Susan J. Hockfield, MIT’s 16th president, announced yesterday morning her decision to step down from the presidency after seven years.
“The Institute is now moving forward on a new set of ambitious goals, and I have concluded that the powerful momentum we have built makes this an opportune moment for a leadership transition,” she wrote in a campuswide email sent at 9 a.m. sharp.
Hockfield, who assumed the presidency in December of 2004, succeeded Charles M. Vest, who was president from 1990 to 2004. Hockfield had previously served as a professor of neuroscience and provost of Yale University. She is the first woman, and the first life scientist, to serve as an MIT president.
In her email, titled “Looking to the future,” the president cited MIT’s new international partnerships, the MITx initiative, the MIT 2030 vision, and an increased undergraduate class size — among others — as examples of important ongoing efforts. She also references MIT’s fiscal performance through the financial crisis — MIT raised nearly $3 billion during her presidency, according to the MIT News Office, but also saw steep budget cuts.
While staying on to continue to see these goals come to fruition “tempted” Hockfield, she wrote that the necessary fundraising to support these ambitions will “require the full focus and sustained attention of the Institute’s president over many years.” As part of the MIT 2030 framework, for instance, the Institute hopes to raise $750 million — and that’s just one component of MIT’s complex future.
“I have concluded that it would be best for the Institute to begin this next chapter with new leadership,” she added.
In an interview with The Tech yesterday afternoon, Hockfield said that the Institute is preparing to begin a new capital campaign to finance its next major period of growth, which she expects could take about eight years. In such campaigns, MIT raises money to support big institutional objectives including (but not limited to) new construction and renovation, scholarships and fellowships, research, and student life.
The last of these “comprehensive” campaigns ended in 2005, and MIT raised $2.05 billion, some of which was used to finance the construction of the Stata Center and the Brain and Cognitive Sciences complex (Building 46). Some of that money also went to the endowment and graduate student support.
“I never imagined I would do any more than 10 years,” Hockfield explained. “Eight years is a long time on top of the seven I already served. I don’t imagine I can do another eight years.”
But Hockfield says she is not leaving the president’s office because of a distaste for fundraising. “I love fundraising for MIT,” she said. “I have been excited by it, inspired by it. … It is one of the most exciting things that I’ve ever done.”
Stopping now makes sense, she said, because a “transition in the middle of an eight year campaign is very difficult. We have enormous momentum now.”
Fundraising and related efforts were central to the Hockfield presidency. Over the past seven years, MIT collected $3 billion in donations — more than under any other president, according to the News Office.
The president credited her success to MIT’s appeal as a problem-solving place, the vanguard of world-changing technological innovation. “We had some good years and some tough years. That’s part of it. Part of it is that this is MIT’s time. … People have seen how much MIT helps in addressing the world’s problems.”
Enhanced national and global visibility was also key to fundraising, she added. One of her goals as president was “to get MIT’s story out,” and, indeed, Hockfield has extended MIT’s reach globally with several new international partnerships and nationally via increased political engagement in Washington. President Barack Obama, for instance, appointed Hockfield to co-chair his Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, an effort to make the United States more globally competitive in the manufacturing realm.
“Once people understand MIT’s mission, they are more likely to give,” the president said. “I came in saying MIT needed to be a brighter beacon of inspiration. … As people understand more about MIT, they find it is a place where their resources will do good.”
Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz SM ’01 agreed. “She’s been very effectively matching the needs of the Institute with sources of funding,” he said. “In that regard, she’s been quite transformative for MIT.”
Hockfield’s efforts were not solely targeted abroad or in Washington. She has repeatedly called for the development of an “innovation cluster” in the Kendall Square area by attracting high-tech research companies and startups. Last year, pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Pfizer announced plans to greatly expand their footprints in the Kendall Square area. Plans to revitalize Kendall’s T-station area are still working their way through the city government.
Since taking office, MIT’s endowment has grown from $5.9 billion in 2004 to $9.7 billion last year — though it had dropped a steep 20 percent in the wake of the financial crisis.
Reflecting on her presidency, Hockfield expressed her gratitude for the rest of her administration. “We just had extremely good fortune and great allies in doing this at MIT,” she said, “these jobs are not solo performances; they are team sports.”
Would the president do anything differently if she could go back and start over again?
“It’d be great if there hadn’t been an economic collapse,” she said, but “you can’t choose the times in which you live or serve. In terms of MIT we are in a great place now.”
The search for MIT’s new president will begin immediately. After Vest announced his resignation in December of 2003, it was not until August of 2004 that Hockfield’s presidency was publicly known. She will continue to serve as president until her successor is picked.
According to the bylaws of the MIT Corporation, the new president must be nominated by the Executive Committee and then approved by a majority vote of the entire Corporation. Students and faculty will also have input in the search via recommendations to the Executive Committee.
“I cannot anticipate what my successor will do,” she said, “That’s part of the beauty of these institutions. … It’s a privilege to be in this role and I hope my successor enjoys it as much as I have.”
Hockfield plans on taking a sabbatical after her successor is appointed. She plans on continuing as a faculty member in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, but her precise role is still unclear. “I don’t know exactly what life after the presidency will hold,” she said, but “I am, by nature, an enthusiast for what MIT does and I’m really very much looking forward to being a part of the community as yet to be defined.”
The nature of the capital campaign that Hockfield successor will oversee is also not clear. “The framing and design of the campaign is on the table,” said Ruiz. “Momentum has been built, need has been identified.”
Since MIT is in the process of determining the contours of that campaign — incorporating input from the Academic Council and the Corporation, according to Ruiz — Hockfield saw now as a good time for a transition.
The president expressed deep fondness for MIT, and especially its students.
“I remember when I first understood the GIRs,” she told The Tech, “I remember stopping and thinking, ‘Wow,’ When you decide to come to MIT you know that you are signing up for a more demanding environment than if you had gone to one of the other great schools you were admitted to. … I have optimism for our future, because of young people who decide to take the harder route. … My message out to the students is thank you for being so willing to take on the hard problems at MIT and beyond.”