Kornbluth sets collaborative agenda for MIT

At formal inauguration, former Duke provost promises new interdisciplinary push, plus sees room to protect climate while keeping Koch funding

五月 3, 2023
Climate activists from the group Extinction Rebellion in Massachusetts as the article describes how it plans to improve climate change
Source: Getty

Sally Kornbluth formally took the presidency of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a promise to substantially improve MIT’s ability to focus its combined research talents on tackling leading global challenges including climate change.

Dr Kornbluth, a cell biologist and former provost at Duke University, arrived at MIT in January to replace L. Rafael Reif, who left after a 10-year term.

In an interview just ahead of an inaugural assembly that filled Killian Court with academic regalia, Dr Kornbluth said her 162-year-old institution remains an elite research powerhouse but nevertheless struggles, along with the rest of academia, to deliver the type of coordinated response needed against so many major societal threats.

The answer, she told Times Higher Education, will require MIT to persist in trying to build some kind of new operational structure that will help drive the quality and quantity of in-depth conversations across disciplines that so many US campuses struggle to cultivate.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a new school,” she said, “but I think it’s going to be some kind of superordinate organisation that allows a fertile environment for people to meet, and to interact, and honestly just to select a number of really big thorny problems in that space that MIT can put a flag in the ground and say we are going to solve.”

Dr Kornbluth is MIT’s second female president, and she takes office with women filling other top posts including those of provost, chancellor, dean of science, and chair of the MIT Corporation.

She also arrives with MIT having endured extended criticism in recent years of its handling of donor influence, highlighted by its decades-long ties to the autocratic leaders of Saudi Arabia, its prolonged embrace of Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who took his own life while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges, and its deep institutional identification with oil and gas billionaires David and Charles Koch.

The Epstein saga in particular led MIT to create a new formal committee process for vetting controversial donors, which Dr Kornbluth described to THE as having put MIT “in a good place” on the matter.

Yet even as Dr Kornbluth named climate change the challenge most urgent for MIT’s desired new collaborative muscle to solve – “honestly we are under time pressure”, she said, “and that means that you have to have new ways to expedite things, and you can’t just wait for the fullness of time” – the president avoided allowing any regrets about the Kochs. The brothers – especially David, who died in 2019 – have given their alma mater MIT more than $100 million (£80 million), much of it for cancer-related research, while they and their massive petroleum-products company have spent even more than that to become one of the biggest funders of climate change denial.

“This really preceded me,” Dr Kornbluth said of the Koch donations. “I will say, though, that – and I’m not saying I would have made any other decision at all – but Koch support, in really critical ways, of cancer research, is really neither here nor there with respect to his [David Koch’s] work on, his opinion on, climate.”

Dr Kornbluth then acknowledged that deaths tied to fossil-fuel emissions – estimated at nearly a fifth of the global total worldwide, many due to cancers – may be worth assessing in donor evaluations. “I’m not saying that they don’t cross-fertilise,” she said. “I’m just saying that I am not going to close my mind, upfront, without the kind of investigation that, as I mentioned, our gifts acceptance committee is considering.”

MIT in recent years also played a leading role for US higher education in confronting a Trump-era policy of prosecuting academics over research ties to China, after one of the institution’s Chinese-born faculty, Gang Chen, was arrested and faced a year under federal indictment before his criminal charges were dropped.

Dr Kornbluth said she is generally satisfied with how the Biden administration has been handling the overall matter of research relations with China. “There’s a lot of conversation that still needs to happen,” Dr Kornbluth said. But, she added, “we understand the need to balance national security, and I think the current administration is in a good dialogue on that.”




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