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MIT News: Q&A

Chihuahuas, constellations, and climate change

Sally Kornbluth reflects on her first few months as MIT’s 18th president.

Sally Kornbluth
Gretchen Ertl

Years ago, one of the drivers of the No. 1 bus used to pull up at 77 Mass. Ave. and call out, “MIT: where wonders never cease!” What’s it like to be a scientist stepping into the role of leading this place of wonder?

MIT hires really the best people in the world. My first few days here, I had a promotion and tenure case marathon. And every single person that came through was mind blowing and had multiple national awards or had done just incredible, groundbreaking work. That was my first real introduction to this dense firmament of stars here at MIT. But the problem is, sometimes it’s hard to see the constellations. So part of the challenge is how you organize all of this into something that is greater than the sum of the parts.

President Reif gave you a wool hat and mittens with #18 on them when he welcomed you to MIT in November. What convinced you to leave Duke after nearly three decades and take on Cambridge winters to lead MIT?

I was not looking to be president anywhere. I really, really, really wasn’t. I think any talented provost in the United States at this point has had many approaches to be president. But I had said no to pretty much any place that came to talk to me. I looked at one other opportunity but decided to stay in my role at Duke. And I told my boss, the president at Duke, that I was done looking. I was perfectly happy where I was. Then someone came and said, “What about MIT?” I was like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” There were just too many exciting things here not to take it. And the possibility of really impacting the world in a serious way—not a lot of people have that opportunity in their lifetime.

What did you learn about leadership from your own mentors? 

For better or worse, the leader sets the tone. Even at a place as vast as MIT, there is some opportunity to influence that. My graduate advisor, Hidesaburo Hanafusa, was a wonderful biologist and a wonderful man and a man of very few words. We had a lab of 25 people, which is a pretty big group. If you put those same 25 people together randomly, they would not necessarily have gotten along. But it was so clear that he would not tolerate nonsense—he expected everybody to get along, and that set the tone. I remember one morning there was some leak in a pipe, and there’s Saburo mopping the floor. I’m like, “What are you doing?” He goes, “Well, it was leaking.” It was just “Roll up your sleeves—everybody’s part of the team.” There’s a lot of that here already, but it’s important to make everybody feel like their piece is valued.

You made diversifying the faculty and creating a welcoming community a priority at Duke. Why are both important?

Sally Kornbluth’s favorite things (so far) about living in 02139

  • Good food at every turn

    The view of sailboats and rowers on the Charles

    The buzz of students 24/7

    The fact that students will soon be building a roller-coaster a block from Gray House

    Running into academic heroes on a daily basis

Underrepresented students and faculty are going to have many opportunities, and you want folks to be able to see themselves in a place, feel welcome, feel they belong. Creating that community is important because the best institutions are going to tap into the fullest range of human talent. Why would we restrict ourselves to one group or another? Look at the changing demographics of this country. Look at our undergraduate population. These are the future faculty. And so how do we create an environment where people feel they want to be? One of the roles MIT can play is creating a really robust pipeline not only for MIT but for the professoriate nationally. We want inclusive excellence, meaning that we always want the very best and we always want to hire for excellence. If you really tap into the full range of talent, diversification will happen.

What’s it been like to move to Cambridge and live on campus?

Coming into Gray House—that’s been kind of unbelievable. The folks who work in the house, Erica Voigt and Renie Pavilon, they’re just fantastic. Everyone’s been super helpful. But because it was built as a place to hold institutional events, the layout of Gray House is a little peculiar: I haven’t lived someplace where my kitchen’s on the first floor, my bedroom’s on the second floor, my living room’s on the third floor. So forget it if you want a snack! For the first month, I kept getting lost.  

The food around here is great. I’ve really enjoyed starting to get to know the restaurants. I am very hesitant to drive here. I can see myself getting stuck in a rotary. So there’s gonna be a lot of Uber, taking the T, and walking in my future. 

How have your dogs acclimated to the move?

Pico (a Chihuahua mix) and Zeus (a collie-shepherd mix) are like the classic buddy movie, and the little one is totally in charge. They’re enjoying learning the house and running all over the place. And it’s giving my husband and me a chance to walk around, because they have to be walked. 

face of Pico
face of Zeus

Presidential pooches: Pico and Zeus “are like the classic buddy movie, and the little one is totally in charge.”

Has the numbering system of MIT’s buildings started to make sense to you yet?

No! The course numbering and the building numbering both seem completely random to me. I know there is a logic behind it, but the thing is that people are always taking me everywhere. I just kind of appear in buildings, and I don’t really have a very good understanding of how they’re connected and even what number building I’m in at any given time. 

You’re coming in unfettered by preconceived notions of “this is how we do it at MIT.” What are your first impressions? 

So first of all, I think MIT has a shiny reputation, which is well deserved. But I don’t think I understood the depth of the bench here in terms of really brilliant work—in all domains. 

There are a couple of things that strike me. MIT is extremely decentralized—and that has pluses and minuses. The decentralization really does allow a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship. But it’s hard to think about how you elevate the larger Institute-wide initiatives. That’s one thing.

Another thing is the governance structure is fairly flat, so it’s difficult in an administrative role to figure out how you harness the broad expertise. For instance, if you want to identify good ideas or you want to bring in new ideas, how do you get the full buy-in in a place that has such a decentralized structure?

“MIT has a shiny reputation, which is well deserved. But I don’t think I understood the depth of the bench here in terms of really brilliant work—in all domains.”

I’m starting to think about how we elevate things like climate change, which arguably is the biggest problem of our time. MIT has at least 20% of the Institute, probably more, doing work that touches on climate change. How do you look at that landscape and, without dampening the individual innovative spirit, harness that to be something bigger than any of the individual PIs or groups that are working on it? If you think about asking some very big questions, how do you get people organized around solving them? I’m consulting a lot of people and trying to think about how to do that. 

Has anything surprised you about the Institute?

The sheer volume of things going on has surprised me. It will take a lot longer than my six-month listening tour to figure out what’s going on here.

What have you been hearing so far on your listening tour? Any common themes?

The impacts of decentralization really came from the listening tour. And everyone’s trying to reestablish community coming out of the pandemic. That’s not unique to MIT, but I think a decentralized culture makes it more difficult. 

How you really build strong community has been something that has been broached to me in almost every meeting: people want to feel “One MIT.” Everyone feels part of this incredible mission that is predicated on both the history and the promise of MIT doing work that could positively impact society. And I think everybody feels that pride in MIT and wants to contribute. How you create the community where everyone values all of those contributions—that’s going to be really important for the future of MIT. 

And how you really solidify and elevate trust between the administration and the broader community—that’s also really important, and I’ve heard that in every single meeting I’ve been to. Bottom line: people want to feel like one community. The decentralization, the intellectual silos, and also the dispersion of the community during the pandemic—the sort of centrifugal forces—have been strong. And I think people want to be pulled back into a stronger, all-MIT community.

Are you ready to begin talking about your priorities?

I’m starting to think about things like how we drive forward the climate change effort. I’m really interested in the juncture between life sciences and engineering here, which I think is really a sweet spot at MIT. I’m thinking about AI and how it impacts everything, including the social consequences of generative AI. I think MIT can be a leader in all of these areas. I’m also thinking about how we truly utilize the College of Computing to weave computing into all aspects of our education. I’m hoping that with some of these priorities, we can hit the ground running when we start the fall semester. 

This conversation, which took place in March, was edited for clarity and length.

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