Sally A. Kornbluth, a cell biologist whose eight-year tenure as Duke University’s provost has earned her a reputation as a brilliant administrator, a creative problem-solver, and a leading advocate of academic excellence, becomes MIT’s 18th president on January 1, succeeding L. Rafael Reif, who is returning to the faculty after 10 years leading the Institute.
“I believe MIT is uniquely poised to harness the power of science and technology, all along the continuum from fundamental science to engineering innovations for society, and deeply enriched by the wisdom and inventive power of the humanities, the arts, the social sciences, management, and design,” Kornbluth said in a campus event held in October to welcome her to the community.
She added: “From climate change to pandemic disease to the ethical use of AI, this is a moment when humanity faces huge global problems—problems that urgently demand the attention of the world’s most skillful minds and hands. In short, I believe this is your moment—and I couldn’t imagine a greater privilege than helping all of you seize its full potential.”
Kornbluth’s selection is the culmination of an eight-month process run by a 20-person search committee, led by MIT Corporation life member John W. Jarve ’78, SM ’79, that considered approximately 250 potential candidates. Diane Greene, chair of the Corporation, called Kornbluth “the ideal 18th president of MIT” and described the qualities that shaped the committee’s decision.
“Sally Kornbluth is an exceptional administrator,” Greene said. “She’s widely respected for her ability to create an environment that breaks barriers and enables every student, faculty, and staff member to contribute at their highest level. She’s known for her judgment, plain-spokenness, and integrity.”
“Although she is new to MIT, Sally Kornbluth is a scholar who seems cut from our own cloth,” Lily L. Tsai, the Ford Professor of Political Science and chair of the MIT faculty, who also served on the search committee, said when the appointment was announced. “She is a bold leader with exceptional judgment; an active listener who seeks all viewpoints with a genuinely open-minded approach; a principled, high-integrity individual who is trusted by her community; and a person with experience handling crises with wisdom and calm.”
Kornbluth, 61, who grew up in New Jersey with a father who was an accountant and a mother who was an opera singer, studied political science as an undergraduate at Williams College, giving little thought to science until she took a course on human biology and social issues to fulfill a distribution requirement. She went on to earn a second BA, in genetics, from Cambridge University and a PhD in molecular oncology from Rockefeller University.
In 1994, she joined the faculty at Duke, where she focused on studying the biological signals that tell a cell to start dividing or to self-destruct—processes that are key to understanding cancer as well as various degenerative disorders. Her research has helped show how cancer cells evade programmed death, or apoptosis, and how metabolism regulates the cell death process; her work has also clarified the role of apoptosis in regulating the duration of female fertility in vertebrates.
As Duke’s first female provost, a position she assumed in 2014, Kornbluth oversaw teaching, research, and intellectual priorities across 10 schools and six institutes. She prioritized investments to fortify Duke’s faculty, strengthened its leadership in interdisciplinary scholarship and education, and pursued innovations in undergraduate education. She guided the development of a strategic plan that engaged faculty from across the university to advance its educational and research mission.
She also spearheaded a concerted effort to cultivate greater strength in science and engineering at Duke, complementing its longstanding prominence in the humanities and social sciences. That effort has led to the addition in recent years of more than two dozen faculty members in the sciences and engineering, with particular focus on quantum computing, data science, materials science, and biological resilience.
Simultaneously, Kornbluth led efforts to develop a pipeline of faculty from underrepresented groups, aiming to make Duke more diverse and inclusive. She created an Office for Faculty Advancement that helped increase the number of Black faculty members from 67 in 2017 to more than 100 today, and provided seed money for projects aimed at creating a more inclusive environment for underrepresented faculty as well as funding scholarly projects on race and social equity.
Her team sought opportunities to make Duke more accessible and affordable, including new scholarships for first-generation students and increases in need-based financial aid. During her tenure, Duke also revamped its residential system to more closely link living and learning and launched university-wide courses on what she calls “essential” topics such as race and climate change.
At the October event announcing Kornbluth’s appointment, Reif received a standing ovation before welcoming her to what he called “the best job in the world” with a distinctive selection of gifts: an MIT winter cap, scarf, and pair of gloves and a glass pumpkin made in MIT’s Glass Lab—which, as Reif noted to laughs from the audience, was a Duke-appropriate dark blue. The gift “expresses the joy this community takes in making things, hands-on, and that also embodies MIT’s signature spirit of playful creativity,” he said. “It could be described as a charming example of materials science in action.”
In her own remarks, Kornbluth paid tribute to “the most transformative teacher of my life,” Bill DeWitt, a Williams biology professor who helped her become fascinated with the functioning of cells.
“For all of you who are teachers, from graduate students to senior faculty, never underestimate your impact,” she said. “It’s amazing what can blossom when you sow the seeds of curiosity and inspiration.”
She also thanked her husband, Daniel Lew, the James B. Duke Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at the Duke School of Medicine, whom she called “a superb scientist and always my greatest constructive critic and sounding board.” (Their son, Alex, is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and their daughter, Joey, is a medical student at the University of California at San Francisco.)
With her own intellectual trajectory in mind, Kornbluth emphasized that her presidency will be firmly centered on what MIT can accomplish.
“Here, as your president-elect, I see the most important thing of all: this remarkable creative community,” she said.
“I have really loved my life and my many roles at Duke. I had lots of reasons to stay, and no reason pushing me to leave. Which tells you the strength of the pull I felt, drawing me to MIT,” she added. “I’ve always felt that my greatest professional strength and pleasure are in enabling the success of other people. Who would not want to do that for the best of the best here at MIT?”
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