Robert M. Randolph, chaplain to the Institute, will retire from MIT this August after a remarkable career spanning nearly four decades.
Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo praised Randolph’s work upon hearing the announcement: “In a place always engaged in exploration and invention, Bob sought to create spaces for discussion and reflection,” he said. “In addition to supporting students directly, he enriched MIT community life immensely.”
Randolph arrived at MIT in 1979 as assistant dean of student affairs focusing on student support, and was one of the first student life professionals hired by the Institute. Among numerous responsibilities, Randolph served as dean-in-residence, a position that would evolve into the Dean-on-Call system. In this role, Randolph was on call 24-hours a day, seven days a week helping students in crisis. Later, as senior associate dean for student life, he helped found Student Assistance Services, predecessor of Student Support Services (S3), coordinating counselors who helped students across a wide range of needs.
Of the era when he arrived on campus, Randolph characterized it as being part of “the humanization of MIT,” when he and others worked with students to discuss gender, race, religion, and social justice, to help prepare them for MIT’s call to leadership in the nation and the world. “I was fortunate to arrive here at a time when this community was open to having those conversations,” Randolph said.
From 1981 to 1985, Randolph, his wife Jan, and their daughters lived in Tang Hall. During that time Randolph observed how students lived, worked, and recreated, which informed both his student support work and his 13-year stint as Bexley Hall housemaster starting in 2000. In a community of communities, Bexley stood out for the closeness of its residents and its singular environment. And when Bexley was closed due to structural issues in 2013, the Randolphs helped Bexleyites through a challenging transition. “I am grateful for Bob and Jan’s steady hands as they helped steer the Bexley community through that difficult time,” Colombo said.
In the early 1990s Randolph was presented with a unique challenge: to organize and energize religious life at MIT, a process that culminated in the creation of the Religious Activities Center (Building W11) and community enrichment programming. “There had been chaplains at MIT dating back to 1864,” Randolph said, “but I was given an opportunity to draw the many aspects of MIT’s spiritual life together, and help students and the community as a whole make connections with each other in ways that had been extremely difficult before.” For his efforts, Randolph was awarded the Gordon Y. Billard Award for special service of outstanding merit to the Institute.
In 2007 Randolph was named chaplain to the Institute, a new position intended to further develop religious life at MIT. An article about his installation said Randolph would work “alongside the members of the Board of Chaplains, who represent many religious traditions, in fostering interfaith discourse and educating the MIT community about the history and role of religions around the world.” Though the role was new, the chaplaincy had been a dream in the mid-1950s of President James Killian, who took major steps to bolster MIT’s spiritual life and teaching on religion in society.
Even before Randolph’s appointment, promoting dialogue among community members of different faiths, backgrounds, and stages of life had been a hallmark of his work. In 2006 he helped launch the Addir Fellows Interfaith Dialogue Program, which brings together Muslims, Christians, and Jews to “build bridges” between practitioners (“addir” is the Ancient Sumerian word for “bridge”). Likewise he helped start Tuesdays in the Chapel, a non-denominational meditation by a speaker from the MIT community on a topic of his or her choosing, including issues of religion, race, gender, and socioeconomic background.
Randolph’s very voice has become a touchstone for many MIT community members. Among his duties as chaplain was coordinating the on-campus pastoral response during crises. He was involved in community observances of 9/11 and the marathon bombings in 2013. He helped preside over the subsequent funeral for Officer Sean Collier, and many more memorial services for MIT alumni and community members. On a happier note, Randolph officiated at several hundred weddings, and will once again deliver the Commencement invocation this June.
“Bob’s legacy is marked by wisdom, kindness, inclusion, and unity. His lasting imprint on MIT can be found in the ways we support one another in good times and bad and how we think about living each day with purpose,” said Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart. “Bob made a meaningful difference here, and we are so grateful for his service to and impact on the MIT community."
As chaplain — and throughout his career — Randolph encouraged MIT students and community members to consider issues of justice, integrity, and ethics in their academics and research, and their personal and professional lives. To take a moment from exploring and inventing to discuss and reflect on their natures, motivations, and beliefs. “With all of the wonderful things that happen at MIT, we are so busy looking forward,” Randolph said, “Hopefully I have helped encourage people in this extraordinary place to remember to also look inward.”