Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart to step down July 1

Barnhart: ‘Central to my approach is the importance of partnering with students.’

Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88 will step down from her role as chancellor July 1, according to a May 3 email from President L. Rafael Reif.

Barnhart first stepped into the role of chancellor in 2014. During her seven years as chancellor, Barnhart helped to launch the MindHandHeart initiative, expanded work on violence prevention and response through the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response office, and transformed student life through the removal, remodeling, and creation of undergraduate residences and changes to housing and rooming processes.

Barnhart originally intended to step down in Spring 2020 but served another year in the role when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the MIT community.

After moving on from chancellorship, Barnhart will take a sabbatical leave before returning to teaching and research.

The Tech spoke with Barnhart over Zoom to reflect on her role as Chancellor. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

The Tech: What prompted you to step down as chancellor?

Cynthia Barnhart: I'll begin by saying that the opportunity to serve as MIT's chancellor was an incredible one. I loved working with the students. I loved working with the broader community. I was excited about taking the job, because I saw that there were opportunities to make a difference in the lives of our students. And that was something that very much motivated me. After seven years, I feel that it's a good time to allow someone else to come in and have an impact. And at the same time, it allows me to think about the next thing that I want to do, and what impact can I have, so I am being intentional about stepping away, not because I want to leave the position, but because I really want to force myself to think about where I can potentially make a difference next.

TT: Did your decision-making process change throughout your time as chancellor? What types of student feedback came to affect your decision making on important issues?

Barnhart: Central to my approach is the importance of partnering with students. We have a shared governance model at MIT, and making that shared governance model work is critical to being able to do anything. So what I did throughout was work very hard to get to know students and meet with them a lot, hear how they were thinking about things, and learn from them. Then, at the same time, provide them the viewpoints I was hearing from others who were perhaps not at the table, whether they were other students, senior leaders, or faculty. Much of my time was spent relationship building with the idea that through that relationship building you can build trust and make changes that improve students’ experiences at MIT.

Working on sexual misconduct prevention and response, the first thing we did was to send out a sexual misconduct survey, and we used that data to drive our decisions and drive what we did. My background is optimization, so I tend to also bring a systems optimization perspective to problem solving. Another example of using this process of engagement was creating MindHandHeart. I think it reflects how MIT's mens et manus benefits by having the broader lens that includes heart. And another example is the Innovation Fund, which is funded through the chancellor's office, and reaching out to the community at large. Students’ input included withdrawal and readmission policies, medical leave and hospitalization policies. These are just some examples of how I applied my approach to build things and effect change.

Our overall view of student engagement didn't change, but we learned as time went on. The earlier you can engage with students, the better. We recognize that before even thinking about a solution to a problem, we should go to the students and get their reactions. We know that top down decision-making doesn't work. I'll say that it also doesn't yield solutions that are as good as when you engage broadly with the community and get their ideas. And the more you can engage student leaders and a broad swath of the student community, the more effective the solution, the more the buy in, the easier it is to effect changes that in the end will be good for the community. 

In this context, one of the things we did is the work of making the room assignment process less stressful and more inclusive. What we did is we presented to students the issue we were grappling with — we were concerned about the stress and isolation and rejection that some students were feeling as first years at MIT through survey findings, earlier reports, and conversations with some students. We brought the issue to the students, and we said “What do you think?” The process we followed was jointly coming up with some guiding principles, and saying “we agree that any room assignment process should satisfy a couple of basic principles that aligned with MIT values.” 

Then we said “Students, you go, and you figure out how the process would work best for you, but make sure that it satisfies these guiding principles.” And we didn't ask students to come up with a single solution. We said there are differences in each residence hall. So we asked each residence hall to come up with what works best for them and aligns with these principles.

I think that was an example where this was a hard problem to solve. There were many different opinions, and most opinions were very strongly held, and were very diverse. There was a broad range of thoughts about what the best room assignment process should be. I feel that doing this in partnership with students and giving students agency to make these important decisions for themselves, while at the same time ensuring that the outcome would be consistent with MIT principles and values was an approach that is a good working model. 

TT: Is there anything you’re especially proud of accomplishing in your time as chancellor?

Barnhart: I'm very proud of the Chancellor’s team. I think that we have amazing people, so dedicated to the students of MIT. They work so hard for all of you and I'm very proud of that. We were very intentional in working across offices and being a team that's coordinated, because that was a critical element in ensuring that students are well supported. All of the important aspirations we have for mental health, well being, and sexual misconduct prevention and response require a strong coordinated team. I'm really happy that in my time, we’ve had some new dorms that have been built, we have the W20 Wellbeing Lab. I am very proud of having had the opportunity to work on behalf of our DACA students, the work to get our students to MIT when some of them were trapped by the travel ban, and that we were part of the Harvard-MIT lawsuit related to international students. I'm very proud of the financial aid increases and hardship funding and graduate family assistance, all things that have been really important to me. And I'm also really proud of the partnership that was formed through COVID between the administration and heads of house, house teams, and students working together to help navigate really tough times. 

TT: A lot of students remember you for or associate you with taking Senior House offline. Was there anything you learned from that experience, earlier in your time as chancellor, that you’ve been able to apply now? 

Barnhart: I’m thinking about the parallels with room assignment, which is also central to the student experience. It is, as I said, something that some students have very strongly held opinions about. There are a lot of parallels and some differences. The parallels are, we started out with identifying where we felt that some MIT goals or principles were not being satisfied. We were really interested in the case of Senior House, and ensuring that all of our students were safe and successful. We went to the students of Senior House and asked them to work together with us to address concerns. A very similar process was taken in identifying guiding principles and how we would design this in a way that satisfies those guiding principles. Unfortunately, in the case of Senior House, there was a situation where there was just dangerous behavior, it broke the trust, and we weren't successful in achieving the turnaround that we were hoping for. 

I think in the case of the room assignment process, the fact that students were each in their own residence halls, working to identify how they wanted things to work in their halls, was for some reason successful. I would say that that one difference, perhaps, is that in the case of room assignments it was across the entire Institute. And so as a result, I think there were many more students involved in the process of trying to get us to where we wanted. One of the important things that I have found is that although not all students will want to spend the time to be engaged, most students want to know what's going on. The more people engage, the more students know that there is that process, the easier it is to get buy in and make it work.

TT: You have served as chancellor during this entire pandemic so far, and it might be an interesting transition to the next chancellor because we're also transitioning back to normal. What do you envision being different, or what sorts of new challenges do you think there will be?

Barnhart: The thing that I really appreciated about the pandemic was this sense of partnership with the students. There was a team formed between the Division of Student Life, Office of the Vice Chancellor, and my office, and students. Moving forward, I hope that the same sense of teamwork will continue, and I point to that because if you have that sense of teamwork, then when something comes up, it can be addressed early on. 

Problems that are discussed and worked on early are so much easier to solve than challenges that kind of brew without engagement and become bigger and harder to solve. One thing that will be important, I think, is ensuring that graduate students have the financial support that allows them to be successful at MIT. At the undergraduate level, our continued commitment to financial aid is really important. 

As we think about MIT going forward, many of us are especially focused on creating an MIT that is diverse and inclusive, where students feel that they belong, and that they will excel. I know that that would be one place I would be spending a lot of time. We attract remarkably talented students to MIT. And I think we need to be very intentional to ensure that students at MIT have an excellent experience, and can succeed. That should be part of what the next chancellor will think about and I’m sure that will be the case. 

Kristina Chen contributed reporting.