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Leadership Equations

How three alumni grew into university presidents

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.”­­

Alumni presidents include Larry Bacow.

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.”

MIT Alumni at the Helm
  • Bacow, Jackson, Maeda, and a score of other MIT-trained university leaders head a diverse group of institutions. Their number includes Joseph Aoun, PhD ’82, at Northeastern University; Jared Cohon, SM ’72, PhD ’73, Carnegie Mellon University; Julianne Malveaux, PhD ’80, Bennett College; David McClain, PhD ’74, University of Hawaii; and Lee Trover Todd Jr., SM ’70, EE ’71, PhD ’74, University of Kentucky. MIT itself has had only a handful of alumni among its 16 presidents. Paul Gray ’54, who served from 1980 to 1990, was just the third; he was preceded by Julius A. Stratton ’23, SM ’26 (1959 to 1966) and James R. Killian ’26 (1948 to 1958).

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.

“In Japan, there’s a common belief that narrowness gets you further,” says Maeda. “If you grow your mountain with breadth, the mountain doesn’t get high; when you focus, you grow a thin but high mountain. Leadership requires you to respond with multiple intelligences, so breadth is critical.”

In his worldview, training for leadership starts with the hands and goes to the brain. “Nothing’s lost in the hand-to-realization process,” he says. “Nothing is hidden.” He thinks of himself as an artist, an administrator, and a creative leader who leads through “inspiration rather than fear, experimentation and iteration versus finality, networks rather than strict hierarchies.” He says, “I live in beta, open to change.”

Maeda says he learned about leadership from Vest. “When Chuck Vest came, he walked around for a year with a notepad, listening to people. I did that,” he says. “You realize that a lot of things are not broken. So I’ve been looking at the strengths and asking, how do we get stronger?”

Doing the Right Thing

Bacow, too, draws inspiration from Vest, who taught him the importance of “doing the right thing,” he says. “It’s usually not that difficult to figure out what it is, but it’s often excruciatingly difficult to do.” He cites the way Vest successfully handled the 1991 antitrust suit that the U.S. Department of Justice brought against MIT and other top schools for sharing student financial-­aid information. Unlike other institutions, MIT did not sign a consent decree agreeing to stop the practice, because “Chuck thought that would take away financial aid from the people who needed it the most.” Ultimately, the suit was dropped.

“Really effective leaders make their leadership about the institution and not about themselves,” Bacow says. “My job–the entire administration’s job–is to enable the richest possible collaboration between students and faculty.”

Bacow plans to leave the Tufts presidency and return to teaching this fall. “My MIT undergraduate education was a fabulous preparation for what I’m doing–first of all, because it was truly a liberal education,” he says. “And MIT teaches you that nothing is so complicated that you can’t eventually come to understand it if you just plug away at it. MIT alumni are not easily intimidated.”

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