Susan Hockfield, who as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launched major efforts to advanceenergy technology, manufacturing, and the life sciences, said yesterday that she will step down to allow a new leader to oversee a new multibillion-dollar fund-raising campaign.
Hockfield, who turns 61 next month, decided to leave her post as the school’s 16th president only a few weeks ago and told almost no one until yesterday, leaving even many top officials and faculty at MIT stunned. She plans to remain until a successor is chosen.
“We have set out an agenda that I would say is appropriately ambitious and very exciting, but it is a 10-year agenda,’’ she said in an interview. “Campaigns of the magnitude that we anticipate require, boy, seven years, eight years of concerted work. . . . I don’t imagine that I could commit to being in this position for another eight years.’’
She added that “no one is driving the decision besides me and how I think about MIT and MIT’s future.’’
Hockfield is the school’s first female president, as well as the first life scientist to lead it. She has retained a professorship in brain science during her presidency and said she intends to remain on MIT’s faculty after taking a sabbatical.
“Every time I’ve heard that woman speak, I’ve been inspired, every time,’’ said Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist and an outspoken advocate for women in science. “The day Susan was introduced at MIT, a lot of women were in tears. A young female junior faculty member said to me, ‘It’s not like I’ve ever wanted to be the president of MIT, but I didn’t realize until I saw her walk into this room that I could be.’ ’’
Hockfield’s leadership helped make MIT more friendly toward women, “and she did it so gracefully,’’ Hopkins added. “Nobody was beaten over the head.’’
Hockfield’s tenure has been marked by ambitious interdisciplinary initiatives, often in partnership with the US government, multinational groups, or major corporations. In the past year alone, she has launched or laid groundwork for several major projects on campus, online, and abroad.
In some respects her departure is not surprising. University presidents typically stay in their posts for about seven or eight years, and Hockfield has led MIT since 2004. It is rare for university presidents to oversee more than one major capital campaign - an exhausting, all-consuming activity - and MIT has been quietly planning its new fund-raising push for a year.
The news of Hockfield’s impending departure nonetheless caught almost all but her closest advisers off guard.
MIT provost Rafael Reif, appointed by Hockfield in 2005, said he was “extremely surprised.’’
“Frankly, this is a shocking set of circumstances,’’ Reif said.
Provosts often leave with their presidents, but Reif brushed off a question about his future. “Right now the most important thing is to make sure the transition goes smoothly,’’ he said.
And as for pursuing the presidency himself? “Am I interested? Well, I would like to have a job,’’ he said.
Outsiders who might have been expected to know about Hockfield’s plans also said they were out of the loop.
“This caught me by surprise,’’ said Lawrence Bacow, the former chancellor of MIT and recent president of Tufts University, who is one of the best-connected and most prominent local figures in higher education.
Bacow is now president-in-residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a one-year faculty position. Regarding the possibility of the MIT presidency, he said, “I am very happy doing what I am doing. I have a very full and interesting life.’’
Candidates will be chosen by a search committee of MIT professors, students, and board members. That group will pass on names to the board’s executive committee, which in turn will name finalists, with the new president to be chosen by a majority vote of the board. Presidential searches typically take six months to a year, although they can run as long as 18 months.
During Hockfield’s tenure, MIT has raised nearly $3 billion, the most successful period of fund-raising in the school’s history, despite hard economic times. The university, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2011, brought in $534 million in donations last year. Its endowment, valued at $5.9 billion when Hockfield arrived, now stands at $9.9 billion.
Hockfield’s background in life sciences has translated into an enormous interest in cross-disciplinary approaches to biological problems, most recently with the founding of a large institute for cancer research. Even her personal life has overlapped with the university’s push to advance biomedicine: Her husband, Thomas Byrne, followed her from Yale, where she was provost, to became a clinical professor of neurology in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.
But one of Hockfield’s early, initiatives was in a different scientific field: a universitywide effort to reinvent energy, focusing on green technologies and innovative policies.
In the past year, she has led a similar campaign to reinvigorate American manufacturing, co-chairing a large working group of academics, government officials, and corporate experts, and exhorting the university’s faculty and students to unite behind the cause. That group will release its major findings in a month or two, and Hockfield said she “will certainly see it through to its completion.’’
Two other recent initiatives include a Russian research hub anchored by a university that MIT is helping to shape and plans for an extensive set of free, credentialed online courses that could shake up higher education worldwide by providing a credible alternative to traditional diplomas.
Hockfield’s initiatives have not all been large-scale projects. This year, for the first time, she is serving as an academic adviser to a small group of freshmen.
People who have worked with her said she will be dearly missed.
“Susan Hockfield is a transformative leader and a great friend,’’ Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement. “Her vision and intellect has strengthened MIT’s global standing, and she has partnered with my administration on many projects to make Massachusetts the world’s incubator for innovation.’’
Drew Faust, who was appointed president of Harvard University barely a year after Hockfield began at MIT, said Hockfield has “led MIT with energy, intelligence, and great ambition for the future. She’s been a terrific colleague, and I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to work with her to increase cooperation and collaborations between Harvard and MIT during the years we’ve served our neighboring institutions.’’
Reif also praised Hockfield. But he added that initiatives launched under her presidency would continue with the enthusiastic support of faculty.
“They’ll run very well regardless,’’ he said. “Once they go, they go.’’Mary Carmichael can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.