President Kornbluth reflects on first months of presidency at MIT

Kornbluth: ‘People here are just full of fantastic ideas, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit.’

The inauguration for President Sally Kornbluth was held May 1, 2023. Before assuming the role of MIT’s 18th president, she was provost at Duke University for eight years. Kornbluth succeeds L. Rafael Reif, who stepped down at the end of 2022 after serving ten years in the office. 

The Tech spoke with Kornbluth as she both reflected on the first few months of her presidency and discussed plans for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

TT: What have been your early impressions of MIT in the first five months of your presidency?

Kornbluth: I have been really impressed by the faculty, staff, and the students. People here are just full of fantastic ideas, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit. 

MIT is a pretty decentralized place, so I am taking some time to get to know every nook and cranny. From the student perspective, I have been really impressed by the degree to which there's so much sort of student autonomy: governing in the dorms, people creating communities that they are happy and comfortable with. 

TT: You conducted a listening tour starting in January which included feedback from students, staff, faculty, alumni, and more. Are there any perspectives in particular which have stuck out to you so far?

Kornbluth: Part of it is what I just mentioned, which is the students wanting me to understand the student culture here and the student communities. To understand and ensure that I get the quirkiness and fun of MIT. Students everywhere have expressed concerns about housing, and food has also come up as well. 

But I have also really heard from them about things they’re really excited about: their participation in UROP, MISTI, and all kinds of opportunities that students have here. It is really been a combination of just letting me know things that they think could be made better and fixed, and things that they celebrate about MIT.

TT: Could you provide a preliminary overview of your top priorities among the topics discussed in your listening tour so far?

Kornbluth: In terms of academic and intellectual priorities, there's no question that climate change is at the very top of the list. Additionally, I am interested in harnessing the power and innovation of life sciences at MIT and how that juxtaposes with engineering to really create a whole range of new treatments, devices, etc. 

TT: Do you have any plans to foster change within the community at MIT? 

Kornbluth: Coming out of the pandemic, students, just like the rest of the community, are looking for the opportunities to re-engage with each other. 

When I look at survey data about how much interaction students have with faculty outside the classroom and significant faculty mentoring opportunities, I would like to see more of that for the students. I think that informal, non classroom interactions with faculty could definitely be increased, but also I would like to work with students to see what kind of events, organizations, etc. they think could enhance social enjoyment of MIT. 

Every student, even if they love MIT, has expressed some degree of stress. The question is, how do we reduce some of those stressors? Part of it is working with faculty, but another aspect is thinking about how things are structured. Are there ways to make it as intellectually rigorous, but not quite so stressful for students? 

Improving mental health services is a big priority. Chancellor Nobles is thinking a lot about the whole student and how you create an ecosystem of student wellness so that students can concentrate on their academics without feeling so incredibly stressed all the time. 

TT: How has your background as a biologist influenced your leadership style and your approach to leading an institution like MIT? 

Kornbluth: It's funny that there are so many people doing biomedical research at MIT, but there's no medical school, given that I am originally from the medical school at Duke. I have had more time to think about biomedical research and biomedical innovation and it is really inflected with engineering here, and it just brings a whole new strategy, in terms of thinking about areas that I want to enhance and ways to bring people together. I try to be inclusive with my leadership style, but I also try to identify the areas of interest and talents and find ways to juxtapose things that otherwise wouldn't be juxtaposed. 

Coming from the outside, sometimes you can look at the landscape and say, “Oh, I bet this person doesn't know that person.” Because I have been meeting everybody in a very quick succession, I'm hoping to be able to facilitate interactions between faculty of disparate fields across the Institute. With this different perspective and my background in biomedicine, I am thinking about how the strengths of MIT as well as that of other institutions can synergize, and create more rapid advances in biomedicine.

TT: Are there any things that you found surprising about MIT?

Kornbluth:  I had anticipated how innovative and smart everyone was, but honestly, it's even beyond that level. During the first few days of when I first got here, there were some promotion and tenure cases. Everybody coming through is like a national or international star. It's just sort of the brightness of the field is even more than I had anticipated coming here. 

The other thing that I've been surprised at is the decentralization. I think about ways that I can contribute to improvement, to make it easier for the faculty and students to do research. I hope to streamline some of the processes and practices in a way without restraining what everyone's doing and have greater efficiencies and synergies in administration.