MIT President Says Her Departure Is Not Driven by Fund-Raising Fatigue

Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg News

Susan Hockfield: Leaving now is a "timing decision."
March 25, 2012

Susan Hockfield would like to set the record straight: She likes asking people for money.

When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology president announced her intention to resign last month, Ms. Hockfield invited the impression that she had fund-raising fatigue and could not stomach an approaching capital campaign. She did little to squelch that suspicion, stating in a letter that the "sustained attention" a campaign requires over many years was better left to her successor. "Many people have interpreted my letter to the community that somehow it was the fund raising that got me down," she told The Chronicle recently. "I have to tell you, that is just not the case."

"The caricature is that fund raising is somehow very heavy lifting and unpleasant," she added. "It's work. Everything I do is work of some sort, but it's actually quite enjoyable and interesting work."

If anything, Ms. Hockfield's decision to step down says something about the arc of a college presidency, in which leaders may find it necessary to stay on for a decade or more to see through projects of any substance. Ms. Hockfield, 61, said there are several long-term efforts on the horizon at the university. She cited an online-education program called MITx and a plan to refurbish many of the institution's century-old buildings.

"For me it came down to a timing decision of transition—now, or in eight or nine years from now?—and, in my own mind, I didn't think another eight or nine years would be good for MIT," she said. "And I have to tell you, I doubt it would be very good for me."

Asked if the institution's trustees would have been open to her serving just a few more years, Ms. Hockfield said, "That is not for me to say or speculate on, but they have been unwavering in their support for the agenda we have advanced."

In her seven years as president of MIT, Ms. Hockfield has never run a capital campaign. But there has been no shortage of generous donations to the university during her tenure. Indeed, the $3-billion raised during her presidency exceeds the $2.05-billion raised during the institution's last comprehensive campaign, which ended just as she was coming on board.

Ms. Hockfield, who is the first woman to serve as MIT's president, is among a cadre of female trailblazers to take the helm of elite research institutions in the past 25 years. In 2011, 22 percent of college presidents at doctoral-granting institutions were women, compared with 4 percent in 1986, the American Council on Education's latest survey found.

While Ms. Hockfield's presidency coincided with historic gains in fund raising, her tenure also overlapped with the most harrowing days of the economic crisis. In 2008, MIT's endowment fell by about 20 percent, from $9.9-billion to $7.9-billion.

In the wake of such significant endowment losses, some analysts have criticized MIT and other wealthy institutions for risky investment strategies. During Ms. Hockfield's presidency, the university moved heavily into investments in private equity, an asset class that proved particularly volatile during the economic crisis. The Tellus Institute, a nonprofit policy group, was particularly critical of the investment strategy adopted by MIT, calling the risky approach an abandonment of the "culture of stewardship" colleges have historically embraced in endowment investment.

Asked if MIT had been a good steward of its donated funds, Ms. Hockfield initially demurred, saying the subject was too complex for a brief interview. Pressed on the issue, however, she said, "Over the long term, the investment strategies that we've pursued have proved to be very productive."

By June 2011, the university's endowment had rebounded to $9.7-billion. While that's lower than the peak in 2008, the institution's total endowment nonetheless increased by 65 percent during Ms. Hockfield's presidency.

Ms. Hockfield, who is the first scientist to lead MIT, plans to return to the faculty when her successor takes office.