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Hockfield: Balancing Work, Life is A Challenge MIT...s Sixteenth President Speaks About Her Job, the MIT Corporation, and Her Advice to Freshmen

By Marissa Vogt

This is the final interview in the five-part series introducing new students to administrators and student leaders on campus. Today, The Tech interviews President Susan Hockfield, who talks about the MIT Corporation and what it is like to be the president of MIT.

The Tech: What is your role at the Institute and what does it mean to be the President of MIT?

Susan Hockfield: My role at the Institute is to oversee all of the Institute’s activities. Formally, I report to the Corporation but while I have responsibility for things across the Institute, what I feel I really have responsibility for is the people in leadership, setting the tone and mission of the Institute, and that’s done by a process of gathering information from the community. In many ways, I also represent the Institute to the rest of the world.

TT: You mentioned the MIT Corporation. How would you describe the role of the MIT Corporation?

SH: The MIT Corporation is the oversight body for the Institute and they have ultimately the responsibility for the Institute, how it functions—for both its fiscal and academic well-being. The corporation is a large body. There are on the order of 75 regular members. … Members of the corporation sit on, and chair, visiting committees. … One very important subcommittee is the executive committee. The executive committee has nine corporation members and I meet with the executive committee monthly. Through the work of the executive committee, the Corporation follows the activities of the Institute with a little bit higher resolution than is possible at quarterly meetings.

TT: Speaking of the Corporation, how can students better understand and become more involved with the work of the MIT Corporation?

SH: It is through the activities of the visiting committee where students get most involved with the Corporation because each visiting committee to a department or unit spends time during the visit actually visiting with students and the student input to these visiting committees is very important. … Once a student graduates, a student can become a candidate for the young alumni positions on the Corporation.

TT: I’m guessing that there’s no typical day in the life of the MIT President, but maybe in a typical week, a month, how much do you travel and —

SH: There isn’t a typical day. I do quite a bit of traveling because part of my job is reaching out to various parts of our community. I visited 20 alumni clubs in the last year and a half and any number of additional alumni and friends of MIT all around the world. I spend a day every four to six weeks in Washington because MIT’s role in Washington has been extremely important in helping the nation to formulate sound policies for education and research, and I take that role very seriously. So yes, I travel quite a bit. Over the course of any week I will have meetings with faculty and students, and with alumni, with people in the Boston community. … There are a number of structures at MIT that help draw the Institute together as one. Probably the most important group is the Academic Council, which is the senior academic and administrative leadership that meets once a week. It’s a group I chair and that I find a very important meeting in terms of addressing all of the affairs of the Institute.

TT: What were your first impressions of MIT and what do you think are the major joys and challenges that the incoming students will face?

SH: My first impressions of MIT were that it’s very different from the inside compared to how it’s viewed from the outside. From the outside, of course, the brilliance of MIT shines but I would say is insufficiently understood because it’s actually even more remarkable in terms of academic brilliance from the inside than it is from the outside. From the outside I think MIT is often still perceived as predominantly an engineering school. I think the humanness and the warmth of the MIT environment is something you don’t know from the outside, and certainly being on the inside you understand just how a wonderfully human place it is. … One of the things that I’ve found wonderfully exciting about MIT is the energy of the place. It’s a place that really is full of a kind of excitement about the future. It’s full of a passion for working hard at problems and getting them solved. ... You said what are the joys –

TT: Yeah, so do you think there are any specific joys, or challenges, even that incoming students will face?

SH: There really is tremendous joy in the richness of the MIT experience. When I thought, prompted by the questions that came to me, what my advice might be for students, and it’s the advice that I would give to anyone coming to this wonderfully rich community: look around. Sample some of the great array of activities, curricular and extracurricular, that MIT has to offer. Remain as broadly open to the array of experience as you can be. Both the breadth and the depth of what we do is really quite extraordinary. I encourage undergraduates to get involved in the UROP [Undergraduate Research Opportunities] program. About 85 percent of our students by the time they leave have done a UROP, but I know that some of those students have only discovered UROP relatively late in their time. UROP is a very great way of actually sampling some of the depth of MIT.

TT: So, more personal questions: what do you like best about your job?

SH: The people. The range of activities is just spectacular. I often say that when I speak with faculty or students I find myself in a future I had not yet imagined. The work at MIT really reaches into the distant future in ways that are really difficult to express. I get excited by the deep scholarship that goes on here across the board. … Another thing I just love about MIT is that it reaches across the entire continuum of study from the very most basic curiosity-driven research, into the deepest questions about the universe, to extremely practical outcomes. This year I have been focused on energy a great deal and one of the exciting things over the last year have been four new battery technologies that have come out of MIT laboratories. Because storage is the rate-limiting technology for all alternative energy, I’m very excited that MIT is actually helping to solve that problem by inventing new ways of energy storage.

TT: What do you like to do for fun?

SH: I like to spend time with my daughter and my husband. This summer we’ve been playing some tennis, that’s something I’ve always enjoyed. We’ve been enjoying exploring the city. We still are relative newcomers and it’s just great, on a beautiful summer evening, to walk across one of these bridges and explore parts of the city. So we really have been enjoying exploring Boston and Cambridge.

TT: Have you discovered any particular places that you would recommend freshmen go out and find?

SH: The [Isabella] Stewart Gardner museum, which I finally visited just last week, is just remarkable and wonderful, as is the Museum of Fine Arts. If you like museums, they’re great. If you like music, the music is just breathtaking.

TT: What about sports? Do you cheer for Boston teams?

SH: Of course. We’ve had the great pleasure of attending Red Sox games and Patriots games. It’s wonderful. The excitement of having local teams is contagious.

TT: As a woman in the sciences, how do you balance your responsibilities to your work and to your family?

SH: I balance them by having a great team at home as well as a great team here in the office. I believe that our best work is done by groups of people, and so I rely on others to help in all the tasks that I do. My husband has been extraordinarily supportive throughout our lives together and both of our careers have managed to evolve in ways that help me to do the kind of work I can do and help him do the kind of work he can do. Balancing work and family requires teamwork on both sides and being able to rely on the senior leadership team and my family… to do their roles in helping this equation work.

TT: Is it difficult, though? Do you ever feel torn between one or the other?

SH: Well, one of the wonderful consequences of doing work that you really enjoy, and really get absorbed in, is that you wish you could be in two places at once, and that’s been true since I discovered that science was my true calling. Everyone wishes that you had 48 hours in a day! The fact is you have 24 and figuring out how to use those 24 most productively is an important challenge. It’s one of the things that our students work on, too. Figuring out how to get all of the activities in a day that together make for a balanced life, I think, is one of the important challenges of being in college. It’s a challenge that doesn’t go away.

TT: The “Sleep, friends, or work: pick two”?

SH: Yes, and I’ve met any number of students who choose sleep, friends, and work and find a very happy balance. Of course, the balance isn’t something that is the same every day of the semester; it changes over the course of the semester. But one of the things that I’ve found enormously inspiring is the number of MIT students who have been extraordinarily successful scholars and also extraordinarily successful athletes or extraordinarily successful musicians who really have been able to figure out how to balance their activities, set priorities, and organize a day so that they can have full and interesting lives.

TT: What’s it like to live in the Gray House?

SH: It’s wonderful living on campus. One of the things that I enjoy is that I walk to work. On the way between my office and our home I get to run into people, have conversations, I get a look at the campus, so it’s a wonderful way of being part of the community. The Gray House is a spectacular place for having events and we’ve enjoyed hosting events at the house too.

TT: One more quick question: MIT was recently ranked first, for the second year in a row, by Washington Monthly magazine, which ranks universities by their service to the country. What do you think is the significance of that ranking and what more can MIT do to be an enabler of social change?

SH: I was of course very pleased with the rankings, but of course you’re always pleased when you come out at the top. It was a particularly interesting ranking because it underscores something that I admire about MIT and I’m very proud of. I often say that MIT is a place where the American dream comes true. A significant fraction of our students come from families that are not what one would consider to be well off. We expend more of our dollars on undergraduate financial aid per student than most of our peer institutions and we think this is very important. Our admissions policies, are, of course, to use need-blind admissions, and we only give need-based aid, and we’re committed to meeting the full need of our admitted students. Staying true to those principles and being a place where students feel comfortable being a student here from many, many different backgrounds has allowed us really to be an enabler of social change. I can’t tell you the number of alumni who have told me the story of being able to come to MIT only because they received a financial aid package, and coming to MIT having changed their lives and then allowed them to change the world. So this really is a recipe for how higher education can have an enormous impact on making the world a better place for all. MIT has done this over many, many decades and is committed to continuing to do this, so I was delighted that this particular ranking system took note of some of the features that MIT holds as important guiding principles for our education.

TT: Is there anything else that you’d like to say to the incoming students, both graduate students and freshmen?

SH: I would say the three things that I’d advise are get to know at least one member of the faculty, and more if possible. Really get to know the faculty because they can serve important roles in many different ways and they are interested in getting to know you. Second, for undergraduates, do a UROP. And the third, for everyone, is get involved in student activities. We have a wonderful community that interacts together in many wonderful ways and getting involved in things outside the classroom, for many students, is a critically important and exciting part of their life here, as you, Marissa, can attest.