Reif selected as MIT’s 17th president

Provost asks community to be ‘frank’ during listening tour

Provost L. Rafael Reif was elected MIT’s 17th president last month at a special meeting of the MIT Corporation. He will officially replace President Susan J. Hockfield, who has served for seven years, on July 2, 2012.

“I cannot tell you this is a dream come true, because this is a dream I never dared to imagine,” said Reif at a May 16 press conference. He outlined his vision for MIT, emphasizing the Institute’s mission to advance teaching and learning.

“I believe MIT should focus on Institute-wide innovations in teaching and learning,” he said, adding that “every member of our faculty knows the thrill of teaching our incredible students.”

Reif has spent the past several months leading the MITx and edX initiatives, partnering with Harvard University and committing $30 million to the project. Reif’s ascension to the presidency solidifies MIT’s commitment to using online technologies to try to enhance residential education. In addition to improving education at the Institute, edX is billed as an open platform to be made available worldwide, and other universities may soon join the effort.

As provost, Reif served as the top academic officer at MIT for seven years — meaning that he was chiefly responsible for planning and budgeting of the Institute’s education and research programs. But he will assume the presidency after a tough year for student life at MIT, with the deaths of three students and one of a recent alumnus.

Reif suggested he may hold presidential “office hours” for community members to come visit him. He stressed the importance of getting to know students.

It’s “the only way I get to know what’s happening,” he said, adding that he plans to “immerse” himself in student culture issue through feedback and discussions with the Chancellor’s office.

In a later speech to faculty, students, and staff, Reif asked the community to “please be candid with me” as he embarks on a listening tour around MIT.

“I love the fact that the people of MIT tell you what they think — even when it’s not what you want to hear,” the president-elect said. “I hope you will not allow the ‘president’ title to stop you from speaking to me frankly.”

As president, Reif will also begin a new capital campaign for MIT, raising money to support the Institute’s academic and research activities alongside a 20-year phased campus expansion and renovation.

Student reactions

Bryan Owens Bryson G, a member of the student advisory group to the presidential search committee, said he was pleased that the search committee, and in turn, Reif, remembered that thousands of students call MIT home.

“MIT is both a place of research and education for students, but it’s also their home,” he said. “To know that those words were then captured by president-elect Reif’s remarks when he presented MIT as a home to both students and faculty, staff, etc., that really indicates a really key feature.”

At a meet-and-greet event with the president-elect last month, undergraduates were generally optimistic about the Reif presidency, but admitted that they did not really know who he was.

“I don’t know if I knew him by name, but I knew of him,” said Daniel DiSanto ’15. And, according to Stephanie A. Ihezie ’15, a friend told her that Reif is “one of those guys who you meet and right off the bat you love.”

Still, a group of Course 6 sophomores The Tech spoke to at the event admitted that they did not know who Reif was before the presidential announcement, and that they weren’t sure what a university provost does.

Owens added, “it’s really encouraging to see somebody who is thinking about education and how it can be enhanced … I think it’s a great idea to have somebody who can really think about the models of education and think about how do students learn best, because that’s one of the reasons why people are here.”

Provost search

As he leaves his post, Reif will need to find a new provost. In an email to the MIT community on May 23, Reif asked for “input and ideas” on his replacement.

In an email to The Tech on Monday, Reif said he had heard from over 100 people, including faculty, staff, and students.

“The faculty want a provost who understands and is committed to MIT, and in particular the concept of ‘one MIT’: the idea that we are all in this together, pulling toward the common goal of serving humankind,” he said.

Reif is “hoping” to have the provost selection process complete by July 2nd, when he takes office as president. The provost selection is at the sole discretion of the president, but Reif said he would discuss candidates with the MIT Corporation’s Executive Committee.

Reif’s history

Originally from Venezuela, Reif has been a faculty member since 1980. He was head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from 2004–2005 and Director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories from 1990–1999. After advancing to provost in the Hockfield administration, he helped steward MIT through the financial crisis and ensuing painful budget cuts. He also played a key role in forging several high-profile international partnerships in recent years, including ventures in Russia, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi.

At the May press conference and in a later speech to the MIT community, Reif relayed the story of his journey from Venezuela to the MIT presidency. He earned his undergraduate degree in Venezuela and then went to Stanford University for a PhD in electrical engineering. Reif had originally planned to go back to Venezuela, but was recruited by an MIT professor.

“He would call every other night at home, trying to convince me to interview,” said Reif. “Then at one point he said, ‘What are the chances that if you came to MIT, you might like it?’”

Reif originally thought the chance was low — “five percent,” he said — but after visiting MIT he realized “this is it.”

The search process

Reif assumes the presidency after a short selection process — less than three months, compared to the eight months it took to select Hockfield. James A. Champy ’63, who chaired the presidential search committee, said that the committee met more frequently to move the process along more quickly. “There’s just too much to do” to spend an “unduly long time” selecting the next president, he said to The Tech in early May.

Despite the fast search, presidential search committee member Barrie R. Zesiger told The Tech that the committee went to great lengths to ensure that candidates external to MIT were given a fair shot. Ultimately, though, “it was Rafael’s to lose when he came in to interview,” she said.

“Rafael Reif emerged early as a uniquely qualified candidate, and that impression only deepened as our discussions with him and members of the MIT community proceeded,” said Reed in a statement through the News Office.

“The committee members are overjoyed by Rafael’s selection,” added Champy.

Reif receives tokens of office

After Reif’s speech, President Hockfield presented the provost with two gifts — an old copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, passed down from president to president, and a baseball jersey emblazoned with the number “17.”

And, at a meeting in the Stata center with students, former UA Vice President Amanda C. David ’13 and Bryson presented Reif with a set of Brass Rat-style napkin rings and a poster-sized hacker’s map.

When asked shortly after his election what his first public words as president-elect would be, Reif said, “I love The Tech.”

John A. Hawkinson contributed reporting to this article.