Sally Kornbluth named MIT’s 18th president

Kornbluth is currently provost at Duke University and will assume MIT’s presidency Jan. 1, 2023

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President L. Rafael Reif gifts President-Elect Sally Kornbluth a blue glass pumpkin at a community welcome event, Oct. 20.
Kristina Chen–The Tech

Sally Kornbluth has been named MIT’s 18th president and will assume the role Jan. 1, 2023. Kornbluth was elected to the post this morning by members of the MIT Corporation. She will replace President L. Rafael Reif, who has led the Institute for over a decade, since July 2, 2012. 

Kornbluth is the second woman to serve as MIT’s president, after President Emerita Susan Hockfield. Once Kornbluth assumes presidency, all three of MIT’s highest leadership positions — president, provost, and chancellor — will be held by women, for the first time in Institute history.

Kornbluth is currently provost at Duke University, a position she has held since July 1, 2014. She was the first woman to hold the position of provost at Duke. Prior to serving as provost, Kornbluth was Vice Dean for Basic Science at Duke University School of Medicine from 2006–2014. Kornbluth is also the Jo Rae Wright University Professor of Biology at Duke.

Kornbluth was welcomed by Diane Greene SM ’78, chair of the MIT Corporation, at a press conference held at the MIT Welcome Center today. 

In her address at the press conference, Kornbluth said “For someone who enjoys enabling the success of other people. It was impossible to resist the opportunity to do that for the extraordinarily talented people of MIT.” 

“And maybe above all, I was drawn here because this is a moment when humanity faces huge problems, problems that urgently demand the world's most skillful minds and hands,” Kornbluth continued. “In short, I believe this is MIT's moment. I could not imagine a greater privilege than helping the people of MIT seize its full potential and I can't wait to get started.”

Kornbluth also thanked her family and Williams College Professor Bill DeWitt, who taught Kornbluth’s first undergraduate biology class and inspired her to pursue science. 

When asked how she plans to learn about student life and student concerns, Kornbluth responded that intends to “be out and about listening” and to talk to student groups and committees about their concerns.

Kornbluth dubbed MIT the “center of intellectual fun” and said she “can’t wait to get here and … see it in action, participate, and learn a lot more from the students.” “I love a group of students who think that building rollercoasters and catapults is fun,” she added.

Kornbluth remarked on MIT’s potential for collaboration when asked what aspect of MIT has made her more excited to start her role. “Everybody I’ve talked to affiliated with MIT has been not only excited about their place at MIT, but about their colleagues, their ability to collaborate, and their ability to interact.” She also noted that in addition to being a premier science and technology university, MIT has “great strengths in arts, social sciences, management, and architecture.”

Kornbluth also said that she plans to prioritize fostering a diverse community at MIT, particularly emphasizing the importance of recruiting and creating a pipeline for underrepresented minorities for faculty and graduate students. She proposed providing seed money for faculty and students to create “programs that they feel will increase an inclusive environment.”

Additionally, when asked how she would encourage women to pursue science and engineering, Kornbluth suggested creating open programming to explore these areas, modeling representation of women in classrooms and labs, and providing encouraging mentors.

“MIT is one of the few places where the scientific and technical expertise can be brought to bear but also the humanistic and social perspectives,” Kornbluth said when asked how MIT can become a better institution. Kornbluth posited that MIT “can be a leader … and is a leader already” in societal problems such as climate change that “require multiple collaborative perspectives to move forward.”

In response to a question about the role of the new College of Computing, Kornbluth said that the College of Computing can “be a convener and a nexus where different disciplines can interact in the service of moving computing forward to address society’s greatest problems.”

Kornbluth also acknowledged the large number of computer science majors at MIT, saying “I want to make sure that they learn what they need to know to be successful” in computer science, “but also touch on multiple other fields while they’re here.”

In an interview with The Tech, Kornbluth said that to encourage exploration for students at MIT, she would work to create low-risk opportunities for students to discover different fields, whether through curricular or extracurricular activities or Independent Activities Period offerings. 

Kornbluth also emphasized the importance of community education on social issues outside of usual curricula, saying that she would ask “what students should know as citizens when they leave MIT.”

Greene said at the press conference that Kornbluth was selected from a pool of 250 candidates and unanimously chosen by the presidential search committee from four final candidates. 

Greene also described Kornbluth as “an exceptional administrator who creates an environment that breaks barriers and enables every student, faculty, and staff member to contribute at their highest level” and “who comprehends the considerable importance of basic science, technological innovation, and entrepreneurship.”

As provost at Duke, Kornbluth oversees Duke’s 10 schools and six institutes, in addition to being responsible for research, admissions, financial aid, and other aspects of academics and student life.

During her time as provost, Kornbluth has led the development and implementation of the Together Duke academic strategic plan, which aims to invest in faculty, enhance the educational experience, strengthen Duke’s capacity to address global challenges, and create a supportive environment for educational activities. 

The plan has helped to grow Duke’s faculty numbers in science and engineering and strengthened the faculty hiring pipeline for underrepresented minorities and women through an Office for Faculty Advancement. 

The plan also included efforts to create a new experiential orientation program for all first-year students, which is tied to the newly-introduced QuadEx residential living and learning program at Duke. Kornbluth has also worked to make Duke more accessible through scholarships for first-generation students and increases in financial aid.

While provost, Kornbluth also facilitated the introduction of Duke’s university courses in fall 2021. The courses, titled Let’s Talk About Race and Let’s Talk About Climate Change, are available for all students and faculty at Duke.

Kornbluth received a bachelors of arts in political science from Williams College in 1982. She then became a Herchel Smith Scholar at Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge, where she received a bachelors of science in genetics. Kornbluth graduated with a PhD in molecular oncology from The Rockefeller University in 1989. After receiving her postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Diego, Kornbluth became a faculty member at Duke in 1994.

Kornbluth is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Kornbluth’s research focuses on cell proliferation and apoptosis; her research has led to insights on cancer and other degenerative disorders. She has also mentored 31 PhD students. 

Kornbluth has also received the Basic Science Research Mentoring Award from the Duke School of Medicine and the Distinguished Faculty Award from the Duke Medical Alumni Association.

Kornbluth was selected following a eight-month long search process, performed by a 20-person presidential search committee. The committee included nine Corporation members, eight faculty members, one staff member, one undergraduate, and one graduate student. This marks the first time the presidential search committee has included staff and student members.

At the Sept. 22 faculty meeting, John W. Jarve ’78, SM ’79, search committee chair and MIT Corporation member, presented attributes that the committee hoped to identify in presidential candidates, based on feedback from MIT community members.

Jarve said that the committee sought an “exceptional strategic leader”; “a good listener with an open mind”; “someone bold, principled, courageous, trustworthy, intellectually curious, broad, and synthetic”; and someone possessing “high integrity.”

The committee performed outreach by holding meetings with faculty from every department and program, as well as separate office hours with faculties. A presentation at the Sept. 22 faculty meeting wrote that over 300 faculty participated in the outreach.

Additionally, the search committee’s student advisory committee conducted 12 student engagement sessions for undergraduates, graduate students, identity-based groups, international students, and student veterans. The committee also conducted focus groups for staff, including one for instructional and research staff, and several one-on-one meetings with individuals and groups.

The search committee also consulted alumni by meeting with MIT Alumni Association leadership and soliciting feedback via a community survey. The committee also held listening sessions with the Corporation, MIT’s Executive Committee, and the Corporation Development Committee.

The committee also performed 36 thought leader interviews with 15 MIT thought leaders and 21 external thought leaders. The leaders included eight current and former university presidents, such as Reif, Hockfield, and Harvard President and former MIT Chancellor Lawrence Bacow ’72.

Jarve said at the September faculty meeting that interviews for candidates would take place in October. The interviews were planned as full-day interviews with four focus areas: leadership, research and education, university administration, and external relations.

An MIT community introduction for Kornbluth will be held today at 3:30 p.m. in room 10-250. MIT is also planning an all-community reception and celebration for Kornbluth Oct. 27 from 3:30–5:30 p.m. on Hockfield Court.