Hockfield, who turns 61 next month, decided to leave the presidency only a few weeks ago and told almost no one until now. She said in an interview that she felt the university would be best served by a new leader as MIT embarks on a multi-billion-dollar fund-raising campaign — an activity that can become an all-consuming, exhausting task for university presidents.
“We have set out an agenda that I would say is appropriately ambitious and very exciting, but it is a ten-year agenda,” she said. “Campaigns of the magnitude that we anticipate require, boy, seven years, eight years of concerted work. And it’s not that I don’t like fund-raising — I love fund-raising, and I have to say quite modestly I’ve been kind of successful at it — but 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. I think the best legacy I can leave the institute is having increased our strength, increased our momentum, and had the reasonableness or the modesty or whatever it is to hand it off in a transition that I hope will be as smooth and as without hesitation as possible.”
In a letter to the MIT community, Hockfield explained that she had thought carefully about the timing of her departure. She said that the momentum that has built by the Institute’s progress over the last seven years makes the current moment in MIT’s history an excellent opportunity for a smooth transition. “The momentum of all that we have accomplished has tempted me to stay on to see our many efforts bear their full fruit. But to support our ambitious goals for the future, MIT has begun the crucial work of planning for a significant new fundraising campaign. A campaign on this scale will require the full focus and sustained attention of the Institute’s president over many years. I have concluded that it would be best for the Institute to begin this next chapter with new leadership.”
In her letter, Hockfield reflected on her tenure as president and her deep affection for MIT. “For now,” she wrote, “let me simply thank the faculty, students, staff, alumni and friends of MIT who have given of themselves to advance the mission of MIT. While I expect new intellectual adventures ahead, nothing will compare to the exhilaration of the world-changing accomplishments that we produced together.”
For more on Hockfield and a picture of who she was and what she planned when she arrived at MIT as the 151 year old school’s first femal president, see our 2005 Nature Medicine profile:
If Hockfield is at all intimidated by the prospect of leading a school with ten Nobel prize winners and a reputation as the world’s top technical university, she doesn’t show it. A slight woman who favors business suits and light makeup, she strides into the job with good humor and gusto.
Although her official inauguration is in May 2005, Hockfield began her work at MIT in early December. She arrives at her office, with its view of the green expanse of Killian Court and the Charles River, at about 8 a.m. each day. Her full day usually leads to an evening event and beyond.
In her first few weeks, she has lunched with the female faculty, posed with her moving boxes for the graduate student newsletter and hosted a reception at her home for MIT’s most recent Nobel Prize winner, physicist Frank Wilczek. Even before moving to Cambridge, she also attended a black-tie gala for new Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director James Levine.
Hockfield says her life as a scientist has prepared her well for her new position. Even when she ran her lab, she sought ideas and input from her entire team, a process she says she finds enormously productive as an administrator. “I do my thinking better in a group than I do on my own. And that’s the way science is done,” she says. “We don’t do science by living and working in isolation…You don’t know which idea is going to spark an insight in your mind so you have to gather lots of ideas.”