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Strides or Baby Steps?

A Reflection on Hockfield...s First Year

Hector H. Hernandez

December 6 was a quiet day at the Institute; life proceeded as it would on any other December day at MIT. So what made this day special? It marked the one year anniversary of President Hockfield taking office as MIT’s 16th President. Now is a good time to step back and reflect on the first year of the presidency.

The election of a life scientist as the leader of a premier engineering institute sent the message that MIT and engineering as a whole were ready to conquer one of the last scientific frontiers: biology. President Hockfield has compared it to the exciting and productive beginning of the last century when physics and engineering converged to produce the advances in technology and innovation that contributed to MIT’s rise as a national leader in research and development.

The community had reservations about the wisdom of choosing a life scientist to lead an engineering institute. There were those who questioned whether an outsider would be able to assimilate into the community. Then there were those who wondered if the commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and information expected from MIT would be compromised.

President Hockfield came in with a strong vision and set of ideals of what was ailing this nation. The president, in the remarks of August 26, 2004 made it very clear that the hope was that MIT would become the place where all school children in America dream of going. This is quite a goal for a nation in which only 18 percent of 12th-graders are working solidly at grade level in science and only 16 percent in math and where only 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in science and engineering.

President Hockfield enumerated several challenges facing the Institute, the nation, and the world in her Inaugural Address: collaboration, energy and environmental stewardship, and inspiration of the next generation of scientists and engineers. These are not new to MIT, but what is new, or at least renewed, is the emphasis on the responsibility of every member of the community to work to address these issues.

One year later I ask, how is it going?

The President has appointed the Energy Research Council to lead the effort in research into and education about sustainable and alternative energy sources. The issues facing the world today are vastly different from those during the energy crisis of the early 1970s. Leaders of academia, community, government, and industry need to come together to present realistic long-term solutions to address these issues. MIT, with its long tradition of collaboration and research, together with a solutions-based attitude, now stands committed to address this challenge.

President Hockfield has expressed deep concern for the state of education in this country. The president spoke of the responsibility to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Recent events in the U.S. have made it imperative that MIT and the Office of the President urgently take on this challenge. President Hockfield has addressed the topic of educational opportunities for women and economically disadvantaged individuals. Whether in the presence of business or governmental leaders, no opportunity to bring these issues up has been wasted. The President has also made it imperative to make funds available so that qualified individuals of limited resources can attend MIT.

One other area worth addressing is that of communication within and about the community. President Hockfield faced some of the issues regarding allegations of misconduct at the institute. There are clear, public statements on the position of the president’s office and of MIT on these matters.

Is it all rosy and pretty? By no means. There are lingering issues at MIT that need to be addressed by the president and the community as a whole. The better question is, “Is the president living up to expectations?” I believe that President Hockfield is a quick study and has developed a deep understanding of the unique environment harbored in the Institute. Will MIT be a better place when the 16th president makes way for number 17? Only time will tell.