Diane B. Greene SM ’78 elected as incoming Chair of the MIT Corporation

Technologist, entrepreneur, sailor will succeed Chairman Millard

Diane B. Greene SM ’78 has been elected as Chair of the MIT Corporation and will assume leadership Oct. 2. 

Greene is the first woman elected to chair the MIT Corporation, an organization of 78 members from academia and industry who serve as MIT’s board of trustees. She succeeds Robert B. Millard ’73, who has served as Chairman since 2014. She studied naval architecture at MIT and later pivoted to a career in the tech industry, where her experience includes serving as CEO of Google Cloud and as co-founder of VMware and Bebop Technologies. 

In an interview with The Tech, Greene discussed her experience as it informs her approach to supporting MIT’s response to global change. “It’s a privilege to be around the people [at MIT]. One of the things I’ve always loved in building companies is the culture. And so having this opportunity, with the Corporation, to enhance and maintain MIT’s culture is important — it’s already a great culture — and the COVID crisis is making us all appreciate it,” she said.

On her first exploration of MIT’s campus, Greene found herself in Strobe Alley in front of the famous high-speed bullet-through-apple and milk drop photographs. A man saw her admiring the photographs, “and asked me if I was interested in them. I said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re super interesting.’”

In response, the man gestured to his lab. “Well, come on in!” 

That man was Harold “Doc” Edgerton ’31, MIT professor of electrical engineering and inventor of high-speed stroboscopic photography. Greene toured his lab and peppered him with questions. “It was like I’d gone through some kind of magic door where there were these people who were super inventive and smart and engaged. I still feel that way about MIT. It’s just this amazing group of people.”

Responding to the pandemic

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students, faculty, and staff will be learning and working remotely when classes start in September.

“A big part of the MIT experience is on campus with professors and your fellow students and in the labs,” Greene said. “Clearly, it’s a huge loss for the students to not be able to be together and in labs and with faculty. The first step is to just acknowledge that we have to make the best of a less than perfect situation.”

To adapt the Institute to the pandemic, Greene emphasized that the Corporation will focus on “supporting the unbelievably hard work going on among the administration and faculty to offer everything remotely.”

As director emerita of Khan Academy, Greene has experience with online education. Soon after learning of her election as Chair, she visited MIT Information Systems and Technology’s website to investigate tools for students to collaborate remotely. 

“There are so many different ways to communicate, except that you can’t all be in a room together. So what’s going to be the substitute?” Greene asked. She added, “I think it’s going to be an interesting year in terms of developing alternative suites that can approximate the wonderfulness of all being together.”

Though “it’s easy to become despondent at times” during the pandemic, Greene advises students to “remember what excites you… and whenever possible, get out to nature.”

An experienced sailor, Greene enjoys holding meetings outdoors. “I learned long ago to do off-sites with my team on the water because they see me as very happy there. And I like to do a lot of fun team building things, like scavenger hunts.” 

Smiling, she added, “I’m not sure I’ll be doing that with the Corporation.”

Climate change

Greene emphasized the role of resource sustainability and innovation in addressing climate change. 

“Back when MIT was founded in 1861, resources were considered to be limitless… now we have all this technology and a much more expansive understanding of science and we want to use that to solve today’s problems,” she said. 

“When we make new discoveries, when we design a new material, when we produce a new algorithm,” we should consider “the implications and the sustainability and what it means for human dignity, to incorporate that in as we do it,” Greene said.

Following the 2014 Campus Conversation on Climate Change and resulting committee report, President L. Rafael Reif and four senior administrators released A Plan for Action on Climate Change in 2015. Among other steps, the plan outlined decisions to expand climate research, reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions, and not divest from fossil fuels. In July, President Reif announced the Climate Grand Challenges research effort, through which the Institute will fund new multi-disciplinary MIT research on climate change mitigation.

Greene highlighted the importance of the Corporation supporting MIT administration and faculty in their climate aims. “Any discussion I have with a member of the board of trustees mentions climate change, and, you know, we’ve really got to make sure MIT can work on it, in all the ways they need to.”

Diversity and inclusion

Greene values the role of leaders in providing representation and shifting cultures, in ways large and small.   

“I think the last year has really heightened everyone’s awareness around the importance of culture and inclusivity,” said Greene. “The Corporation bringing in a female Chair is a first and is in sync with everybody’s awareness.” In fact, her election precipitated the changing of the title for the head of the MIT Corporation from “Chairman” to “Chair.”

Greene advised that women in science and technology keep “being bold” in their pursuits. “Part of leadership is really caring about what you're doing and being able to articulate that and share it,” she said.

Regarding leadership in science and technology, Greene stressed the importance of long-term thinking. “You have to be inclusive about the possibilities — the entire spectrum of possibilities,” she said. “A lot of [technologies] have long-term consequences, not just short-term.”

When she assumes the role of Chair in October, Greene plans to call each member of the Corporation and listen to their ideas. “Part of my job is to make sure it’s easy” for members of the Corporation to “contribute their immense value,” she said. 

Maintaining avenues for organization members to approach her with ideas is one of Greene’s tenets. “I always keep a very open door,” Greene said.