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Departing VP Emphasizes Child Care Need, Diversity

By Gabriel Fouasnon

After seven years as Vice President for Human Resources, Laura Avakian will retire in May, leaving her successor with the challenges of managing MIT’s close to 15,000 employees.

Avakian’s planned May retirement, announced last week, follows closely on the heels of a number of other departures by top administrators since the end of President Hockfield’s first year at MIT, a period for which she asked administrators to remain in their positions.

Avakian said her decision to retire was motivated by considerations for her family. Although she was concerned that leaving was “going to look like piling on top of all the other retirements,” now that Hockfield has been in office for a full year, the adjustment period is coming to an end, Avakian said.

The biggest challenge facing her successor will be learning how to work in a complex, wide environment that lacks centralization. The successor, she said, will have to “really understand the environment.”

During her time as MIT’s vice president of human resources, Avakian made substantial gains in improving MIT’s child care system, created an employee leadership program, and led the efforts for an upcoming installation of an online database system that will include online time cards and require direct deposit, streamlining the functions of human resources and payroll.

But though child care has been improved, more work remains; the Stata Center child care facility waiting list has ballooned. “We need to have more space,” Avakian said, and MIT is committed to fulfilling that need. Toward that goal, the Institute started a new backup child care system where MIT subsidizes child care provided by a backup company in the case of emergencies, she said.

Avakian’s office is also seeking to improve staff diversity. “It’s a big priority, and I think all of us would say we have not had huge success to date,” she said. But the system has to be built, she said, and it will require the efforts of the entire administration to start seeing the desired numerical results. As part of the efforts to increase employee diversity, a Staff Diversity Council was created one year ago.

Avakian has served MIT in human resources since 1999. Before coming to MIT, she had worked in human relations at the Beth Israel Hospital for 20 years.

The search for a replacement for Avakian has already begun with MIT’s interim executive vice president Sherwin Greenblatt interviewing several executive search firms last week, Avakian said. Once a search firm has been hired, it will work with a search advisory committee headed by Sloan School Professor Thomas A. Kochan. Avakian said her role will be limited to advising Kochan and reviewing the job description prior to the search process.