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Isaac Colbert to be Promoted To Dean of Graduate Students

By Laura McGrath Moulton

Beginning July 1st, Isaac M. Colbert will continue his leadership of the Graduate Education Office in the capacity of Dean for Graduate Students. Colbert is being promoted from Senior Associate Dean of Graduate Students.

The current Dean for Graduate Students, J. David Litster, is also the Vice President for Research, a combination which is common among research universities. Litster and Colbert were sharing the responsibilities of the Graduate Education Office, with “the understanding that I would run the operation” of the office, Colbert said. “The partnership was a good one,” he said, but the immensity of MIT’s research facilities meant that Colbert was in essence doing the job of the Dean. The administration and faculty are acknowledging that fact with this promotion.

“I am humbled and grateful for the support I have received from hundreds of faculty, staff and students. I don’t think anything that has happened in my twenty-two years at MIT has felt as good as that outpouring,” Colbert said.

Colbert’s goals: visibility, voice

One of Colbert’s main goals is to make MIT’s graduate program more attractive in an increasingly competitive market. “It’s not enough to say we’re MIT, we’re in Cambridge, and you should come here,” Colbert said. Instead, the Graduate Education Office must “raise the visibility of graduate education in a coherent way”, in order to “say to prospective students what it’s like being at MIT: who do you go to, and what happens when you go there?” Colbert said.

“We want to say not only that we have world class facilities and world class faculty, but that we’re a world class place,” Colbert said. “It’s a big wad to chew on, but we’re tackling it a little at a time. It’s a critical period.”

One aspect of Colbert’s vision is graduate housing. “Housing is the most critical issue, not just for students’ comfort in a tight housing market, but for MIT’s ability to use it as a positive marketing tool, to invite students into a community of scholars,” Colbert said, adding that peer institutions “are ahead of us in this game, at least in spin.”

Also underway is a sizable funds campaign. “I expect a substantial sum to be raised for graduate fellowships,” Colbert said.

As Dean, Colbert will join the Academic Council and the Education Committee, where he hopes to foster “a stronger voice for graduate students’ interests and concerns.” He hopes to “signal to graduate students that their presence is going to be recognized in a way that it hasn’t been before.”

Colbert ‘loved graduate school’

Colbert, a Baltimore native, said, “I don’t think any sane person decides to be a dean early on.” Colbert completed his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University and his masters and doctorate at Brown University, all in the field of experimental psychology.

Colbert describes his time at Brown as “probably the greatest time in my life. I loved graduate school.” He said that the intense intellectual activity, surrounded by people who were intensely involved in their work, made the experience exciting and valuable. “Not everything went smoothly. I had a dissertation committee that pushed me to the wall and forced me to a higher level that I thought possible, and I loved it.”

Colbert traces his enthusiasm at the prospect of working in the Graduate Education Office to his own graduate experience. He enjoys the challenge of helping the graduate experiences of others to be “more fun, and less problematic.”

Colbert arrived at MIT in 1977 for a two-year stay in research in training and development in personality. After that, he worked in the President’s Office as the Equal Opportunity Officer. He worked in Personnel and on administrative computing, records, and efficiency before becoming the head of the Graduate Education Office with Litster in 1995.

Explaining his view of the Graduate Education Office, Colbert said, “Graduate education is very decentralized, but a certain number of functions need to be handled centrally, and that’s what this office does.”