Leading in tough times

President Emerita Susan Hockfield discusses the leadership trials she faced as MIT’s 16th president

October 10, 2014

MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield speaks with students Oct. 2

MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield speaks with students Oct. 2

The recession of 2008-2009 proved to be a leadership hurdle that MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield conquered with resilience, creativity, and planning that began as soon as soon as she became president in 2004.

Speaking at the first Dean’s Innovative Leader Series talk of the academic year, Hockfield, who was president until 2012, discussed the challenges and successes that came with being MIT’s 16th president. The talk, held Oct. 2 on campus, was conducted as an interview with MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein.

Hockfield couldn’t have predicted the recession that rocked the United States and hit many research universities hard in the fall of 2008. But when she arrived several years earlier, she quickly worked to build a team to address MIT’s $50 million structural deficit, a move that helped place the Institute on firmer footing when the financial crisis hit.

“When I started at MIT, we had a structural deficit … and we needed to fix it, because it’s unsustainable, but more importantly, if you have an operating deficit … you are always apologizing for the past and looking backward,” Hockfield said.

Hockfield, together with now president, then Provost L. Rafael Reif, Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz, SM ’01, who was vice president for finance at the time, and Theresa M. Stone, SM ’76, who was then executive vice president and treasurer, worked hard to engage the community and balance the budget.

“We had the sense that this was the way to manage a crisis,” she said. “Let’s bring everyone in and solve it together.”

As soon as the budget was balanced, the 2008 recession hit. But Hockfield noted there were ways in which MIT was better poised to weather a recession than some of its peers. “The schools we compare ourselves to have larger endowments than MIT,” she said. “While the recession hit all of our sources of revenue … the value of our endowment dropped very, very seriously. So because MIT uses less of an endowment to support our total revenue source, we were in a little bit of a better position.”

Hockfield, who is also a professor of neuroscience, said she was initially a reluctant leader. She was on the faculty of the Yale School of Medicine when she was tapped to be dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1998. In 2003, she was named the university’s provost.

“I did not imagine for an instant that any kind of academic leadership would be in my career plan. I was so delighted and blessed to discover scientific research as my passion and to be able to do it in great places. Academic leadership is a bit of any oxymoron. Academics don’t think they need leaders, and I was certainly in that camp,” she recalled.

Her time in the administration at Yale helped Hockfield understand how leaders must rely on the people around them, she said. But when the MIT Corporation elected her Institute president in 2004, Hockfield said she hadn’t anticipated what a significant and public role it would be.

“You can’t say, ‘Oh no … I’m not going to be the university’s icon. I’m just going to be me.’ I can tell you, there is no opportunity to ‘be me’ when you are president of a university. Your job is to be leader of the university and there are a lot of roles you take on,” she said.

When she joined the Institute, Hockfield aimed to learn as much as she could in a short amount of time. One of her former colleagues at Yale had advised her that as a newcomer, she was allowed to use the phrase, “I’m new” to her advantage.

“Say it as often as you can,” she said. “‘I’m new … tell me about your problem.’ People would give me so much more information, because they assumed I didn’t know as much.”

That same colleague also warned her about what he termed “the dead cat” syndrome. Hockfield explained: “Someone enters your office with her dead cat and she says, ‘Oh, your awful predecessor killed my cat, and I would like you to revive it.’ He said, ‘Don’t revive any dead cats,’” she said, to audience laughter.

Hockfield also recalled the reaction when she was named MIT’s first female president—she received poignant letters from women all over the world—but noted that her background as a biologist, rather than an engineer, seemed more “disruptive” to the community than her gender.

“MIT does extraordinary biology, and has since the 1950s,” Hockfield said. “One of the things I believe MIT does uniquely well is working at the convergence of biology with engineering and physical sciences.”