July 1 marks the start of R. Erich Caulfield’s year as president of the MIT Alumni Association. While earning his Course 6 degrees, Caulfield was elected president of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), and he later served on the MIT Corporation. Now founder and president of the Caulfield Consulting Group in New Orleans, he’s not far from where he grew up in southern Louisiana. Caulfield has also been a White House fellow and served as New Orleans team lead for the Obama White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative and chief policy advisor to Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
What inspired your MIT involvement?
My earliest involvement was with the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and later the GSC, and both were important sources of community while I was on campus. The BGSA and GSC leadership helped make my experience amazing, and I wanted to help create that for other students.
Once I got involved in the Alumni Association, I had a new perspective. When you start to see all the exciting things MIT alumni are doing all over the world, you see how a little bit of coordination and intentionality could help unlock even more of the potential within our community, and make an even bigger difference—on a global scale.
An example of another inspiration happened this past fall, when Black Alumni of MIT (BAMIT) hosted a capstone event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Black Students’ Union (BSU) and I had the privilege of moderating one of the sessions. There were close to 200 people there, some who hadn’t engaged with MIT since they graduated. Just seeing the contentment in the faces of my fellow alums, reconnecting with MIT and with each other, was tremendously powerful.
What can MIT alumni accomplish collectively in the world?
Every fall, I’m invited to campus to give a lecture for a seminar called Understanding MIT, and something I try to impress upon the students is that you can run as fast as you can in almost any direction you want to go, and MIT will support you.
One direction in which we need more technically trained MIT folks to go is into government. With the rate at which technology is accelerating, having people in government with a fundamental understanding of science and technology and their potential effects on society is absolutely essential. Having more alumni engaged in public service is one way we can have a huge impact.
At the end of your year as president, what do you hope to have accomplished?
I first want to emphasize that a lot of what we will be able to accomplish comes from the good decisions and investments made by MITAA presidents, boards, and staff over the last several years. I can’t think of a better time to be a part of the Alumni Association than right now.
Graduate alumni are going to be a focus this year. Among undergraduate alumni there’s a commonality of experience that motivates them to reconnect with MIT, whereas for some graduate alums we find the draw initially may be more around professional and enrichment opportunities. So there will be some very exciting new programming for graduate alums this year.
Another focus will be how the Alumni Association can be a better resource for current students and create a continuum of engagement that greets them when they first set foot on campus, embraces them when they walk off the Commencement stage, and empowers them for life.
The last major focus will be on building infrastructure that will allow the Alumni Association to engage and inspire the global MIT community on a much broader scale—furthering our mission of making a better world.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.