May/June 2021Vol. XXXIII No. 5

Questioning the Merits of President Reif

Dan Stroock

I am wondering whether others share my feeling that it is time to replace MIT President Leo Rafael Reif. From a purely financial perspective, Reif has done a splendid job. Under his leadership, the MIT endowment reached $18.38 billion in the fall of 2020, and so nobody can question his ability to deal with donors, no matter how unsavory some of them may be. Of course, his success has required him to occasionally reward donors in questionable ways for their generosity. One such reward being his appointment of David Koch as a lifetime member of MIT’s Board of Directors.

I do not know Reif personally. The one time that I saw him, he was pretending to listen to the concerns that the Mathematics Department had about the Schwarzman College of Computing. He deftly avoided addressing those concerns and politely excused himself as soon as he felt he had expended sufficient time on that charade. I have difficulty deciding what sort of person Reif really is. Is he the hard-nosed character who has no compunctions about breaking bread with the likes of the Koch brothers and Blackstone’s chairman Schwarzman, or is he the bleeding heart nanny who barrages the MIT community with comforting notices whenever there is a disturbing event that he thinks we are emotionally incompetent to handle on our own?

Maybe he is both, but he isn’t the creative leader who will prepare MIT for its role in the mid-21st century. At the time when MIT was searching for President Gray’s successor, a concerted effort was made to choose a president with the imagination to envision the demands that MIT would have to face if it were to maintain its standing as a foresighted leading center of science and technology. The list of finalists for the job was impressive. Even though none of those on that list ended up in the president’s office, Charles Vest, the man who did, moved the Institute in the right direction when he oversaw the creation of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. As distinguished from the creation of the Schwarzman College or the Koch Cancer Center, this was not simply an exercise in gilding a lily for which MIT’s superb Biology Department was already famous, it was a courageous and educated guess about direction in which biological sciences would go.

I believe that MIT should once again make a search for a leader with that kind of courage and imagination.