Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif announced Thursday that he will resign at the end of 2022 after more than a decade leading the institution.
The son of Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis to Venezuela, Reif oversaw the institution during a period of tremendous growth, and his work to further commercialize MIT’s scientific discoveries added to the startup boom that has turned Kendall Square into one of the nation’s hottest business districts.
Reif, 71, will take a sabbatical and then return as a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, according to MIT.
“I have loved this community from the day I interviewed, and it has provided opportunities I never dared to dream of when I first set out to be an engineer,” Reif wrote in a letter to the MIT community. “I will always be grateful for the pleasure and privilege of working with such a tremendous range of people whose talents, judgment, and character I respect and admire.”
Reif said his plan to stay through December will allow the MIT Corporation, the school’s governing body, to conduct a search and smooth the transition to the next president.
Reif became the 17th president of MIT in 2012 after serving for seven years as provost. He first joined the faculty in 1980 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering.
He was a leading national voice on higher education and funding for research, consulting behind the scenes with leaders in Washington, D.C.
He was also a staunch advocate for diversity in higher education. During the Trump administration, Reif defended the institution’s international students and researchers in the face of new federal policies that impacted immigrants and international travel. He was also an outspoken advocate for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, joining with other institutions in 2017 to fight against it in federal court.
In January 2021, when mechanical engineering professor Gang Chen was arrested on allegations of federal grant fraud, MIT paid for his legal expenses. The charges were later dismissed.
Reif led the campus through unexpected challenges and tragedy. He dedicated a memorial to MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was shot and killed by the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013, and held a memorial for him on campus attended by then-vice president Joe Biden. The campus worked to improve its mental health services after four student suicides in the span of a year in 2014 and 2015. Mental health has again been a focus during the pandemic, the school said.
But Reif has also weathered a major controversy.
In 2019 he acknowledged that he signed a 2012 letter to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, thanking him for a donation to a professor at the school. Reif also acknowledged that senior members of his administration approved Epstein’s gifts to the MIT Media Lab even after Epstein had been convicted of a sex offense and served time in jail. The lab’s director, Joi Ito, resigned.
“I understand that I have let you down and damaged your trust in me and that our actions have injured both the institute’s reputation and the fabric of our community,” Reif told faculty at a meeting held in the wake of the scandal. “This moment of crisis must be the moment of reckoning — and a turn towards real accountability.”
After growing up in Venezuela, Reif came to the United States to earn his doctorate at Stanford University. His parents fled Eastern Europe in advance of the Nazis’ rise to power, according to MIT.
Venture capitalist Noubar Afeyan, who earned his PhD at MIT and served until last year on the MIT Corporation, said Reif was instrumental in leading the institution to convert its science into innovation, especially in the areas of life sciences, energy, materials, and machine learning and artificial intelligence.
“I’m saying these things because I can see them,” said Afeyan, chief executive of Flagship Pioneering, which invests in life sciences startups and is based in Kendall Square.
Afeyan said Reif also established MIT globally as an innovator and cemented its reputation worldwide via the edX program he pioneered, which allowed students around the world to take free online courses from MIT and Harvard. The platform was recently sold to online technology company 2U.
Afeyan said the next president of MIT will have to guide a leading generator of tech innovation and education in addressing the dual crises of human and planetary health. That person should be able to make advancements at the intersection of science and medicine.
“What we have experienced the past two years is that we are far, far from having the solutions we need to be able to live lives free of disease and suffering,” he said.
MIT also should be a leader in addressing climate change, he said, building on the pioneering work the school has already done in that field. Last year MIT scientists had a number of key breakthroughs in an ambitious effort to harness nuclear fusion to create inexpensive, unlimited clean electricity.
Afeyan said that Reif’s leadership transcended science and technology, and that he led also with his heart, something he said will be imperative for its next leader as well.
“What we need to do is make sure that we have leadership that can embody what the soul of MIT is all about,” Afeyan said.
Architecture professor Caroline Jones said Reif embraced the problems he encountered during his tenure, even on a personal level, and wanted to make things right.
“What I felt was special about Rafael as president was his humanity,” said Jones, who is also an associate dean. “He understood when there were problems that couldn’t be solved by technology.”
And Reif‘s commitment to diversity, she said, should also be a key focus of MIT’s next leader. His successor should also be committed to reducing MIT’s carbon footprint and have an appreciation for the arts, as well.
“They don’t have to be an artist or a novelist or a poet or a historian or a curator, but they have to know how important those things are,” Jones said.
As a member of the MIT Corporation’s executive committee, Nancy Andrews said she participated in many long phone calls with Reif on nights and weekends, as he carefully thought through the potential implications of a decision and sought advice from a wide range of people.
“He is the type of leader who doesn’t just make up his mind but is very consultative,” she said.
Andrews said she hopes his successor will continue Reif’s support for The Engine, which invests in projects that tackle some of the world’s most challenging problems, where the rate of success is low but the potential payoff is enormous.
“I think he has left the institution in a very good place,” she said. “He is going to be very hard to follow.”