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Provost Reif Explains His Role

By Curt Fischer

This is the fourth in a five-part series of interviews introducing new students to administrators and student leaders on campus. Today, The Tech interviews Provost L. Rafael Reif, who talks about his experiences at MIT, services for new students, and his role at the Institute.

The Tech: Provost Reif, what’s a provost?

L. Rafael Reif: [Laughs] Well, I probably should know the answer to that question. The provost is typically seen as the person who is in charge — as much as “in charge” means in academia — of all the faculty. So basically, faculty and academic programs, one way or the other, report to the provost.

TT: As provost, could you elaborate a little bit on what your role is at the Institute, on what you deal with as the person in charge of the faculty?

RR: I think that one of the terms that people have given me is “chief academic officer” to represent what I just said. At the core of the enterprise are the five schools that MIT has: Engineering, Science, Management, Architecture and Planning, Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Each of those schools has a dean. Under the dean are the departments and academic programs, each of which has a head or chair who reports to the dean. The provost is in charge of the schools through the deans. So, I work very closely with them to run the academic programs. In addition to that, the provost has responsibilities that [are] centrally organized. For example, the research activities also report to the Office of the Provost, in this case through the vice president for research. Resources such as space are also centrally organized. They don’t belong to a particular school, they belong to the Institute, and those resources are also allocated through an associate provost, in the provost’s office. The arts is another activity that is Institute-wide. They don’t belong to a particular school, so they are also centrally coordinated through the provost’s office, via another associate provost.

TT: What services, support, or access does your office offer students, specifically new students?

RR: The way we are organized today, most of the programs that address student needs are run through their deans, the Deans for Student Life, Undergraduate Education, and Graduate Students, into the Office of the Chancellor. I certainly believe, and the Chancellor does too, that it is extremely important for student activities and the faculty and academic programs to be integrated. The Chancellor and I work very well together and I certainly have been available to meet with students and understand their needs and concerns on a steady-state basis. But from the organizational standpoint, they go through their deans into the Chancellor’s office.

TT: What advice do you have for the incoming new students based on your own college experience?

RR: A wonderful question. Our students here take full advantage of what MIT has to offer, to the point that perhaps they forget to sleep occasionally. The best advice that I believe I can offer is take advantage of everything we have, from the academic side to the non-academic side, to get the best experience they can out of their four years at MIT, and as best they can, try to have a ball.

TT: What do you think will be the major joys and challenges new students will face?

RR: I think the biggest challenge is adjustment. Before I came to this office, I’d been an undergraduate advisor for all the years I’d been at MIT, and I always got a group of about 20 or so sophomores. I would be with them until they graduated, and three years later I would get another group of sophomores. Every time I got a new group of sophomores, I always had the same experience. They would come to my office at registration, the first time that I would meet them, and we would discuss about subjects and so forth, and they would always tell me, and inevitably it would be almost every single one of them, that everybody else looks smarter than they were. And one student would tell me that and leave my office, and in would come the next one to tell me exactly the same thing and leave my office, and in would come the next one. I think the adjustment is from being some of the smartest kids in their own environment in high school to coming here and thinking that everyone else is smarter. It takes a while to realize that everybody here is as smart as everybody else. That adjustment is a challenge, and I recognize that. It’s hard for students to internalize that they are as good as everybody else. …

I think the biggest joy will be when our students find that area they really love, when they connect with that activity, that’s the biggest joy they will find. And by and large, almost every one of our undergrads finds that joy at MIT.

TT: What were your first impressions of MIT when you first came here?

RR: I came here as a member of the faculty; I didn’t study here. I’ve been here since then, and I think every faculty member will tell you, the reason being an MIT faculty is a dream job is to be able to teach the students we teach here and to work with the students we work with here. MIT is perfect for the students who come here, and the students who come here benefit greatly from MIT.

I was extremely impressed then and now — and even before I came, when I was deciding to come — with the students we have. They were then, they are still today, and I am sure they will continue to be, just the best students you can find.

TT: What are some of the challenges currently facing MIT? What are you currently spending your time working on?

RR: Well, I think the current challenge is to look at how the landscape outside MIT is changing, how the world is much more global than it used to be, even when I came to MIT. The biggest challenge is to understand what kind of graduates the U.S. and the world needs today. We want our graduates to succeed in the economy that is expecting them when they graduate. That’s one of the areas in which of course I am paying quite a bit of attention to.

Other areas deal with the research enterprise: understanding where we are going, trying to gather our resources to work in areas which are important so we can participate in the innovation that is needed, and, in doing so, integrate that into the education that our students receive. A good example of that is the energy initiative, for instance.

TT: Are you involved with some of the ongoing campus issues, such as mental health care for students, or hiring and retaining a diverse faculty?

RR: Every issue that deals with faculty, I am certainly very heavily involved. Hiring and retaining a diverse faculty is an important priority. Issues that deal with services and their quality are issues that I am aware of, but I am not directly in a managing line to make things happen.

TT: If there were one thing that you think new students should do in their first semester, when they first come to campus, what would it be?

RR: I think [laughs] that there are several first things a student should do. I think that students should try to get to know a faculty member or some person who is assigned to help them acclimate to the MIT environment. A student should find other students to connect with. It’s a new environment, and it’s good to socially connect with other students. All of them are undergoing the same experience.

To find a stable social support environment is important, and to find a way to be helped to transition into MIT is important, via faculty or via some of the other services that we provide to do that.

TT: When you’re not in the office, how do you spend your time?

RR: I love reading. I love reading about history. I love reading about what people in important positions, how did they make decisions at the time that changed the course of history. I am fascinated by that. Not that I find a great deal of time to do that these days, but I try to read a little bit on a daily basis.