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Pinker Decides to Leave MIT for Harvard

By Marissa Vogt


Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker has decided to leave MIT for Harvard University.

“I’ve just been at MIT now for 21 years, and it’s a point in my career where I thought a change of scenery would be healthy,” Pinker said.

Pinker has been contemplating leaving MIT since he was informed in January that he was a candidate for an open position at Harvard. He received an official offer to join Harvard’s faculty on March 7, and he announced his decision Wednesday.

One of the factors that influenced his decision, Pinker said, was the variety of fields of study that Harvard offers, especially social psychology and evolutionary psychology.

“Harvard has fields of study that just don’t exist at MIT,” Pinker said. On the other hand, “MIT has the world’s best department in linguistics. ... It’s really a change of neighboring fields,” he said.

Pinker said that he did not make the decision to leave MIT lightly. “I’m definitely giving things up. ... I love MIT, and I’m very very sad to be leaving,” Pinker said.

Professor Mriganka Sur, head of the Brain and Cognitive Science Department, told The Boston Globe in February that President Vest had been involved in offering Pinker “whatever he felt would be needed” to keep Pinker at MIT. Pinker said that MIT responded “very generously” when he began to seriously consider Harvard’s offer.

“They didn’t let me go without a fight,” Pinker said.

Harvard dept. fits Pinker’s interest

Harvard Professor of Psychology Susan Carey said that Harvard’s decision to woo Pinker was a natural one.

“There was the opportunity to search for a scholar who had very broad interdisciplinary interests, and this job fit Steve to a T,” Carey said.

Part of Harvard’s attractive nature, Carey said, is that “Harvard has a department of biology that focuses on evolutionary biology,” compared with MIT’s department, which focuses more on molecular biology. “Given Steve’s interest in evolutionary psychology, that’s a resource for him that doesn’t exist at MIT,” she said.

Professor Jeremy M. Wolfe said that Pinker’s decision to leave “is clearly a loss for MIT.” Pinker “is probably the most visible intellectual in our field,” Wolfe said, noting that “there’s always a certain amount of poaching among the great universities.”

Pinker has taught Introduction to Psychology (9.00) for the last several years.

Wolfe, who currently teaches 9.00 in Concourse, taught the mainstream course last fall while Pinker was on sabbatical promoting his most recent book, The Blank Slate. Wolfe said that he enjoys teaching introductory psychology and would consider taking responsibility for the mainstream class, formerly taught by Pinker, permanently.

Neither Sur nor Daniel Schacter, chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, was available for comment.

Pinker to teach core course

Pinker received his PhD in psychology from Harvard in 1979 and served as an assistant professor there from 1980 to 1981. He then taught at Stanford for a year before becoming a member of the MIT faculty.

At Harvard, Pinker plans to teach a core curriculum course in human nature and might also teach graduate-level courses with colleagues in topics such as psycholinguistics and evolutionary psychology.