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Tang Urges More Participation

By Joyce Kwan

Martin Y. Tang SM ’72, who became the first international president of the MIT Alumni Association on July 1, 2006, speaks to The Tech about his role as president, his goals for the association, and the honor of being a third generation MIT alumnus.

The Tech: What is your role as president of the Alumni Association?

Martin Tang: The Alumni Association basically keeps in touch with the alumni. It organizes reunions, the Alumni Leadership Conference (which is why I’m here this weekend), Family Day. And there’s also a fundraising element to the Alumni Association. The presidential term is for one year, but it’s actually a four-year commitment because the first year I was president-elect, starting July 1 this year I became the president, and I’m a member of the Executive Committee — the President’s committee — for two more years.

TT: So what do you do as president?

MT: It’s a part-time job, but actually it’s quite a bit of work. [Elizabeth A.] Garvin, the executive vice president, reports to me for one year. I plan to visit alumni groups around the world. I do come to the states about 10 to 11 times a year, so I’m hoping to hook-up with President Hockfield and visit alumni in various cities around the states, as well as in Asia and Europe if we can get our schedules to mesh.

I’m the first international president, the one who’s not a resident of the United States, a president without frontiers, and that really means reaching out to alumni all over the world. The theme of my presidency is to get alumni participation up, because I think it’s very important to show the world that MIT alumni are committed to the Institute. And one of the ways to do that is by giving back to the Institute either in the form of unrestricted giving — which I think is very important — as well as donating their time and energy to the Institute. So, participation — that’s the theme.

TT: Do you have specific goals regarding fundraising?

MT: This year we raised around 35 million dollars for the Institute from alumni giving. But, one of the focuses is going to be on young alumni, what are called “MIT 10,” people who have graduated within the past 10 years. The challenge that I’m issuing is that I’ll be donating a certain amount of money once certain participation levels are achieved.

TT: How were you chosen to become president?

MT: I got a call during the summer of ’05 from the chairman of the selection committee and he said, “How would you like to be President of the Alumni Association?” So it kind of came out of the blue. I had been one of the four vice presidents a few years ago, but I had no idea that my name was even being mentioned for this, so it came as a big surprise.

It’s a huge honor. I think of my grandfather coming here 86 years ago and his grandson becomes president of the Alumni Association. It goes beyond the imagination. People who are active in alumni activities are considered, and I was President of the MIT Club of Hong Kong. I’ve been treasurer, vice president, and then president of the MIT Club and I got asked to be on the Sloan School visiting committee in ’94. And from ’01 to ’03, I was vice president of the Alumni Association.

TT: What was your initial impression of MIT and how would you describe your experience?

MT: Coming to Boston was great because being a grad student in Boston was fun. Electrical engineering is really quite theoretical, and what I learned at Sloan was very practical: accounting, organizational development, finance, and those kinds of courses, which seem to be more real life.

And in those days, Sloan School was a lot smaller than it is now. We had 100 per year in my master’s class. Of course, in those days, we had the master’s of science degree, which meant you had to write a thesis. Now, to get an MBA, you don’t have to write a thesis.

I had a great time in business school. I still keep in touch with some of my business school classmates. One of whom is Judith C. Lewent SM ’72, the CFO of Merck, and she actually chairs the visiting committee for the Sloan School, and another is Victor Menezes SM ’72, the Senior Vice Chairman of Citibank. We’re actually all on the Sloan visiting committee and we’re all class of ’72. So it’s really quite amazing.

TT: Do you have any suggestions for current students?

MT: Surveys show that if you start as an engineer, after five years, you’re going to be in a position where you’re going to be managing people. So, it’s good to know more than just engineering — such as the liberal arts, humanities, as well as development of interpersonal skills — because in my job, I meet a lot of people with great credentials, but the ones who have gone the farthest are the ones who’ve got the interpersonal skills. At the end of the day, unless you’re a hermit, you’re going to be interacting with people, right? The way you manage them, lead them, or wherever your career leads you is largely going to determine how far you go in your career.

TT: How do you think your engineering background has helped you in your pursuits?

MT: It took me some time to realize this, but engineering really makes you think logically. You’re taught to take a problem, break it down, and put it back together with the solution. In comparison to my colleagues who might have had a less rigorous education in terms of technical skills, I would look at a problem, dissect it, and come up with a solution, and they wouldn’t know how to get their arms around the problem. So, even though engineering at Cornell was pretty tough, when I look back on it, I’m glad I went through it because it does help you in later life. In fact, I say that although I have two kids and I’ve come to take the view of following your passion. (My daughter is a liberal arts major and my son is in the hotel school at Cornell, and they’ve both enjoyed their college careers.)

TT: What do you like to do for fun?

MT: As I said, my hobby has been in higher education, and with Cornell, MIT, and something called the University Grants Committee in Hong Kong. The university, like in the UK, funds most of the recurring costs as well as most of the capital costs of the university.

It’s like having a big state university system, except in Hong Kong, we cover 85 percent of the recurring costs, so it’s actually very high. The government has set up an advisory body called the University Grants Committee because they don’t want to deal directly with the universities because of academic freedom and those issues. I’m in that, and that meets three times a year, a lot of reading. That’s my hobby, but in terms of other stuff I like to do, I like to hike, swim, ski …

TT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MT: Participate. I think it’s important to give back to your institute, and I was taught that by my father and my grandfather. You do what you can. Regarding young alumni, hopefully people will contribute back just because participation is viewed as making a donation. Now, it truly depends on what you can afford.

I think equally important, especially for young alumni, is participating in interviewing, being an educational counselor, or volunteering in reunion activities. So, there’s something for everybody and of course as your earning power grows when you get older, more is expected from you.