Lily Tsai New Chair of the Faculty
Lily L. Tsai, Ford Professor of Political Science, will succeed Rick Danheiser as Chair of the Faculty on July 1, 2021. Lily has served as Chair-Elect during the current academic year, learning the ropes from Rick to whom she is thankful for exemplary leadership during this particularly trying time. Joining Lily as faculty officers this summer will be Chris Schuh (Materials Science and Engineering) and Martha Gray (Electrical Engineering and Health Sciences and Technology) who will serve, respectively, as Associate Chair and Secretary of the Faculty.
Born in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Lily grew up in New Jersey. After three years of high school, Lily left home at 16 to serve as a Congressional intern for Senator Bill Bradley and to work for the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC and in Ulaanbaatar for the run-up to Mongolia’s first legislative elections. Lily attended Stanford as an undergraduate, where she double-majored in international relations with a focus on development economics, and English literature. Field research for one of her undergraduate theses took her to rural China, including villages where her grandparents had grown up poor and illiterate, only to later flee war and instability with Lily’s parents. After graduating, Lily went to UC Berkeley to do her PhD research with Elizabeth Perry, subsequently moving with Perry to finish her degree at Harvard in 2005. Lily joined the MIT faculty at age 29 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science. After stints as an Academy Scholar at Harvard, she received tenure in 2009.
Lily is a scholar of governance, accountability, and political behavior and is the recipient of various awards for her research, including from the American Political Science Association and the Society of Comparative Research. She is engrossed by the strategies that ordinary people use to influence government authorities even in the absence of strong democratic institutions, how authorities and elites seek to influence and control the behavior of their constituents, and how to create public trust and trustworthiness that lead to constructive engagement and cooperation between citizens and government.
At its core, Lily’s research seeks to understand when authorities provide what people need and want, and why they often fail to do so. In particular, her work looks closely at what can be done to improve trust and cooperation, and how to increase the motivation of authorities to respond to citizen needs. In her book, Accountability without Democracy, Lily shows how citizens in nondemocratic systems can use informal institutions to inculcate the intrinsic motivation of authorities to respond to citizen concerns as well as reward and punish local officials by awarding moral standing. Her book, When People Want Punishment: Retributive Justice and the Puzzle of Authoritarian Popularity (forthcoming this year), continues the investigation of moral authority in governance to ask why some authoritarian leaders and regimes are popular with their citizens, while many democratic ones are mistrusted or held in contempt. Her research suggests that one of the most important public goods that governments can provide is social and moral order, and Lily shows that when rulers take actions that signal that they uphold moral order, citizens are more likely to support them even when they perform less well in terms of economic development, the implementation of democracy, or welfare provision.
Building on her interest in engaged scholarship and real-world impact, Lily founded the MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) in 2016 to respond to students who seek an active role in solving public problems and engaging in civic life, while also producing rigorous scientific research.
MIT GOV/LAB has worked with practitioners, including NGOs, international organizations such as the World Bank, and governance innovation hubs to integrate social and behavioral science with data science and design thinking to develop and evaluate creative solutions, policies, and practices. These collaborations have shown that the uptake of research and policy recommendations is far greater when communities and practitioners actively recruit scientists to work alongside them on problems they themselves have identified and want to solve.
Lily has been recognized with the Office of Graduate Education’s Committed to Caring Award for Graduate Student Mentoring and SHASS’s James A. and Ruth Levitan Award for Teaching Excellence. Lily’s contributions to curricular innovation include the development of the Graduate Scope and Methods course and the Second Year Paper Workshop, that bookend the core PhD curriculum in political science. Through teaching these subjects, Lily had the pleasure for many years of having every PhD student in one of her classes. Under her direction, MIT GOV/LAB also developed an intensive short course on behavioral science in the field for MIT and East African graduate students held in Nairobi in collaboration with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, as well as a pilot mentorship program that pairs Boston-area undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds with PhD student mentors. Over the years, Lily has taught courses on governance and accountability, the political behavior of development, civil society and social capital, politics and religion, and the rise of the modern state. Lily has mentored more than two dozen graduate students and is the first from her department to serve as faculty advisor for the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP).
What Lily has most valued about Institute service are the opportunities for building community and the shared sense of purpose that ideally emerges from the richness brought by a diversity of experiences and perspectives.
Lily has served on the Provost’s Working Group on Graduate Tuition Models, the Committee on Nominations, the MIT Staff Emergency Hardship Fund Advisory Committee, the College of Computing’s SERC Group on Computing and Public Policy, MIT Solve’s Challenge Leadership Group, as well as ad hoc advisory groups to the President and Provost on the Suri and Fisher committees’ reports, on faculty and staff childcare solutions during Covid, and on MIT’s activities in China. Since 2015, Lily has served on the Presidential Committee for Race and Diversity and is currently a member of the Steering Team for MIT’s Five-Year Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She was part of a faculty effort across all five Schools to institute School Faculty Gender Equity Committees with a male and female co-chair in each School to review data on gender equity and formulate recommendations for policies and practices. For Task Force 2021 and Beyond, Lily co-chaired the Beyond MIT group in the Academic Workstream during Phase 1, and she is currently chairing the Refinement and Implementation Committee on Social Responsibility for Phase 2.
Outside of social science and governance innovation, Lily enjoys running (though her knees now require her to run shorter distances), practicing the piano, and hiking. Big Sur and the Aletsch Glacier are two of her favorite places to visit.