was selected, in part, because "we wanted someone who took a broad view of science and engineering education and could look at MIT from a fresh eye." While Sharp is an MIT insider, he is not an engineer and thus combines "the best of both worlds," Solow said.
In contrast with many of the other candidates, Sharp was relatively unknown to students and faculty. One high-level administrator said that he "had never met him," and said that "most of the guys in my department would not know who he was. . . . I would not recognize him if I bumped into him in the hall." Many students from outside the biology department had not heard of Sharp before this week.
If elected, Sharp would be the first president to come from the biology department. Previous presidents came from such disciplines as electrical engineering, physics, economics, and management. Some biologists saw this as a triumph for their work.
Co-founded local company
Sharp has not spent all of his time in the cancer center, however. In 1978, he co-founded Biogen, a Cambridge-based genetic engineering firm. According to Viki Sato, Biogen's director of research, Sharp was "one of two people who were really critical" to the company's founding. The other person is Wally Gilbert, a professor of biology at Harvard University.
Sato said that Biogen develops, but does not market, recombinant DNA-derived drugs. The company also licenses the use of products it develops. Sato said that Biogen hopes to eventually be able to market its own products.
Sharp is still very much involved with Biogen. He is one of 12 members of the firm's board of directors, and acts as a scientific consultant to the company. Sato said that he is not a staff scientist or researcher, but advises Biogen on its work. Sharp reportedly owns 325,000 shares of Biogen stock, worth approximately $5 million.
Biogen is within the "top half dozen [biotechnology firms] with respect to products on the market," Sato said. The company's two most important developments to date have been Alpha Interferon, which helps in the treatment of various cancers and hepatitis, and recombinant DNA-derived Hepatitis-B vaccines and diagnoses.
Sato praised Sharp, calling him "one of the most fair-handed people I have met." She described his nomination for MIT president "a remarkably exciting opportunity for MIT."
He is "that very rare blend of pragmatic visionary that will really mean a lot to MIT," Sato added.
Prominent candidates out
of contention early on
Sharp's nomination ends nearly one year of speculation as to who would succeed Gray. One high-level administration source commented that Frank Press, president of the National Science Foundation, and George P. Shultz PhD '49, former US secretary of state, were simply too old for the job, saying, "it is probably a young person's position." Press was considered the runner-up in the last presidential search, and Shultz had been mentioned prominently in The Boston Globe.
Provost John M. Deutch '61 was considered a leading candidate from the beginning. But Deutch announced in January that he would be not be MIT's next president. It still is not clear whether Deutch pulled himself out of the race, or if the search committees told him that he would not receive the nomination. Deutch is presently rumored to be a candidate for the presidency of Carnegie Mellon University.
Nobel laureate and Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research director David Baltimore '61 was similarly considered a leading candidate. Baltimore announced in the fall that he would leave MIT in July to assume the presidency of Rockefeller University, a biomedical research facility in New York City.
Before Wednesday's announcement, Sharp was one of the people rumored to have been on the short list of candidates to replace Baltimore.
James F. Gibbons, dean of engineering at Stanford University, seems to have been Sharp's closest contender. Gibbons was seen on campus as late as last week, which would seem to indicate that he was one of the last candidates on the short list. According to The Tartan, CMU's student newspaper, Gibbons turned down a presidential offer from their school last fall, but remained on the short list.