Cynthia Barnhart named MIT chancellor

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Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The original version of this article about Chancellor Cindy Barnhart PhD ‘88 neglected to include her graduation year.

MIT’s new chancellor, and the first woman to hold the post, is Cynthia Barnhart PhD ‘88, President L. Rafael Reif announced on Monday. As chancellor, Barnhart oversees student life and education.

In an interview, she focused on student life issues, including students’ “culture of experimentation and risk-taking” and the problem of sexual assault on campus.

Barnhart, previously the associate dean of the School of Engineering, succeeds former Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80, who was tapped to head the Institute’s fundraising campaign.

She said her priority now is understanding students’ needs. She did not provide specific plans, saying that she did not want to start with “preconceived ideas of what [they] need me to do.”

“I hope students will welcome me into their dining halls and come to meetings with me. I really want to listen,” she said. “That’s, I think, step one.”

She said that in discussions with students she had become aware of “some distrust of the administration,” and that she would make more communication and more transparency a goal.

Barnhart assumes her new role less than a year after the closure of Bexley Hall, an undergraduate dormitory known for its alternative culture, and the release of a report related to the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz that prompted another round of introspection about “hacker culture” at the Institute. In the interview, Barnhart encouraged some aspects of MIT’s student culture but expressed reservations about others.

She called the “culture of student self-governance” at MIT “really important,” adding that “anything, I think, that we do here has to include students, has to include a grassroots effort with the students.”

Barnhart also said that MIT has a strong “culture of experimentation and risk-taking,” but added that there would have to be limits to a freewheeling atmosphere. “While there is this culture of experimentation, there has to be boundaries,” she said, calling for “dialogue for general understanding and agreement about where those boundaries are.”

“One thing that I have heard is that there are students that have been silenced to some extent, and I think it’s important that we hear all the voices,” she said. “We have an obligation to provide a safe environment for all the students.”

Among her concerns was sexual assault. “There’s unfortunately a culture — I don’t know if it’s a culture, or maybe it’s best said the way Obama said it, a real issue or even epidemic — around sexual assault,” Barnhart said, calling the problem “a serious challenge that I would love to do something about.”

Reports of sexual assault are on the rise on Boston-area campuses, according to the Boston Globe. Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama charged a task force with finding out what colleges are doing — and what they should be doing — to confront sexual assaults.

Barnhart is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. As associate dean of the School of Engineering since 2007, she has been involved with strategic planning, budgets, hiring, and promotions in the School, according to an MIT press release. She is also the director of Transportation@MIT, an initiative that seeks to address the world’s transportation needs. President Reif appointed her as chancellor after consulting faculty, staff, and students, according to the press release, and the decision was endorsed by the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation.

As a professor at MIT for over 20 years, Barnhart has also had a significant amount of interaction with students, having served as an undergraduate advisor since 1992 and supervised 83 theses, according to the press release.

But Barnhart said she looks forward to making students and student life her new focus, though she also said she had a lot to learn.

“I love the way people your age think,” she said to two undergraduate Tech reporters. “It’s so refreshing to me, and it kind of invigorates me.”

Bruno B. F. Faviero contributed reporting.