Campus Life

CPW 2011 Eric Grimson: From Course VI head to chancellor

MIT’s chancellor talks about Canada, Facebook, and why prefrosh should pick MIT

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W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80 sat down with prefrosh over CPW to talk about his days as an undergraduate, what he’s doing now as chancellor, and his plans for the future.
Sarang Kulkarni—Tech file photo

The Tech’s Campus Life department invited MIT Chancellor W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80 to speak with prefrosh during CPW. Grimson became chancellor on March 1, previously serving as head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Grimson told The Tech about his new job, the reasons why he chose his undergraduate institution, and why prefrosh should come to MIT.

The Tech: What is a chancellor?

W. Eric L. Grimson: The three word job description given to me was “all things students.” And that’s probably a good job description. Now, the joking version of it is that it is an unusual title. It’s not used much in North America, and so traveling in Europe, I get treated better. Because in England, for example, the vice chancellor of Oxford is the equivalent of our president. The chancellor is the Prince of Wales. So I kept thinking, “I’m going to get a castle, I’m going to get a lot of really good stuff.” Joking aside, the job is, in my mind, paying attention to taking care of and finding new opportunities that touch students. It’s athletics, student clubs, performing groups, and what we’re doing inside the classrooms.

TT: What is a day in a life of the chancellor?

WELG: Right now I’m meeting with the associate dean, meeting with student groups, meeting with students who want to meet with me. That day extends from about 7:30 a.m. when I get in until about 9 p.m. A big chunk of it is meeting with student groups and doing it when they’re available, which is in the evenings. But in steady state, there are a lot of operational issues for the Institute — the Academic Council makes decisions on promotions, meeting regularly with provost and the president. In steady state, I plan to carve out time to teach. I was very serious when I took the job — I didn’t want to give up teaching for three reasons. One is: how can I do a good job of dealing with students if I don’t have a sense of what students are about? The second reason is that I love doing it. The third reason is that I want to send a message to students about their role here. And yes, administration chews up time, but it shouldn’t take so much time so that we’re faceless people in suits. And yes, I had to buy three new suits after getting this job — I used to just wear a tie. We’re not just people on the other side of Mass. Ave. I have 24 advisees right now, and I’m not giving up any of them. I will add six freshmen in the fall and do some freshman advising.

TT: Do you see repeated patterns every year in your advisees?

WELG: You do, but you also see different challenges. Over time you see shifts. Students today are very different from students 20 years ago. First of all, every once in awhile we have a change in one of the dials on admissions, but it’s rare that we make a big change. There have been times when we’ve done that.

But I’d say that the biggest fact is actually technology. This generation of students is very comfortable with the social dynamic of Facebook. Students change. People have to adapt to it. A lot of things that I think of as I go forward is what is the best way to communicate with students. I’ve actually thought about creating a Facebook page or Facebook presence for the chancellor.

TT: Do you Twitter?

WELG: No, I don’t Twitter. But I am on Facebook. My mother-in-law persuaded me. I keep my own Facebook page for my family and friends. My two sons who are 20 and 22 thinks this badly violates generational boundaries, but they friended me anyway.

Last point I want to make about this is that students change in interests over time. MIT students today clearly have broader interests than they did 20 or 25 years ago, and faculty need to adjust to that.

TT: How did you choose a school?

WELG: In the undergraduate level, I just stayed close to home. I went to the small school in Saskatchewan. When I was there, it was about 3000 students. You never heard of it unless you grew up in Midwestern Canada. The only plus to this is that I’m almost certain to be the person at MIT who has been in the coldest weather ever. You’ve never lived until you’ve lived through the fixed point. It’s where Celsius and Fahrenheit match up at -40 degrees. And I have been regularly on the south side of -40. My record in still air temperature is -65 — with wind chill, it was -114. Yes, I went outside. I just wanted to know how it felt like. The ground was frozen so solid that it creaked when you walk on it — it squeaked.

When you’re in someplace that cold you get very interesting effects. My wife, before we got married — she still married me after that — we got off the plane, it was 40 below, she took a deep breath and felt the entire bronchial structure of her lungs. We were in the shopping district doing some shopping. And at some point she said to me, “I need to go into a store,” and I said, “Sure, I’m happy to. Which one?” and she said, “I don’t care.” I’d completely forgotten that when it’s that cold, breath frosts, and her bangs had frozen to her eyelashes, and now her eyes were frozen open and were starting to ice up. So we went into a store and she thawed out.

To answer the original question, I chose my undergraduate institution because it was nearby.

I chose graduate school — I came to MIT — on the basis of where was the strongest intellectual community. And that was an easy decision. I had a number of choices to go to, but MIT is full of a lot of very smart people. And that was something I really wanted. I wanted a chance to interact with them.

TT: Why should we [prefrosh] come to MIT?

WELG: Here are the factors I suggest you think about. If you’re really excited about science and technology, you may actually think you know exactly which area you’re going to do, then you might be wrong. At this place, you can pick any area of technology and it’s great. That’s a huge plus. There are some great schools that are our competitors with one or two departments where they are top ranked, but if you decide that “I don’t want to do X,” then all of a sudden, your second choice is not the top.

Here at MIT in engineering, we have number-one ranked departments and a couple that are two-ranked. In science, it’s the same thing. So whatever you want to do, you’ve got a such a range; it’s really great.

The second thing I’d think about with coming to MIT is all the things that happen outside the classroom. To me, that’s one of the most impressive things that happen at MIT. The point is that wherever you graduate it’s not what you learned from the exams, it’s one you learned outside and some of that is cocurricular, but most of that is extracurricular.

Here’s my goal for MIT students: Thirty years ago, a smart MIT engineer who graduated from here would aim to have a Harvard MBA to be their CTO. It’s a reasonable goal. We’re getting close in the next few years where the smart engineer graduates from here, and she hires the Harvard MBA to be her CFO. The point is that I think that the future leaders of industry, of politics, of other countries, are understanding the real challenges that we have: energy, sustainability, and healthcare. And those aren’t just going to be policy makers. They’re going to be people who understand what’s driving the problem, what’s driving the challenges, and that has to be someone who is not only deeply grounded in science and technology, but also has networking capability, social skills, and can communicate, and that’s what we’re doing.