Martin Schmidt reflects on his time as provost

Schmidt to become RPI’s new president

MIT Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88 will be stepping down from his position on July 1, 2022 and assuming the role of president at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), President L. Rafael Reif announced in an email to the MIT community on Nov. 23. 

After serving as associate provost for five years, Schmidt took on the role of provost in 2014. During this time, he helped launch a number of initiatives, including the MIT 2030 renewal plan, the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, and the Institute-wide Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Before becoming an academic administrator, Schmidt served as a faculty member of MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department and the director of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories where he pursued his passion for nanotechnology. 

Schmidt will be replaced as provost by former MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88.

The Tech spoke with Schmidt over Zoom to reflect on his role as Provost. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Tech: What are your motivations for stepping down as MIT Provost?

Martin Schmidt: I would characterize myself as having some bizarre form of an attention deficit disorder in the sense that I get really interested in things, and then at some point I think “okay, been there, done that.” Before being provost, I got to work with a lot of interesting faculty across MIT, and the administering role is very similar. When I was the director of the Microsystems Lab, I stepped down after six years because I sort of felt like I had done it, learned a lot, had a lot of excitement of doing it, but at some point, you’re doing the same things that you did six years ago. And so I said, “maybe there’s an opportunity for somebody else to do this job.” I felt that way as associate provost, too, and certainly as provost. It’s been a great time, but I could always see myself at some point wanting to step down.

TT: Why did you choose the role of president at RPI?

Schmidt: I never had aspirations to go beyond being provost, and my intentions had been up until very recently to go back to the department and get into some really interesting research and teaching areas. But RPI reached out about the position. I initially was not convinced that it was right for me, but I started looking at what they were doing, and what opportunities they had and challenges they faced, and it looked like an interesting problem set. After spending enough time thinking about it and talking with my family, we decided, you know, why not? For me, it was hard to estimate the gravitational pull you can have to your undergraduate alma mater, and being able to have the capstone of my academic career be returning to help lead my undergraduate alma mater also was a big factor.

TT: What are you most proud of accomplishing during your time as provost at MIT? 

Schmidt: When I first became associate provost, that’s just when we were starting to wrap our arms around the physical deferred maintenance problem on the campus. We developed the MIT 2030 plan, which involved major comprehensive renovations of many MIT buildings. It felt good to know we were helping move the campus to a better physical condition. Helping to establish the Schwarzman college was a lot of work, but also very exciting. We’re all happy to see it growing, particularly as it’s addressing the social and ethical responsibilities of computing and figuring out how to advance all the disciplines at MIT. I’m very optimistic about that. The last thing I would say is that we’ve been very intentional in trying to make MIT a more welcoming and inclusive community. We’ve still got work to do, but I’m excited about the momentum that’s building. 

TT: What do you wish you would have been able to do as provost?

Schmidt: Now that there’s a clearer sense of what we need to do and how we need to do it with the DEI strategic action plan, there’s a sense of impatience because we can see a path to the future. In some respects, I wish we were further along. I’m seeing signs of great progress being made in various parts of the Institute based on some of the investments we’re making, so envisioning what that looks like at scale, well, you wish you were here for it.

TT: What efforts are you hoping that the next provost will continue and/or begin?

Schmidt: Cindy and I worked very closely over the years, so I'm thrilled that she’s taking the position. I hope and expect that she’ll actually do a better job than I could have. I wouldn’t want to prescribe what Cindy should do. I’m confident that she’s going to do things that will be great in advancing the Institute. 

TT: You’ve been at MIT for many decades. So what are you going to miss most about the MIT community? 

Schmidt: I’m going to miss the interactions I’ve had with the students and my faculty colleagues. Part of the joy of being here has been making those relationships and working together. I’m also really gonna miss the incredibly dedicated staff that I’ve had the benefit of interacting with, particularly in my head administrative roles. A lot of the people that work in MIT are really inspired by the mission, and the passion that the staff bring to their work is infectious. It motivates you to do as much as you can to help support them and help move the institute in a direction we can be proud of.

TT: You mentioned that ethics in engineering is important to you. What do you think MIT has been doing well in educating our engineers in ethics? And what do you think we could do better? 

Schmidt: One of the phrases that our chancellor used, when she was Dean of School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, is that we need to create habits of mind. To me, that was a profound point. What we don’t necessarily need is one class on ethics and require it of everyone, because potentially in one ear and out the other. Some of the things that we’ve been doing in college, like the case studies, allow us to pepper in these concepts throughout the curriculum in a way that really builds that habit of mind. I see it as a really big experiment, but I think this basic approach is really great.