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Pinker Mulls Harvard Job After 22 Years in Course IX

By Jenny Zhang

ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR

Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker is mulling a departure from MIT to Harvard University.

Pinker said he is expecting a formal offer from Harvard’s psychology department, and plans to make a decision within a month of receiving the offer.

“I feel very welcome at MIT, and would not leave lightly,” Pinker said. “It’s a marvelous place for teaching and research. President Vest and [Professor Mriganka Sur, head of the Brain and Cognitive Science department] have been superb.”

“We certainly don’t want him to go anywhere -- he’s part of what makes MIT a special place,” Sur told The Boston Globe, saying President Vest has been involved in offering Pinker “whatever he felt would be needed” to keep Pinker at MIT.

“It would be very disappointing” if he left, said Professor Nancy Kanwisher of the Brain and Cognitive Science department.

Sur was out of the country and could not be reached for comment. Professor Daniel Schacter, head of the Harvard psychology department, declined to discuss the matter.

Pinker says he’s still undecided

Pinker said he is unsure of what choice he will make. “Right now, I’m undecided because I don’t have the offer [from Harvard],” he said. “At this point, I’m torn because I like MIT and have spent 22 years here.”

Pinker said the choice is very difficult because each place has different strengths. “MIT is very strong in linguistics, computer science, and language,” he said. “Harvard traditionally has a broader range in the schools of psychology, law, and evolutionary biology. Several Harvard departments are more relevant to my work,” he said.

“The universities have complementary strengths, and my decision will depend on what kind of work I want to do in the next ten years,” he said.

Possibility of Harvard not recent

For Pinker, the possibility of joining the Harvard psychology department is not new. Pinker received his PhD in psychology from Harvard in 1979.

“I have a lot of friends at Harvard, and they have mentioned this before,” Pinker said. “The first overture came more than a year ago, in January of 2002. I had dinner with some Harvard professors from the English and African Studies departments, and they mentioned that the department of psychology was interested in me,” he said.

Pinker was an assistant professor at Harvard from 1980 to 1981. “I left because Harvard’s psychology department wasn’t as strong as it is now, and did not offer tenure to assistant professors,” Pinker said.

He taught at Stanford for a year, and then returned to Cambridge joined MIT’s faculty.

Pinker is well known for his research and teaching, and is the author of several award-winning books including “How the Mind Works” and “The Language Instinct.” He is currently on sabbatical in California.