On a muggy Saturday morning last summer, the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood was humming with people. The Boston Symphony Orchestra followed conductor James Levine through a contemporary overture commissioned for his debut season in Boston. Several minutes into the piece, Levine, dressed as casually as his picnicking audience in a polo shirt and slacks, swiveled to face the crowd and beckoned to an audience member. An energetic gray-haired man darted toward the stage from his seat in the cordoned-off front section. While he and Levine carried on an emphatic but inaudible discussion, a crescendo of murmurs rose from the audience. Whispers of “Who is that?” met the knowing reply, “That’s John Harbison – the composer.”
John Harbison, the composer of Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera, the piece being rehearsed that Saturday morning, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his cantata The Flight into Egypt. He’s a conductor, a performer, and a sometime poet who writes the librettos for his operas. John Harbison is also an Institute Professor at MIT.
There are only 15 Institute Professors, and they are regarded as the very best among an already impressive crowd. The highest honor awarded to MIT faculty, appointment as an Institute Professor is at once an acknowledgment of extraordinary leadership, accomplishment, and service and an invitation to follow intellectual pursuits without the hindrances of departmental responsibilities. Institute Professors report directly to the provost, rather than to a department head, and they have no obligation to teach, which opens the door to projects and political appointments that would otherwise not be feasible.
The process of selecting a new Institute Professor is arduous, thorough, and conducted entirely behind closed doors. It begins with a nomination from fellow faculty members, which is then evaluated by an ad hoc committee appointed by the chair of the faculty and the president, comprising faculty members from various departments and several people from outside MIT. The case is ultimately presented to the executive committee of the MIT Corporation for approval. Only when the process is complete – and only if the appointment succeeds – is the candidate even informed that he or she was nominated.
The title of Institute Professor is unique in that it’s not part of the normal promotion sequence of assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor. “It’s not the aspiration of everybody,” says Rafael Bras ‘72, SM ‘74, ScD ‘75, who has participated in the Institute Professor selection process in his capacity as chair of the faculty. “It is an honor and a distinction that your peers give you in recognition of what is, even among that group, extraordinary accomplishment.”
The current group of Institute Professors includes three Nobel laureates, four Heinz Award recipients, a former director of the CIA, and a former secretary of the air force. They are an invaluable resource for MIT, and the president makes good use of their expertise at biannual lunches during which she can ask their advice on anything from national politics to university policy. “We have a tremendous group of people who have been in Washington and who have had major administrative positions at MIT,” says Joel Moses, PhD ‘67, an Institute Professor in electrical engineering and computer science, “and we enjoy giving advice.”