Reflecting and Looking Forward: President Sally Kornbluth

Kornbluth addresses climate change and artificial intelligence policy, measures to improve student life, and working towards campus unity

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Members of The Tech interview President Sally Kornbluth, Tuesday, January 23.

This month marks Sally Kornbluth's first year as MIT's President. Her listening tour culminated in a number of findings, ranging from the ethics of artificial intelligence to concerns over dining quality. Kornbluth led the Institute through the Supreme Court ruling overturning affirmative action and its response to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.

Kornbluth sat down with The Tech to reflect on her tenure so far as President.

On transitioning from Duke to MIT

Kornbluth previously served as Provost of Duke University for eight years. She juxtaposed Duke’s emphasis on the humanities with MIT’s technical focus, saying that the Institute's reputation as the “preeminent” STEM university in the world was a primary reason in her seeking the presidency. An established cancer biologist prior to her transition to administration, Kornbluth said that she was living “vicariously” through the discoveries and innovations happening at MIT.

Kornbluth described her approach to leadership as the Provost of Duke as "on-the-ground." When discussing her administration at MIT, Kornbluth noted that she had inherited a core of administrators from former President L. Rafael Reif, and stated that “we’re still adding people and trying to optimize the organization.” 

On climate action and the ethics of artificial intelligence

Kornbluth previewed to The Tech a layout for the Institute’s plan that seeks to address climate change. She stated that the Institute is “organizing a climate hub” that has groups that are working to solve particular problems relating to climate change, akin to “small Manhattan Projects.” Kornbluth stated that a more comprehensive statement regarding the “climate hub” would be released in the coming weeks.

Kornbluth also discussed ethical considerations in Artificial Intelligence (AI). In speaking with The Tech, Kornbluth stated that faculty and leadership from the Institute regularly hold meetings with members of Congress to advise them in legislation regarding AI regulation. In particular, Kornbluth highlighted the necessity to “legislate for the social good of AI,” while also being cognizant of the risks. She believes that many questions exist regarding who “owns that liability for the risk” in AI. 

On the quality of life for students

In her listening tour summary, Kornbluth wrote that various aspects of student life, such as the quality of campus dining, autonomy in housing, and accessibility and availability of mental health resources on campus, were salient issues.

When asked about campus dining, Kornbluth acknowledged that the topic had been brought up many times by students. She stated that “dining was really far superior at Duke,” but believes that MIT can improve its dining, stating that the Division of Student Life (DSL) “are totally on board.”

On graduate housing, Kornbluth said that she was pleasantly “surprised by the number of students living in graduate student housing” because “most places don’t seem to have the graduate housing stock MIT has.” According to the DSL, MIT is currently constructing a West Campus Graduate Residence on Vassar Street that will add an additional 675 beds to the already established eight graduate residences.

With regards to all on-campus living spaces, Kornbluth believes any changes to such spaces must be made in “close partnership with the students in those residences.” She praised the culture of “self-determination” in housing selection and individual house leadership. 

Kornbluth said that she is “impressed" by the efforts to expand mental health services. She added that MIT is continuing to strive towards improving mental health services. In particular, she highlighted the need for highly qualified and diverse providers. She stated that it is essential for the administration to “recognize the fact that students have [mental health] needs" and that her administration has to "stay on top of providing those services.” 

On working towards campus unity

The Tech asked President Kornbluth about how she’s leading the Institute towards a state of unity on campus. 

Kornbluth stated that she’s heard a range of concerns from members of the community: “people have deep personal feelings about these issues.” 

She emphasized the importance of empathy from the leadership perspective, saying the most important thing for her is “to listen and understand what people’s concerns are.” With equal emphasis, she highlighted the need to think “proactively about the measures to make sure our campuses are safe, and to ensure that we have the ability to continue to operate at the highest possible levels of our research and educational missions.” 

Kornbluth noted that she’s made a “strong distinction between what you can say and what you should say.” She believes that there is “no way to get through this moment without lots of dialogue and conversation.”

To this end, the administration has organized a number of events through the Stand Up Against Hate Initiative and other efforts. Kornbluth hopes that the community will attend such events. 

On the Institute partnerships in the Middle East

Kornbluth stated that the Institute is “fully engaged in MISTI Israel.” When asked about academic and research collaborations with Israeli institutions and individuals, Kornbluth stated that while she could not provide a definite answer, she stated that as far as she knows, collaborations remain “vibrant.” She noted that most collaborations are “on the ground between individual principal investigators and individuals.”