President Reif reflects on his decade of presidency and 40 years at MIT

Reif: ‘I don’t think there is a place like MIT anywhere else on the planet.’

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Members of The Tech interview President Rafael Reif as he steps down from his position, Friday.
Frankie Schulte – The Tech

President L. Rafael Reif announced in February that he would step down at the end of the year after serving ten years in the office. Before assuming the role of MIT’s 17th president, Reif was first a professor of electrical engineering at MIT and later served as provost at the Institute for seven years. 

The Tech spoke with Reif as he both reflected on his time as president and discussed plans for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Tech: Could you give us a quick look into how you spend a typical day?

President Reif: I think as president, you’re responsible for everything. 

There are many operational things that have to be handled every day to keep the place moving. Anything I think others can do, I like to delegate. Prior to the pandemic, and now in recent weeks, I meet in-person every week with the senior leaders of MIT, and every one of them is in charge of something. Everybody is aware of everybody else, because everything here is connected. 

I meet with every one of them individually every week as well to discuss what issues they’re facing. I’m aware of the issues only as much as I am told. I assist and discuss decision-making that requires my participation. Very often, decisions are not made by me. 

A good chunk of my time is being spent on fundraising. Where do you need money? Who can give us money for one thing or the other? That’s part of the job. Nobody wants to give a good chunk of money to MIT unless they meet the president. 

The part of the day that I enjoy the most is strategic. Where are we going? What’s the future? What’s needed? What does the country need? 

Strategies are important to me and I spend a good part of the day thinking about issues of that kind. This is the part that gives me fun in the job. I’ve dealt with a lot of the operational detail and that consumes a lot of time but that is really working to make sure everything goes forward. But if all we do is just make the machinery work forward, and forget where we’re going, all the effort goes to naught. I worry about looking at the landscape, as much as everything else. 

TT: What do you believe to be your seminal accomplishment during your tenure as MIT’s president?

Reif: There are several ways to think of an answer to that. I mean, there are many things that we did that I’m very proud of, but I don’t think I would use the word ‘seminal.’ Among the things that I’m extremely happy about are the tent parties; I loved them, but I don’t think those are seminal.

I think ‘seminal’ to me means something that will survive the test of time, so I have to think of the answer that way. Some things that should be included in that list are: the development of MIT.nano; the creation of the Schwarzman College of Computing; the Morningside Academy of Design. 

Also the whole area that I have pushed for quite a while: access to education through the MITx and MicroMasters initiatives. What we are doing in climate change: track one, track two and track three approaches, the Grand Challenges and a big consortium of companies working together. That will produce significant benefits. 

In the innovation space, I think The Engine [a venture firm located in Central Square] will make a big difference and continue to deliver that difference. 

An area that I would also like to think survived the test of time is what I’ve tried to convey not in an announced way, but by constantly speaking about it — in public, at Convocation, at Commencement — is a caring community. 

When I came to MIT and before I took this office, MIT had a reputation of being a thankless place in which you sink or swim. I felt that that was not the right way to describe us, [that] there is more to us than that. So I continuously spoke about the caring community and the MindHandHeart initiative. 

I would like to think that that part will survive the test of time. While it remains to be seen, I would like to think that once you create that, it’s going to be here to stay. 

TT: After serving as professor, provost, and president: what are the changes and continuities you’ve observed at MIT throughout your time here?

Reif: Well, the continuity is easier to answer so let me start with that. 

I came here because I visited at the insistence of people at MIT. When I saw MIT, I just didn’t believe that a place like this existed quite frankly.

But one of the elements is the intensity of the student body. Every student here is very intense, very passionate about what they love. It’s an amazing place from that standpoint. When I talk to others that are not MIT people, particularly when I go to fundraise from non-alumni, and people ask me to tell them about MIT, what I say to them is, I tell them to go back to their high school years. Go back to your senior class, I say. And you will remember that in your senior class, there is always a small group of students that are very intent on something, doing a little bit of an experiment, or building something, or writing some code. 

The rest of the students are doing something else — going into the backyard, playing at recess, but some students are intent on doing something. So I asked the audience, ‘how many of you were among those that were intended to be doing something?’ and I don’t see any hands being raised. 

How many of you were those who were out playing? Everyone raised their hand. So I said to them, well, the people who apply to MIT are from that little group that are very interested in something. We choose among that group. 

Every campus in America has a fraction of students like that. We have them all. So they finally recognize, “I get it, that's MIT.” So I think that has not changed. I give credit to the deans of admissions, who really know how to choose the right students for MIT. It is amazing. 

Every fall, before COVID, I went to meet first year students in their dorms and I asked them “After five or six weeks here, what is it that [you like] the most about MIT so far?” Nine out of ten students? They tell me, “each other.” So what you like about this place is yourself. This to me is the wonder of the place.

So, in terms of continuity, that has not changed. It may always be the same. 

What has changed the most, I’m going to extremes. 40 years ago to now, there is a much more diverse student body. When I came here, there were not that many women, female students, you know; not that there weren’t any, but they were underrepresented. 

Right now, at least a quarter of the student body and the graduates are underrepresented minorities, and more than half are minorities. So that is a change, a change for the better in my view. 

TT: You are one of three MIT’s presidents not born and raised in the United States. How do you think your international background impacted your presidency?

Reif: I don’t know how to answer on how it has influenced the presidency. I can tell you how it influences me and how I think. I traveled extensively and engaged with different countries and things representing MIT. 

The image people have about MIT from other countries — to see that a place as important to the world has a president that was not born in the U.S. They are blown away by that. It has done something to MIT’s image to see that MIT would have somebody not born here to represent them. 

That is a very hard thing for them to understand, because everybody views MIT as what it is: the jewel of this country. So to be led by somebody from somewhere else is something that they just take a while to get. 

I have benefited from a more global perspective of things. My parents came from Eastern Europe, so I have an appreciation of that way of thinking. I can put myself in those shoes and see America. But I was born in Venezuela, and I was educated there as well. So I can easily put myself in those shoes, and see the rest of the world from there. And then I spent the rest of my life, a little over half of my life here. I can also put on the shoes of a U.S. citizen and look at Eastern Europe or South America. 

I’m blessed by that experience. I don’t speak only one language. So I can see, I can read things and read the translation and understand what the writer is saying. That gives me a window that I think has allowed me to see things in a more global way. 

Now, how that has influenced what I do, I don’t know. But this is how it influences who I am. It gives me another perspective, hopefully a good one in my job. 

TT: What do you think are the most promising opportunities for MIT to grow toward in the next decade?

Reif: I think the opportunity of the College of Computing is immense, in how that can be used to educate the graduates of the future. People are realizing that future graduates have to be educated in this particular way. You have to have your discipline of choice, but you have to understand how to use these tools. I just want all of us [faculty and administration] to deliver to you the kind of tools you need to learn if you want to start.

The online sphere and the access will continue to be important. The sky’s the limit in terms of creativity, but it’s important to  figure out how to use that tool. I think the whole metaverse that people are making fun of, I think there is something there. The whole space of virtual reality, the virtual environment, there are opportunities there, and in the online stuff we started.

What we have started in working on climate change will make a big difference, and I would like that to continue. The students are very into it. We just have to provide students with more tools and resources for them to do more in terms of research and education. 

I think the whole area of quantum space, information, and computation is extremely promising, and we have spectacular faculty working on that. It is a very nascent area, and the next 10 years will be crucial in that space. What we do, we do very well. The areas that I’ve mentioned are areas in which if we don’t pay attention to it, others will. I want us to make sure we are always on top. 

TT: What was some of the most memorable criticism you received as president and how did you respond to it? 

Reif: Oh, that’s a very good question. The ones that have surprised me the most: I’m going to repeat what I’ve heard. I have not seen anybody come up to me to tell me, “This is what you’re doing wrong.” 

One thing I’ve heard is that I go and ask for money from anyone, and I can do whatever somebody provided me money for. The biggest one that I’ve heard is that I created the College of Computing because somebody said if you create the College, I’ll give you the money. Well, that’s not true. 

Another one that I’ve heard is that I am very top down: that I decide what to do and everybody has to do it. That’s also not true. I’ve heard criticism that I don’t believe in freedom of expression as well. I think that criticism has less legs than the other two. 

How do I respond to that? Well I didn’t. I don’t know anybody who has said that or who’s produced any evidence to say, “Look, why did you do this?” I mean, it’s rumours. 

And when something like that happens, let me just explain one thing: because one of you, hopefully more than one of you, may become college president or may become a leader of a company. 

In academia, you will have surveys of how the community feels about things. By and large, close to 70 or 80% of our faculty are happy. But 20 to 30% are not. And that’s just the way it is. 

It’ll be a miracle if everybody will be happy all the time. So one has to understand that decisions that are being made are always perceived to be made by the top, and I can assure you the president doesn’t make all the decisions here. There is a whole administration of people working and making decisions. 

But those who don’t make decisions view decision makers in a way that if they agree with them is good, but if they disagree with them, it’s not good. That’s always going to be the case, and you’re always going to have faculty who are going to be unhappy with a decision being made.

And when they aren’t happy about something, they manifest unhappiness in some other ways, like criticizing things that they just don’t know. So there is nothing that I think I can or should do about it. People think whatever they want to think. We have many people in this country, 40 or 50 million people in this country, who believe that the last election was stolen. What do you do about that if they choose to believe that? There is nothing to be done. 

I chose to do nothing simply because I’m moving forward. If I start spending time defending myself from attacks, I don’t even know where they are coming from.

TT: Do you have any advice for your successor, President-elect Kornbluth?

Reif: I met her yesterday. She seems to be pretty smart. I think she’ll do quite well. I don’t think she needs any advice, quite frankly. 

TT: What will you miss the most upon departing from your role as president? 

Reif: All of it. I’m going to miss a lot. 

When I was in Course Six before coming to this beloved corridor, I was always engaged with students of Course Six. I came to the presidency, and I started meeting students and leaders from all of MIT. In all my conversations with visiting students, and going to dorms, sports, and other activities, I will miss being engaged. 

I enjoy seeing how students think and how their thoughts change. I have the perspective of 40 years, but only in the last 17 have I seen all of MIT. I want to have the convening power to talk to all of you. It won’t happen anymore. I will miss that. Once you enjoy that, it’s something you don’t want to stop enjoying.

TT: The last few years of your presidency coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you feel the experiences of your time as president helped you to grapple with the huge challenge of the pandemic?

Reif: It has been a huge challenge, and I think MIT has done, in my very humble opinion: if not extremely well, certainly much better than almost any other institution. But I don’t think it has a lot to do with me or my experience. 

There are so many people who came together to handle this at MIT. Certainly, the whole administration was involved. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and got to work. But so many other parts of MIT get together to work on this as well: the Emergency Response Team, the MIT Medical Team. 

There are just so many parts of MIT, and I think the massive amount of people that are required to pay attention in a coordinated way so that we are focused on solving the problem. That was the important part, that the whole place came together seamlessly just to figure this out. 

I think it is because we have had crises in the past, and we solved them by creating Institute-wide task forces. In 2008, we had a task force under budget with people from all over MIT involved. Shortly after I took office, we also had a task force for the future of education. 

MIT is a big place and lots of things interact. But when you work in this office 24/7, you don’t connect with people in other offices. Sometimes, you don’t even know who to call to help you solve a problem. No single office is self-contained, you can’t do everything alone — it’s all interconnected. 

By creating these task forces, people from different parts of MIT get to meet like this and know each other and know how they can contribute to each other by solving a focus problem. When there is a crisis, then you already know who to call or who to work with because you already worked with those people, you know who they are. 

Personally, I think it’s not the presidency that did much here. It’s that people came together, and they came together very quickly because they all knew each other from every part of MIT. 

TT: Do you have a message that you would like to share with the student body before you depart?

Reif: I honestly think that MIT is like a playground for grown-ups. It’s a place where you can learn and do almost anything you're interested in. The undergraduates are going to be here for four years. Just learn as much as you can during those four years. Experiment as much as you can. Learn from each other as much as you can. Experience this place fully because you don't know it. You cannot possibly know it, but there is no other place like this. I don't think there is a place like MIT anywhere else on the planet. Take advantage of it fully, take advantage of being with each other, because each other has a lot to contribute.

TT: Can you tell us more about your future plans, career wise or personally? 

Reif: I have announced that I’m going on sabbatical for 2023. I plan to come back to the faculty in 2024. Even though I’m a little older, I’m still growing. Every moment of my life I’ve been dedicated to learning, always trying to learn how to be a better person, how to strengthen MIT and to make sure that MIT fulfills its tremendous purpose to make the world a better place.

The connection between intense passionate smart people in one place is unparalleled. What we can do for the world here is so powerful. You can learn your discipline, degree, and research, so why not learn to do it in a way to help the world? MIT is a terrific place. I spent all my years focusing on how I could be better to make all of us better. I won’t have that kind of connection with MIT anymore, and I’m not going to be driving it, but my plan for 2023 is to find out how I maintain or satisfy my intellectual curiosity and my desire to always use my skills to contribute towards making the world better, but now on my own. That's a new experience. That’s my quest for 2023.