When Sally A. Kornbluth was named the next president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Thursday, only the second woman to hold the position, it wasn’t just a major accomplishment for her.
It was also an opportunity, she said, to empower other women pursuing careers in science, math, engineering, and technology fields, where women still make up just 34 percent of workers.
“Being a role model is important, not just to me, but the other women faculty at MIT,” particularly now that the president, the provost, and the chancellor will all be women, Kornbluth said at a press conference announcing her election by a vote of the MIT Corporation. “I’ve always believed that it’s a responsibility of women who have had successful careers to help the next generation come up.”
Leadership is second nature to Kornbluth, an accomplished cell biologist who served as Duke University’s provost since 2014, and was the first woman appointed to that position, according to MIT.
Kornbluth, 61, will be the university’s 18th president, starting Jan. 1, 2023. She takes over from L. Rafael Reif, who announced in February that he was resigning after 10 years leading the Institute.
In coming months, Kornbluth said, her top priority will be familiarizing herself with the MIT community and the needs of its student body and faculty.
“I just want to want to continue the excellence of MIT,” she said. “I hope when I turn my head back down the road some years from now that this will have been viewed as a period of continued excellence, but also of the discovery, innovation, and invention of things that continue to really have a huge impact on the world stage.”
The leadership change at MIT is part of an extraordinary wave of turnover among Massachusetts college presidents.
At least 12 institutions in in the state have, or will have, open presidencies in the coming year, including Harvard University, Boston University, Tufts University, Smith College, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. That mirrors a national exodus of college presidents, with many citing the strains of leading their institutions through the pandemic.
Outgoing MIT president Reif oversaw the school during a period of enormous growth, and he worked to commercialize MIT’s scientific discoveries that fueled the Kendall Square startup boom. 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.
But Reif also weathered controversy, and Kornbluth is inheriting it.
In 2019, Reif 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.
While Kornbluth said in an interview that issues like the Epstein scandal shouldn’t be ignored, she said as president she will focus more on the “fantastic” accomplishments of the institution and think up procedures to “mitigate risk going forward.”
“The really important thing is to address the issues as they emerge in a thorough, thoughtful, and expeditious way. And I really believe that MIT has done that,” she added.
Kornbluth said she wants MIT to continue to collaborate with its surrounding communities to help bring the institution’s innovations to life.
“For students, faculty, staff to see that the discoveries that they make in the lab can actually see the marketplace and have an impact is part of the special sauce of MIT,” she said. “I can only see that continuing because it’s really part of what attracts the best minds to come here.”
MIT’s announcement on Thursday follows a broad, eight-month search for its next president, which started with a list of 250 possible candidates, according to the press release.
“Dr. Sally Kornbluth is an extraordinary find for MIT,” said MIT Corporation Chair Diane B. Greene. “She will use her powerful skills to foster an environment that breaks barriers and enables every student, faculty member, and employee to contribute at their highest levels.”
Chris Peterson, an admissions officer at MIT, said he’s confident in Kornbluth.
“She’s paid attention to and quickly picked up on some of our grounding values. Part of what you’re doing [as president] is steering a big ship through uncertain waters into a kind of foggy future,” he said. “I think that’s a good sign of the attributes for someone who’s going to steer that big ship.”
Prior to her election as MIT president, Kornbluth served on the Duke faculty since 1994, first as a member of the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology in the School of Medicine and then in the Department of Biology. But she wasn’t always a biology enthusiast. At her undergraduate institute, Williams College, Kornbluth studied political science and only enrolled in a biology class to fulfill a university requirement to graduate.
Kornbluth said her professor William DeWitt, who died in 2013, sparked her interest in cell biology and changed the trajectory of her career forever. Now, Kornbluth hopes she can open doors and foster similar success for the MIT community.
“I believe this is MIT’s moment. I could not imagine a greater privilege than helping the people and my team seize its full potential,” she said.
David Spicer, a senior political science major at MIT and the president of the school’s Undergraduate Association, said members of the campus community seem excited to welcome Kornbluth as president. This makes him hopeful that the school’s largest issues, such as a lack of diversity among faculty members, will be properly addressed.
“It’s really isolating when you don’t see yourself at the front of the classroom and you only see yourself in the dining halls or on janitorial staff,” Spicer said. “What we’re wanting to see is really a collaboration with students and a student-first perspective whenever taking on some of these issues.”
He said MIT, like many universities, also fails to provide its student body with enough mental health resources at a time when students are bombarded by negative news about the pandemic, violence, and racism.
”We’re also here for more than just academics. And I think mental health plays a really pivotal role in that,” Spicer said.
Kornbluth told the Globe that under her presidency, student mental health will remain a top priority.
”It is critical that universities have a very dense network of support services for students,” Kornbluth said, such as easily accessible peer groups and mental health professionals to allow for “intervention points at every possible stage in a student’s life at MIT.”
As she looks ahead, Kornbluth’s colleagues at Duke University say she will be missed.
Mohamed Noor, interim dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University who worked alongside Kornbluth for more than a decade, said Kornbluth fostered success as provost by prioritizing the well-being of students, faculty, and staff.
“I cannot say enough good things about Sally as a leader. She’s been a joy to work with, and MIT will thrive under her leadership,” he said.