Chancellor? What’s a Chancellor? by Chancellor Eric Grimson
What does the Chancellor do and how does that affect student life?
Five months ago, I took on the position of Chancellor at MIT – a position I think of as a dream job. For the previous six years, I had been head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, which is also a totally cool job – head of the biggest (and best but don’t tell my colleagues in other departments I said that) department at MIT, and a department that is top ranked in Computer Science, in Computer Engineering, and in Electrical/Electronics/Communications Engineering. So it was not easy to give up a great job, but for me the chance to be Chancellor was impossible to decline.
Some of my colleagues are puzzled by this transition. How could someone give up heading a top academic department? Perhaps this sounds great to you, but perhaps you are wondering – “so what is a Chancellor, anyway?” The job description is actually pretty simple (okay, there is probably a formal specification somewhere in the depths of MIT’s web site chain, but here is my version). In short, the Chancellor is responsible for “all things students!” From my perspective, this is as good as it gets. I get to oversee all aspects of student life and student learning for 10,000 incredible smart young people – wow!
(As an aside, I can’t resist noting that both Cambridge, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts have academic institutions with Chancellors. MIT has me. The Chancellor at the University of Cambridge is the Duke of Edinburgh. I recently pointed out to MIT’s provost that the Duke of Edinburgh’s housing allowance was considerably more expansive than mine; however, I’m guessing that I am unlikely to see a castle built for me anytime soon!)
While big chunks of this job involve juggling lots of short-term details, much of it is focused on articulating and developing strategic directions: what should a residence-based educational experience look like in a world of YouTube, Facebook, and smart phones and other mobile devices? How does MIT balance providing support for and encouragement of innovation and entrepreneurship by students with the traditional demands and rigor of academic excellence? How can MIT provide a global experience for every student who desires one and still meet the standards of MIT excellence in academics? What should the classroom of 2020 look like? Should there be classrooms in 2020? Given the interest in and demand for interdisciplinary careers, how can MIT create degree structures that support this while satisfying disciplinary constraints?
To explore these issues, I have been on an extended “listening tour”: talking with students and student groups, with faculty, and with staff administrators; listening to alumni about their experiences and how MIT helped (or didn’t) get them to their current level of success; meeting with focus groups to examine alternatives on specific topics; and exploring best practices at other institutions. I plan to continue this process during the coming term, as I believe it is very important that MIT’s administration understand the needs and desires of previous, current and future students, and that our student body understand constraints on new initiatives and the decision process behind them. While I may not get to hear from everyone, I hope to get a broad sense of community ambition. I also hope that this gives you a sense of how MIT is wrestling with potential changes in our academic engine.