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MIT alumni who lead universities sometimes arrive at that level unintentionally. When ­Lawrence Bacow ‘72 was invited to become president of Tufts University in 2001, he was not seeking such a job and didn’t feel that he quite looked the part. “I had a different image of a university president–someone more formal, a deep voice, gray hair, taller than I am,” admits Bacow, a lawyer, economist, and erstwhile MIT chancellor. But he took his wife’s advice: “Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.”­­

Bacow had been at MIT 27 years when that call came. He had studied economics at MIT and then earned a JD, a master’s in public policy, and a PhD in government from Harvard. He had loved teaching and research, but he agreed to take on administrative roles at the behest of Charles Vest, then MIT’s president. Presidential search committees began to call when he became chancellor in 1998. Finally, he said yes to Tufts. The opportunity to shape an exciting educational institution and the appeal of leadership won out.

leadership lessons on DC sidewalks

Shirley Ann Jackson ‘68, PhD ‘73, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) since 1999 and former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, began developing leadership skills by organizing fellow neighborhood kids to clean the sidewalks in Washington, DC. When she found herself facing discrimination as an African-American woman at MIT, she helped form a black student union–which “taught me to deal with adversity and to stay focused,” she says. Jackson also credits theoretical physics with honing her leadership skills: “It enabled me to deal with complexity, to see the whole picture and figure out pathways to solutions.”

At RPI, she has led the recently concluded Rensselaer Plan, a 10-year campaign that expanded the faculty, produced new buildings and research centers, and upgraded student residences. The campaign raised $400 million more than its $1 billion goal.

“I did not set out to be a university president,” says Jackson, who was the first African-American woman to earn a doctoral degree from MIT, to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and to head a top-50 national research university. “I set out to have a good career in my chosen field–to work hard, be excellent at it, and make a difference in people’s lives. You prepare yourself, and when a window in time opens, you step through it.”

Living in Beta

John Maeda ‘89, SM ‘89, found his way into academic leadership through technical and creative fields. A digital artist, graphic designer, and computer scientist, he received the 2001 National Design Award and was named one of the 21st century’s most influential people by Esquire in 2008­. Wishing to avoid a narrow, highly focused approach, Maeda studied electrical engineering at MIT, segued to design science by earning a PhD at Japan’s University of Tsukuba Institute of Art and Design, and then moved to business, earning an MBA at Arizona State. He returned to teach at the MIT Media Lab in 1996 before becoming president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2008.

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