A conversation with provost Chris Kaiser

Kaiser reflects on his role, plans, & goals

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Chris A. Kaiser PhD ’87, former head of the Department of Biology, assumed the role of provost on July 2.

After the festivities of L. Rafael Reif’s presidential inauguration subsided, Chris A. Kaiser PhD ’87, who succeeded Reif as provost, had a chance to sit down with The Tech and share his thoughts on his new position. The provost is MIT’s senior academic and budget officer who holds overall responsibility for the school’s education programs; he also oversees recruitment and promotion of faculty. Kaiser has been a member of the faculty since 1991, and the department head of Biology (Course 7) since 2004. Although offered a job as the director of National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) last fall, Kaiser decided to stay with the MIT community instead. He officially became provost on July 2.

The Tech: Firstly, congratulations on your new position. How do you feel about becoming provost?

Kaiser: It’s great. When I accepted the job, it just felt like an incredible opportunity to serve MIT. It’s a much better job than I thought it’d be. Most of the senior administration have been at MIT for a long time or been on the faculty; they’re extremely loyal to this institute. It feels like joining a team with a very, very strong common purpose. A team of extremely intelligent people that are really just working as hard as they can for the good of MIT. Having an opportunity to join a group like that is fantastic.

TT: I understand you were also chosen as the new director of the NIGMS. What made you choose to stay at MIT as provost instead?

Kaiser: Well, I had accepted that job. I was going to go down to Washington, and in the end I withdrew because I, on some fundamental level, I couldn’t leave MIT. I wanted to stay.

TT: As provost, what are some initiatives or programs you are looking forward to starting?

Kaiser: I’ve inherited MITx and edX. That, I think is an amazing opportunity for all of us at MIT to do something that will have a huge impact on the world. The influence of online education on higher education is changing so fast; we probably have a discussion once a week trying to figure out where things are going and what we should be doing.

One of the things I really like about our engagement to online education is that we’re doing something that’s very deeply rooted in the values of MIT. The idea is that we’re going to use MITx to improve our residential education and give this gift to the world, which is access to an MIT style education for anybody regardless of socioeconomic background. It’s in a climate where some people are trying to figure out how to make money off of this. It’s great to be part of a mission that has some higher principle, and we’re trying to follow this very principled course through this very chaotic, rapidly changing world.

MIT is all about these twin objectives of education and research. On the research side, we’re thinking about forming several new initiatives modeled after the energy initiative. You take existing resources, existing people at MIT, and make new connections between them to create new activities, new interdepartmental research.

TT: What will you miss most about your previous position as head of Biology?

Kaiser: If you think about where new ideas come from at a place like MIT, it’s really bubbling up from the labs and the classrooms. Individual faculty members come up with ideas on how to teach a new course or how to launch a research program. The creative energy is coming from the bottom up.

As a department head, you’re directly connected to that. As a dean, you’re one step removed. As a provost, two steps. It’s a bit hard for me to resist the temptation to start trying to do what I used to do as department head — talk to individual faculty. You can’t do that as provost; there are too many people, too many things to work on. The direct connection with the faculty is the thing I’ll miss the most. I’ll also miss teaching because I taught 7.03, Genetics, for over twenty years. That was a big part of my life.

TT: What are you looking forward to most as provost?

Kaiser: This connects back to when I was department head of Biology. I figured out that a big part of the job is to essentially maintain excellence, keep the things you have going running smoothly. That’s very important, but it’s not all that personally satisfying. At the end of the day I can say, “I kept the thing running as well as it was running before I started;” that’s not putting a personal stamp on it. What I’m looking forward to is to leaving something at MIT that wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for me. I think it may be one of those interdepartmental initiatives.

TT: You’ve been a part of the MIT campus for a long time. What is your most memorable moment at MIT?

Kaiser: This comes when I was teaching genetics. This fellow, Kim Nasmyth, made this comment that mitosis and meiosis are like ‘sorting socks.’ It put this idea in my head, so I decided to give this demonstration of how chromosomes segregate using socks.

I went to TJ Maxx and bought these beautiful striped women’s socks: very colorful, just like chromosomes! I had four pairs of socks where two matching socks were tied together, and four pairs where they weren’t connected. I had this elaborate setup in the classroom. I said, “I’m going to do this demonstration about how chromosomes segregate.” So I pulled out this blindfold and this pair of scissors, and the students were thinking, “What’s going on here?”

The socks are tied together. Even if you’re blindfolded, you can figure out they’re connected, so you can sort them into two different piles. That’s literally how mitosis works; the sister chromatids are physically attached to each other, and the spindle pulls on them, figures out if there’s tension, and then lets them separate. The whole point is that if the socks aren’t tied together, they’ll missegregate.

I put the blindfold on with these four pairs in front of me, and I picked up the two and just started putting them in two piles. There’s this tittering in this audience. I take the blindfold off, and they’ve segregated properly. So I say, “Let’s do it again.” I put the blindfold back on, I did it again, and they segregate properly again. This is by random chance.

By the first time, half the people had no idea what was going on. By the second time, they knew I didn’t want them to segregate properly. So I did it a third time. I grabbed the last pair of socks, and there was this roar in the audience: they’d segregated properly. People were standing up in the room, it was like a betting parlor. At this point, I just essentially had to stop the demonstration because I hadn’t understood what I had proved.

TT: Do you have any words of advice for the student body?

Kaiser: The classic MIT student goes for quantity over quality in experience. They sort of overload, and it comes from pressure from other students. The way MIT students are wired is that they want to exceed all expectations and achievements; that’s how they got here in the first place, so they keep doing it. It’s like a crazy arms race where people start to do more and more and more. Without realizing, they’re running around like a crazy person (like a provost!) who doesn’t have time to think and appreciate what’s really happening.

Objectively there’s no reason to do that. It’s not a good plan when people start doing things to chase credentials. You’re much better off really engaging and enjoying a smaller number of classes and really getting as much out of them as possible instead of trying to do everything under the sun.