During last week’s quarterly meeting of the Corporation, President Susan Hockfield was given a round of applause in special recognition of her first five years of service leading the MIT community. Now, on the cusp of 2010, we as a community can also look back to see where the President has succeeded and where she may need to change her approach in the future.
It has become clear that thus far in her tenure President Hockfield has positioned herself as a largely outward-looking leader. By focusing on fundraising, governmental relations and expanding the Institute’s public profile, Hockfield has helped to reinforce MIT’s standing as one of the world’s pre-eminent research institutions. She has performed admirably during the present economic recession, threading the difficult needle of reducing the Institute’s budget by embracing community input and consensus decision-making. However, by focusing primarily on the external component of her role, President Hockfield risks delaying progress on key campus issues and isolating some members of the community.
Many of President Hockfield’s notable successes to date are clear. Building upon a foundation laid by former-President Vest, Hockfield has continued to improve MIT’s reputation amongst national leaders in Washington and the Institute’s global footprint has arguably never been larger. Additionally, the President demonstrated a commitment to preserving MIT’s core principles by preserving need blind admissions and by refusing to mandate a hiring freeze despite a painful 21 percent decrease in the value of the endowment. For the first time in a decade or more, the Institute budget is balanced and will not require a readjustment of unrestricted endowment funds.
On campus, however, Hockfield has generally remained disengaged from many of the matters that concern students most — including dining reform, housing, advising, and the effects of expanding student enrollment. Many student leaders have become frustrated by the often opaque decision-making process in the Chancellor’s office and in the Division of Student Life. The Task Force for Student Engagement has so far failed to address much of its chartered mission and some key student-related initiatives have still failed to include meaningful student input until too late in the process, like the reduction in the varsity athletics program, or unless prompted by widespread outrage, like the Blue Ribbon Dining Committee report.
While we heartily applaud her media savvy and her achievements in addressing the Institute’s financial woes, over the next five years President Hockfield should make it a priority to reverse her reputation for keeping the student body at arm’s length. The president now limits most of her scheduled exposure with students to monthly faculty-student lunches and the occasional living group dinner. But by using a more proactive approach to student engagement, the administration can solicit valuable and practical ideas from the MIT student body. President Hockfield should make it an issue to take more meetings with students, attend more student events and provide more opportunities for community engagement, such as regular town hall meetings. In addition, the President should provide more direct oversight for reforms to Student Life programs — such as dining — while insisting on transparency, community involvement and timely action.