January/February 2022Vol. XXXIV No. 3

Selecting a New President

Sally Haslanger, Jonathan A. King, Ceasar McDowell, Ruth Perry, Nasser Rabbat

In its 156 years, MIT will begin selecting a new president for the nineteenth time. The MIT Corporation will make the selection informed by the recommendation of a Search Committee. We hope committee membership will include those who drive excellence at MIT: faculty, staff, researchers, post-docs, undergraduate, and graduate students.

Irrespective of the committee’s composition, the broader MIT community needs to know the answers to two questions. First, how will the committee present the leadership needs for MIT?; and what considerations will be at the heart of the committee’s deliberations?

MIT’s fundraising campaign, “Make A Better World”, has helped it grow into a massive research, innovation, and educational enterprise. In the push to develop a 27.4 billion dollar endowment, too often consideration of what is fair, justice, equitable, or moral has, at best, gone unexamined and, at worst, been ignored. Yes, at times, MIT leadership demonstrates moral courage as evidenced in the decision to retain service staff during the Covid shutdown or defending Professor Gang Chen. Some members of our community would include the decision to stop the Skoltech program in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as another sign of MIT’s moral courage. While it was the correct action, it reveals a moral relativism that is too often used to secure or allocate resources.

MIT should have never undertaken the Skoltech program. It is unclear to most campus stakeholders how providing Russia a research center that helps it gain access to shale and oil reserves in the Arctic and undermining any rhetoric about managing climate change at home will “Make a Better World.” There are many unanswered questions about why a Russian oligarch was included as a member of MIT’s Board of Trustees and why he was removed – clearly there needs to be more transparency and accountability by the MIT President and other leaders towards the MIT community. Moreover, pursuing the Skoltech relationship would eventually place MIT researchers and students in a compromised position.

Similarly, the welcoming of Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman, the acceptance of donations from Jeffrey Epstein, the questionable housing practice of Stephen Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group, and similar missteps lead to MIT jeopardizing its moral standing and core educational mission in the world. Moreover, it is unclear how the world of graduate students is made better when MIT’s development arm, MITIMCo, uses the East Campus triangle to build new commercial office buildings instead of desperately needed graduate student housing. As a result, the ethical leadership of MIT is compromised.

The new president must have the skill, knowledge, and expertise to help MIT find a new moral center.

One possible way to assess that capacity is to provide the Search Committee with a candid view into the varied perceptions of faculty on the following questions about MIT:

  • What has been created that should be strengthened?
  • What has faltered and needs shoring up?
  • What has been neglected and needs attention?
  • What have we held onto that is holding us back?

Such a process would use faculty intelligence; it would also help the prospective candidates understand the climate and challenges as seen by those who make up the Institute.

What MIT excels at is by itself insufficient to solve the world’s problems. Thus, in our pursuit for excellence, we should at least be guided by the simple phrase “Do No Harm.” We need a deep look at how we act in the world to do that. So, in finding a new leader, let us look for someone who can help us “do no harm” as we excel in what we do best.