An MIT Alumni Association Publication

MIT Leaders Highlight Ambitious Goals, Nimble Strategy

  • Kathryn M. O'Neill
  • Slice of MIT

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Leading MIT is a lot like running a fast-paced research lab, MIT President Sally Kornbluth told attendees at the MIT Alumni Forum on October 17. It’s important to set ambitious goals, but also to adjust as data comes in and to be prepared to make nimble and rapid changes along the way.

“You have to think about what’s happening on campus all the time,” Kornbluth said. “You have to see how each action is reverberating across the Institute, integrate that information, and then make mid-course corrections as necessary, while making sure that the whole mission doesn’t get off-course.”

Provost Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88, Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and Vice President for Research Maria Zuber joined Kornbluth at the forum, which brought MIT’s top leaders together in a roundtable discussion moderated by MIT Alumni Association CEO Whitney T. Espich. 

This community is really driven to make a difference, so our role is to listen to them, see where their passions lie, and help them realize their goals.

This was the first alumni forum of the academic year—held online by the MIT Alumni Association—and it offered an inside look at how MIT’s leadership team is steering the Institute toward its goals, which include addressing climate change, shaping the future of artificial intelligence (AI), and—of course—providing a world-class education. “We’ve got to move rapidly,” Kornbluth said. “Many of the problems that face us are existential threats.”

All the leaders emphasized that the desire to change the world for the better is a deep current running through MIT’s community. Leading the Institute therefore centers on making that desire a reality. “This community is really driven to make a difference, so our role is to listen to them, see where their passions lie, and help them realize their goals,” Barnhart said.

Not surprisingly, MIT focuses its efforts on education and research. Nobles, who spoke to the former, stressed that her office takes a holistic approach to supporting students as they live, learn, and grow at MIT. She emphasized that students at MIT are supported by a large and collaborative community that includes faculty, staff, and also alumni, who serve as role models and mentors. “We recognize that each student comes to MIT with their own set of concerns,” Nobles said. “We give them permission to tell us what they need.”

Zuber highlighted the broad reach of MIT’s research and the ways the Institute is working to ensure real-world impact, for example by educating policymakers. Zuber, who cochairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, charged with making policy recommendations to the White House, noted that MIT experts have recently briefed both congressional leaders and the US president on AI. “We’re always looking for more opportunities to educate and inform,” she said. “We try to do it in an unbiased and objective way, so when people want good, balanced information, they come to us. And they seem to do that.”

Kornbluth, who became MIT’s 18th president on January 1, remarked that she has been truly impressed by the excellence she has found throughout the Institute. “Leading MIT is really about harnessing all that excellence,” she said.

That’s a much bigger job than running one research lab, but Kornbluth—and her colleagues—said that leading MIT also provides for vastly broader impact. “What’s addictive in administration is that it is a force multiplier,” Kornbluth said, echoing a comment by Zuber. “There [is] incredible gratification in enabling the success of other people.”

To learn more, watch the video.

The MIT Alumni Forum is a thought-provoking online series that brings alumni back to their years learning under the Great Dome. Each forum connects audiences with leading MIT experts while providing opportunities to engage with speakers and ask questions. 

Learn more about the status of women at MIT from the Association of MIT Alumnae.