How hard was it to select L. Rafael Reif as MIT’s 17th president? By all accounts, everyone wanted Reif.
On May 16, the day Reif was announced president, The Tech conducted a swath of interviews with people in the selection process. This article summarizes them and recounts the events of the search.
Susan J. Hockfield announced her resignation on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2012. By March 8, MIT Corporation member James A. Champy ’63 had been selected to chair the search committee, and the committee was assembled. By April 28, the committee had decided on Reif, and the Corporation’s executive committee heard their recommendation on May 3. Finally, the full corporation voted on the morning of May 16, and the selection was announced to the world.
Leo Rafael Reif has been at MIT since 1980, and has served as a lab director, an associate department head and department head for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and currently serves as MIT’s provost, the president’s second-in-command.
From early on, there was a strong desire for an internal candidate, Corporation officials said, swinging the pendulum back — Hockfield had come from Yale and Charles M. Vest, MIT’s 15th president, had come from the University of Michigan. Before that, Paul E. Gray ’54 had been an internal candidate; Gray went on to serve as Chair of the MIT Corporation and is now an emeritus professor of electrical engineering here.
Faculty and student input
“I think the hardest thing, particularly as an Executive Committee member, is that I’ve known Rafael and worked fairly close with him over the last seven years,” said Corporation member Barrie R. Zesiger. (Zesiger and her husband Al ’51 are both corporation members, and they gave MIT a large gift that led to the construction of the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center.)
Going into the search, Zesiger said she had no idea what the faculty thought of Reif. But it turns out they were “hugely” favorable to him. The faculty had “lots of meetings. Every department. Lots of groups on campus. So we really canvassed broadly. And it all came back the same. It was extraordinary. And it was so powerful. After a while, we all knew. We all knew. It was Rafael’s to lose when he came in to interview.”
Chair of the Faculty Samuel M. Allen PhD ’75 said he was “extremely impressed with how much faculty opinions were valued. Any fears I had about the Corporation being in charge of it were quickly allayed. The group of the faculty on the committee were superb.”
Allen went on to say that student opinions were valued as well, but that he expected that, because “I’ve heard in the past search it was extremely valuable.” So, interestingly enough, the faculty chair was confident students would have a say, and worried about the faculty’s clout.
Asked whether there was dissent in the search process, Allen said “None!”
About student input, Allen said “it seems like we had input from them right before we had the interviews.”
Corporation Secretary Kirk D. Kolenbrander said that the process was able to go so fast because “we had engaged in such a thorough understanding of where the institution was and wanted to go in 2004,” referring to the search for Hockfield. Kolenbrander managed the search processes that chose both Hockfield and Reif. The people who managed those earlier searches, such as for Vest in 1990, were all gone by the time of the 2004 search.
Why the focus on an internal candidate? Kolenbrander said “every audience we spoke with, every time we assembled an individual or a group, we heard a yearning for someone who understood the institution. That wasn’t true in 2004. It may well not be true in 2019, in whatever the year will be. It was true in 2012.”
Vest offers advice
Vest, Hockfield’s predecessor, offered this advice to Reif: “Be yourself.” While he calls it “a little bit on the corny side,” Vest says: “if you just be yourself, this community knows they’re getting the real deal and they’ll rally behind you and help you out. And also, you know, the success anybody has in a university presidency lies in exactly what Rafael said today: be a great listener.”
Vest said, on the day of the Reif announcement, “I’m just delighted. It was a wonderful outcome, and everybody I’ve talked to today from groundskeepers to faculty members as I’ve been wandering around, are just thrilled.”
Asked what he’d learned in the past seven years, as he has served as President of the National Academy of Engineering, Vest said: “The main thing I’ve learned is what I already knew. This is the Greatest Place on Earth. And all of us who have been here and are either temporarily or permanently elsewhere miss the energy and honesty and the openness and willingness to take on big challenges. This is the best presidency in the world because our faculty don’t have time for the silly kind of politics. They’re busy being the best in the world at whatever they are.”
Corp. Executive Committee structure
The MIT Corporation — the 72-member board of trustees — is led by its Executive Committee, which includes the MIT president, the corporation chairman, the treasurer, and nine other members. It meets ten times per year and pays close attention to the management of the Institute.
Today, the President of MIT leads the executive committee, but that might change.
According to Zesiger, who serves on it, there’s been a recent “discussion that it might be a good idea” to have the chairman of the Corporation run executive committee meetings.
That’s how it was prior to World War II, she said. “It’s some way of making sure that there are different points of view,” Zesiger said.