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Grad Dean Plans to Retire in June

Committee to Appoint New Dean For Graduate Students by Mid-April

By Michael McGraw-Herdeg
STAFF REPORTER

Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert, whose office is meant to serve as graduate students’ strongest advocate within the MIT administration, will retire at the end of June. An MIT search committee containing six faculty, one staff member, and one graduate student will recommend a successor by mid-April, according to the MIT News Office.

In his seven and a half years as dean, Colbert has balanced his goal of nurturing graduate student community with the other administrative responsibilities of the Graduate Students Office.

Appointed to the position in 1999, Colbert came into an office tasked with overseeing all graduate students’ education, but he directed his most visible efforts toward graduate student life. He told The Tech in a 1999 interview that his goal was to make MIT more attractive to prospective students by creating a “community of scholars.”

Colbert’s current plans use similar wording: “We are developing a graduate commons,” he said. Part of this commons is physical, as MIT concentrates graduate housing in the northwest part of campus. Another part of Colbert’s plan for community is infrastructure, exemplified in programs like the $100,000 Graduate Student Life Grants and the eight-week maternity leave policy. Colbert said he also plans an intellectual component, a “common intellectual experience” for graduate students which he did not clearly define.

For administrators, graduate community has tangible benefits; students who feel a strong connection to the Institute are more likely to care about MIT after they graduate. Colbert said that, though “obviously we want alumni to give,” he considers more valuable the possibility that alumni will offer support through mentoring, internships, or informal advising.

Colbert said his most important accomplishment has been developing a rapport with the Graduate Student Council. In an e-mail interview, GSC President Eric G. Weese G called Colbert “a tireless advocate.” He “caused MIT to think more seriously about graduate student life,” wrote Weese, and his successor should “continue to work closely with graduate students.”

While working with students is essential to Colbert’s job, the nature of this interaction sometimes changes. In 2004, he and Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict orchestrated the temporary closure of the Thirsty Ear pub because it did not have sufficient oversight. “We put it on the fire and we pulled it off,” said Colbert, adding that his philosophy is that “if this is a resource that the graduate community really wants, then they’ll take action.”

Institute Chaplain Robert M. Randolph said Colbert has “pushed consistently and constantly for the structures to support graduate community.” But in the process, the GSO has also evolved into “an all-purpose office,” said Randolph. As a result, the graduate students’ advocate within the administration also enforces the rules governing students.

In handling the routine interpretation of rules about tuition, stipends, registration, and degree requirements, Colbert said he is on students’ side. Much of the job involves navigation of the rivers of bureaucracy surrounding MIT’s numerous departments.

Ultimately his job is to “creatively use policy to get things done,” Colbert said — which sometimes means that “policy that’s bent in this office stays in this office.”

Part of this interpretation involves making sure that graduate students will graduate; Colbert personally r views the grade reports of all graduate students, requiring departmental review of those with problematic grades or who have been at MIT for too long (more than about eighteen consecutive terms).

The dean also has more direct ties to student life; Colbert said he spends “more time than I ever imagined or would have wanted” on mental health issues, talking to students who are depressed or overwhelmed by the pressure of graduate school. Colbert described as “one of my proudest moments” a time when he helped a student “on the brink” to overcome his personal obstacles and get his PhD.

The paradox of lobbying for graduate students while also regulating them does not seem to faze Colbert. He said his position contains “a tension that I think creates a lot of positive energy.” But at the same time, it is unclear how much of Colbert’s job will be fulfilled by his successor. “I have defined the role,” Colbert said.

What is expected of a new Dean for Graduate Students will be defined in part by the report of a search committee appointed to replace Colbert. Chancellor Phillip L. Clay said the committee will first issue a report on the state of the Graduate Students Office, then will assemble a list of three to six candidates chosen from among senior MIT faculty. From these candidates, Clay will recommend a new dean to President Susan Hockfield — who was, at Yale, once the dean of a graduate school herself.

The search committee contains one graduate student, to be appointed by the GSC. “We’re very concerned about effective communication between students and the administration, and only having one student member might be somewhat limiting,” Weese said.

Clay said the new dean will be expected to “continue the community-building” that Colbert is known for, in particular by building close relationships with faculty as well as students. Because of the esoteric nature of Institute politics, only candidates from within MIT will be considered, Clay said. Moreover, the new dean will likely be a well-established senior faculty member — Colbert, who has worked at MIT since 1977, was a 22-year veteran when appointed to the deanship in 1999.

Colbert said he has stayed at the Institute this long because there has “always been something challenging and exciting” to do, but that he’s planned for a long time to retire at his current age of 60. (Clay said Colbert’s retirement has been “an open secret” for the past two years.) After June 30, Colbert will move on to work with two separate startups; but for now, he is still MIT’s acting Dean for Graduate Students.

“We owe our graduate students an experience that’s second to none,” Colbert said.