Leadership of MIT’s Corporation changed hands this fall, with Robert B. Millard ’73 elected as the Corporation’s new chairman.
In an interview with The Tech, Millard discussed his role as chairman and the future of MIT, particularly in the context of the final report of the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education.
“I think higher education and MIT in particular is in one of those immensely important transitional phases,” Millard said. “There are basically three things we do here. We educate, we do research, and as a consequence of the first two, we innovate.”
Millard continued, “The biggest set of questions affecting the first of those missions is embodied in that Task Force [on the Future of MIT Education]. The second question, which is research, is equally important. How we fund the important research in a world of declining federal attention span and money is a very, very important question.”
He also answered questions about calls for MIT’s divestment from fossil fuel companies and described the role of the Corporation, emphasizing its partnership with the administration.
Task Force on the Future of MIT Education
The Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, launched by President L. Rafael Reif in February of last year, released its final report in August after several months of data collection and experimentation. The report offered 16 recommendations encompassing all areas of academic life — from transforming pedagogy on campus to extending MIT’s impact across the globe.
“One big project is to sift through, decide, and implement the results of the Task Force. It’s not every day that MIT produces a task force like that — you can count on one hand the number in two decades,” Millard said. “It’s pregnant with amazing possibilities.”
The Task Force’s report made recommendations including expanding the freshman learning community program, and increasing the use of online and blended teaching styles, particularly in communications subjects.
The final report of the Task Force stressed the potential for edX and other online learning resources to aid innovation in education. The ultimate impact of online and distance learning on the traditional college campus and learning experience is a question MIT, like many schools, is exploring.
Millard has firsthand experience with edX classes: like other MIT students completing General Institute Requirements (GIRs), he enrolled in 7.012.
“I really enjoyed every minute of it,” Millard said. “I took a course, partly because I was really interested in biology, and partly because I wanted to see how it really worked… I do know it’s not for everything. It worked very well in biology.”
In assessing how the experience stacked up to taking a course in person, Millard noted a difference between working online versus in a classroom.
“So the first question is, did I learn the subject as well as if I were sitting here in Cambridge Mass.? I think I did — I did well in the course and I learned a lot. I got what I wanted out of it, but what I did lack was just the interaction. And there’s something that comes through the ether, whether in your living group you’re stumped on a question and you go ask someone else, or you’re in a room and you don’t think you’re learning anything from the experience, but there’s something intangible that happens when you’re just discussing.”
Millard stressed that while the long-term impact of online education is still uncertain, elements of traditional education, such as presence on a college campus, will still retain their value.
“How is [online education] going to restructure the curriculum and what is it really going to mean in the long term? The answer is, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else really knows,” Millard said. “edX and online education are in many instances better ways to communicate. So I think it’s a means to an end, and not an end in itself. I don’t think it’s going to fundamentally change the value of being in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
MIT’s recently-launched Climate Change Conversation, led by Maria Zuber, has brought the issue of climate change to the broader community. One of the issues likely to be brought up by the group is MIT’s divestment from fossil fuel companies.
When asked how the Corporation should respond to growing calls for divestment, Millard stressed the need for precision in the broader discussion.
“This is a subject that I think requires a little more precision than the public has been interested in,” he said. “The thing that’s different about MIT — the thing that happens better here than anywhere else in the world is objectivity. Fact, not rhetoric or publicity or emotional knee-jerk reactions. So Maria is going to get this conversation going… and part of it is going to be about divestment. There are some degrees of freedom, and some non degrees of freedom.”
“I don’t think the Corporation should respond, at least at this point,” he said. “We’re listening carefully right now and we’re still collecting data. The endowment has not made any decisions. We’re waiting for Maria’s group, and I don’t want to preempt it with any of my own feelings.”
In answer to how he felt other universities handled the issue, Millard cited Yale’s response as a constructive one.
In a recent statement, the Yale Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility gave support to the importance of climate change as a global issue, but reported that divestment would not be supported by its policy regarding ethical investing. They did, however, issue a statement of support for shareholders resolutions seeking increased transparency from companies on issues regarding climate change.
“There are some reactions which I think were constructive and I didn’t think of. I think Yale’s in particular was constructive,” Millard said. “We run our endowment much as Yale does, much as Harvard does. We don’t manage the money ourselves, we hire managers who manage the money. So we can influence them. We do some direct investment, and that we have complete control over.”
“The governance of this place works very, very well. My first priority is to keep it running as a well oiled machine,” Millard said. “I have some sort of dotted line responsibilities — if you read the bylaws of this place, one of the things the Executive Committee and the Board has responsibility for, and I have responsibility for, is the stewardship of financial assets and the raising of resources. Sadly, we and other universities like us need money, and I would like to broaden the aperture. Working with resource development and working with the departments, I would like to be helpful to that.”
“I want to be, and I want the Corporation to be, the most effective partner we can possibly be to the administration, because the administration runs the place,” Millard said. “My vision is a shared vision — it’s a shared vision with the administration.”
The Corporation is MIT’s governing body, charged with ensuring that MIT adheres to its founding principles, overseeing MIT’s assets, and generating new funds and assets for the Institute’s future financial security.
As chairman, Millard leads Corporation meetings and heads the Executive Committee, the Corporation Development Committee, and the Membership Committee. In addition, he is a member of the Investment Management Company Board.
Millard brings the perspective of his years as an MIT undergraduate as well as his career in business and finance, and his years serving on the Executive Committee of the Corporation.