What specific qualities should we be looking for in MIT's 16th president?

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Background is not as important as character

Mary Frances Wagley

I am not a member of the presidential search committee but was asked to contribute some observations. These are personal and are based mainly on the seven MIT presidents I have known since entering the Institute in 1944: Karl Compton, Jim Killian, Jay Stratton, Howard Johnson, Jerry Wiesner, Paul Gray and Chuck Vest. Of these, two were outsiders and five had previous connections to MIT; they were a mix of engineers, scientists and humanists. I conclude that external backgrounds and circumstances are not as important as character and personality.

Above all I want our next president to be a person of principle, of high ideals, with a generous spirit and absolute trustworthiness. I would add to this a quick mind, a sense of humor, and the ability to see promise in a wide variety of people and the skill to match that promise with appropriate positions and responsibilities. More particularly, I believe our 16th president must share the Institute's core values, which I take to be a commitment to excellence, to diversity and to a meritocracy.

Excellence--MIT seeks excellence in the triad of teaching, research and community, and also in architecture, communications, innovation, influence in national affairs and relationships with universities everywhere. Achieving excellence takes striving and, as Paul Gray often expressed it in his forceful and direct way, "Get it right!"

Diversity--MIT has made remarkable progress towards diversity and inclusion since my days as a "coed." But much remains to be done with respect to the graduate student population and the faculty. Our next president must continue the progress and also keep us ever vigilant as external circumstances can threaten our ability to enroll a particular cohort (at present that cohort is international students).

Meritocracy--MIT has stood resolutely for merit-based admissions and need-based financial aid. This resolve was severely tested in the early 1990s by a Justice Department suit brought against the Ivies and MIT in the so-called overlap case. With Chuck Vest's principled leadership, the Institute stood firm and we were vindicated. MIT won national respect for upholding our values. I have never been more proud of my alma mater. Our 16th president must hold these values, too, and be prepared to defend them.

Finally, I want our next leader to have the capacity to inspire. That was important to me as a student. President Compton called the Institute community together in the Great Court on the occasion of the Allied victory in Europe. We students hoped for a two or at least a one-day holiday. President Compton celebrated the victory but reminded us that we were still fighting in the Pacific. He admonished us that as students of science and engineering, we were important to the war effort and to the postwar tasks of reconstruction and rebuilding. He dismissed us to return immediately to our classrooms, labs and libraries to get on with our important work.

My classmates and I were inspired and energized. To inspire others, a leader must be inspired--must have sound judgment, be grounded in principles, have a capacious heart, and the ability to communicate.

We are seeking an exceptional person. MIT deserves no less.

Mary Frances Wagley (S.B. 1947) of Baltimore, a retired educator, is a life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation. She served on the last two presidential search committees at MIT, which ultimately selected Paul Gray and Charles M. Vest.

It's time for a president who has MIT roots

Dan Geer Jr.

It is necessary, though not sufficient, that the next president of MIT be an alumnus or alumna of the MIT undergraduate program.

As someone who left home for the first time to come to MIT and then never left, the 35 intervening years have shown that, as with everything else, what's right for MIT is a matter of cycles, and the wheel of wisdom for this cycle has come to rest on the sector marked "promote from within."

MIT is unique and rather hard to grasp through on-the-job training, which is a way of saying that unless you went here, you will likely begin with little knowledge, which is a dangerous thing. Those parts of MIT that have most needed an appreciation of their unusualness are now most eloquently committed to the need for an alumnus/alumna president.

There are and have been cycles of every sort. From time to time, Admissions has longed for MIT to be like Harvard and therefore competed against it, but every time, the cycle has eventually heard the faculty's cry to "give us back our nerds!" From time to time, Institute authorities have worried over students as if they are delicate ("They must never feel rejection"), only to cycle back to respecting them as strong ("Half of you are below average, but only here").

The cycle of this presidency has been an outlier in length and magnitude. It is time to have a president who has actually done an MIT problem set. It is time to have a president who has had to decide, on short notice and nothing but gut, where s/he would live. It is time to have a president who can have faith in MIT undergrads because s/he has been where they are. It is time to have a president who knows more people in Cambridge than in Washington. It is time to have a president who has been on the Great Dome at midnight.

It is time to have a president who knows that academic excellence is not the only thing that matters; yet that president also must intuitively know that broadening happens within intramurals, within the self-government of those in independent living groups, within the array of eclectic hobbies, and within those of faith, so that s/he governs more by benign neglect than by the laying-on of an administered coherence.

It is time for a president who is completely unjealous of his or her faculty and unjealous of whether his or her office, or even the institution itself, commands the ultimate first loyalty of its alumni and alumnae. That unjealous streak must extend to being satisfied when an alumnus or alumna views his or her particular experience as being within a subset of MIT rather than somehow with MIT as a whole. Attempts to remove all other allegiances are befitting of a jealous god, but not the president of this unique treasure. The president who grew in this soil will know this in a way that cannot be taught.

It is time.

Dan Geer Jr. (S.B. 1972) remains active at MIT as chair of the Association of Independent Living Groups, president of FSILG Cooperative, Inc., and president of Theta Delta Chi's Theta Deuteron House Corp.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 19, 2004 (download PDF).

Topics: Administration

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