President L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s 17th, has begun his “freshman year” at MIT, as he told the Class of 2016 during its Convocation. He is now entering his third month in office since assuming the role on July 2. The Tech interviewed Reif about his first summer on the job and his plans for the future.
Reif’s summer term
“I’ve been meeting people like crazy,” said Reif about his first few months. The president has been on a “listening tour” with faculty, students, corporation members, donors, and friends of the MIT community to learn the thoughts and expectations of these different groups. One of his goals is to figure out how the Office of the President “can be used to help the mission of MIT,” said Reif, and he plans to address specific policy ideas at his inaugural speech on Friday, Sept. 21. He has not moved into the Gray House yet, but Reif says it will be great to live in the MIT “neighborhood.”
“I have said many times that MIT is my home, and I meant that it is my academic home because I had a home off-campus,” said Reif, “but for MIT to really be my home, I have to live here and experience what all of you experience and have the neighborhood that all of you have.”
Reif focused on improving residential education at MIT during his time as provost. He plans to spend “quite a bit of time” addressing this topic during his inaugural speech and outlined some potential plans. Reif hopes to create an organization on campus in which students and faculty think about designing an environment around the “university of the future.” Such a committee would have more students than faculty because, according to Reif, “[faculty] only know how we’re teaching … [you] know what you want to see.”
Reif said that some metrics of success in improving MIT’s residential education could include whether people want to employ the students and whether students make a difference by creating entities, enterprises, and so forth. “To me, that is what matters,” said Reif, “And I just want to do that by using [MIT] technology and recreating or reinventing what we do on campus.”
Reif also considers impact an important measure, “Are the things we do changing the world? Making it a better place?”
One of the ventures that arose from Reif’s interest in residential education while he was provost was edX, which Reif had a hand in creating. What began as MITx has, in the last six months, grown to contain classes from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. EdX is “moving quite well,” said Reif, hinting that many more schools may join edX in the future, though developments have been going “as fast as [they] can,” and “the platform that we developed is the one with the highest quality.”
“After we announced this … almost every institution you could think of contacted us to jump on that bandwagon,” said Reif, adding that the goal for edX is for every institution to “bring something new to the table for the whole world to benefit.”
“What we need to think about, and I mean collectively, not just me, … is how do we use that tool,” said Reif, referring to how edX might be used at MIT and other universities. Reif added that how MIT uses edX as a science and technology school may be different than how other schools may use it, and “that requires a high degree of thinking.”
On June 2, a leaked letter from Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 to the housemasters outlined the administration’s plan to place Residential Life Area Directors (RLADs) in nine undergraduate dorms. What followed was a negative response from many students over the facts that no students beyond a small committee under Grimson were consulted in the process. Additionally, it was announced after students had gone home for the summer and at a point where plans could not be changed to a substantial degree.
These events occurred before Reif officially became president, and he said that he does not know the details or specifics of that process. However, Reif emphasized that it is very important to him that before decisions are made, those potentially affected are consulted.
“At the end of the day, somebody has to make a decision, but it has to happen after consultation, not behind closed doors and not informing [those affected],” said Reif. “That is the mental model I would like to proceed [with].”
Faculty have recently raised concerns over the development of MIT-owned land in Cambridge. The MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo) has proposed plans to allocate a significant portion of MIT’s real estate to commercial development in long-term leases. This would sharply constrain “future development of educational, housing, recreation, and academic research,” according to the May/June 2012 Faculty Newsletter. The faculty, according to the newsletter, feel that MITIMCo’s plans would lead to “serious and irreversible damage to MIT’s future educational and research missions.”
“I think it is valid for people to be concerned about that,” said Reif, adding that the newly-formed faculty task force on the issue should return with feedback to Provost Chris A. Kaiser PhD ’88 toward the end of September, and Kaiser will then make recommendations to Reif. He added that MITIMCo’s plans have been carried out in “complete consensus with the administration,” and agreed that the faculty task force would be the beginning of faculty input into future plans.
One other topic that Reif focused on during his acceptance speech was student interaction. Reif stated that he has plans, but hopes that students will give him feedback and ideas for what they want him to do. One of the main plans is having presidential office hours for the entire MIT community, which will be announced “relatively soon.” Reif also intends on being out and about MIT by eating at dining halls on occasion, going to music and sporting events, walking around campus, and taking morning and afternoon breaks to get coffee and “see familiar faces and bump into [students].” The Presidential Transition Advisory Committee is still gathering feedback for Reif from students and the MIT community.
“I really do want the MIT students to know that really actively care for them and the rest of the community,” said Reif.
A presidential focus
President before Reif, Susan. J. Hockfield focused heavily on putting MIT’s weight behind developments in biotechnology and advanced manufacturing during her term. This focus influenced MIT’s research focus and relations with those industries.
When asked about what might be his focus in the future, Reif said, “MIT has an amazing potential, and I would even say an obligation to attack the world’s greatest challenges. We have the some of the smartest students and faculty, and we should work together to do research into those challenges.”
Reif has some ideas for those challenges, but would like the students and faculty to identify specific topics that he can then support. He cited some important challenges as health, biotech, energy, poverty, and food technology, among others, but said that “MIT should pick a few of those — not one, not two, but a few, and work on them.”