Kaiser steps down as provost of MIT

Effective end of October, will return to teaching and research

Chris A. Kaiser PhD ’87 will step down as MIT’s provost at the end of October, President L. Rafael Reif announced yesterday in an email to the MIT community. Kaiser will return to teaching and research as an MIT faculty member.

“Since taking on the role of provost, Chris has served by my side through a challenging period for MIT, and I am grateful for his steadying presence and sound advice,” wrote Reif.

“The experience [as provost] has greatly broadened and deepened my understanding of the scholarly work that takes place across MIT,” wrote Kaiser in a letter to the MIT faculty. “It has honed my capabilities as an academic leader to help bring good ideas to fruition.”

In October 2011, Kaiser — then-head of Biology and MIT faculty since 1991 — was selected to run the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), where he would have overseen NIGMS’s $2 billion budget for funding life sciences research. On Apr. 23, 2012, a week before he would have assumed the position, he withdrew from being chief of NIGMS. About two months later, Kaiser assumed the role of provost as his predecessor — Reif, who served as provost for seven years — became president.

In his announcement yesterday, Reif thanked Kaiser especially for his leadership in “developing a working consensus on MIT’s plans” with the Kendall Square zoning petition.

“The faculty really felt that they hadn’t been adequately consulted,” said Kaiser in an interview with The Tech. “Most faculty really had no idea what the plan [for the Kendall area development actually was.” As such, the faculty “weren’t necessarily opposed to the project per se, but they were opposed to moving ahead without the project being clearly understood or clearly vetted by the faculty.”

To address faculty concerns with the Kendall area development, Kaiser set up a task force. However, “[the task force] produced a useful report, but there was never a full and open discussion of the whole faculty,” said Biology Professor Jonathan A. King, chair of the Faculty Newsletter editorial board who has been a vocal critic of faculty non-involvement. “I certainly hope the next provost recognizes that the faculty are stakeholders in the actual future of the campus, and that radical actions like placing large office buildings in the heart of east campus would be much more broadly and seriously discussed than they have been to date.” The next provost, King said, should establish a campus planning committee as a standing committee of the faculty.

With respect to the Kendall rezoning proposal and edX, “there are enormous economic pressures pushing in various directions. These are not strictly scholarly or academic decisions,” said King. “[Kaiser’s] whole history is basically as a research scientist with hardly any history of participation in socially controversial or economically complex issues. I suspect that he may have been uncomfortable on this provost hot seat.”

Despite this, Reif wrote that “[Kaiser’s] sensitivity to faculty concerns and ability to bring people together were essential” to progress in the Kendall area developments.

As provost, Kaiser was also deeply involved in the governance of edX, particularly working with Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 to create the positions director and associate director of digital learning, appointing Sanjay Sarma and Isaac Chuang respectively. “I have been an enthusiastic cheerleader as the revolution in online learning sweeps across MIT,” wrote Kaiser in his letter to the faculty.

But “administration and cheerleading are not the same as doing,” wrote Kaiser, adding that he is eager to return to teaching and developing new educational tools.

Teaching assignments are made by the department, but “I’m hoping I’ll be able to develop an MITx course or part of one,” said Kaiser, who taught 7.03 (Genetics) from 1992 to 2011. “I’d like to do something with online learning, and reactivating my lab is a big deal for me. It’s my first passion — the reason I headed down this path of becoming a professor at a research university is because I love research.”

Much of what the provost does is “finding people, encouraging people to do things, appointing people to be directors,” said Kaiser. As such, the job of the next provost will be to continue “steering the ship wisely.”

In the search for the next provost, Reif encouraged the MIT community to help identify candidates by sending an email to or with letters to Room 3-208.