SHASS Dean Melissa Nobles to assume Chancellor post

Nobles: ‘All things students means thinking about the whole student experience’

Melissa Nobles will serve as MIT’s next chancellor, effective August 18, President L. Rafael Reif announced earlier in the summer. Nobles joined the MIT faculty in 1995 as a political science professor. She later served as head of the Political Science department, and as Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS).

She succeeds Dr. Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88, who stepped down from the role July 1.

The Tech spoke with Nobles over Zoom about her background, priorities as Chancellor, and plans to integrate student voice into Chancellor’s initiatives. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Tech: Please describe your background and your time as a professor and as SHASS Dean.

Melissa Nobles: My interests in politics and the public arena started from an early age. I served as class president for three years in high school in New Rochelle, New York, right outside of New York City. Both of my parents were born and raised in the American South, and attended schools that were racially segregated by law; my brother and I benefited from the post-civil rights movement, and had a different experience. We grew up in a diverse setting, and one in which we experienced levels of freedom that my parents couldn’t have imagined.

I was able to pursue my passion for politics and how it relates to race in my undergraduate years at Brown and later, through my doctoral studies at Yale, I became immersed in the racial politics of Brazil. These research experiences shaped my academic trajectory, which is focused on shedding light on questions that are understudied and arguably, have been, until very recently, undervalued by academic disciplines. I joined the MIT faculty in 1995, first as a professor in the political science department, and later as head of the department, and finally as the Dean of SHASS. What brought me to MIT and has kept me here is my growing and deep appreciation for our community’s dedication to excellence in research and teaching.

When I was dean, I wanted to really be able to explore that even further by helping to set up a Digital Humanities Lab, which is a way of getting students involved with STEM and humanities. I’ve also been involved in the creation of not only the new theatre building but the upcoming music building, as well as the MIT and Slavery research class. 

TT: Can you give a quick description of your job as chancellor? How do you see your role?

Nobles: I can sum it up in three words: all things students. All things students means thinking about the whole student experience; from working with Vice Chancellor Waitz — we get the academic side of student life — and working with Dean Suzy Nelson — we get the residential life side. So all aspects of student existence matter to me for both graduate and undergraduate students. I see myself as the person who has an important role in understanding what students want and need, and being an honest broker, player, and officer.

TT: Are there specific initiatives you’re excited about undertaking as soon as you begin your term? What will you focus on on day one?

Nobles: In the Chancellor’s Office, we get to focus on the student experience inside and outside of the classroom, and we can help students grow into their whole selves here at MIT. Many aspects of coming to college are captured in the classroom, while there are others which are not. We are interested in making sure that the intersection between those two is enhanced and grows. 

There are a couple of things that are in front of us directly; Institute initiatives that come to mind immediately are the DEI Strategic Action Plan, as well as Task Force 2021 and Beyond. Those two things we’ll begin working on immediately. Then after that, it will be just getting to know the job. Although I’ve been a dean, which is one thing, becoming the chancellor is quite another; I’ll be coming in and learning about a senior institution in a new way. That’s what I expect to be doing on day one. 

TT: How do you plan to incorporate student voice into your decision-making? Do you have a framework for this in mind? More precisely, if a student wants to effect change or express an opinion about a Chancellor-led initiative, what is the best way to do this? 

Nobles: The main thing is listening. The best way to understand what matters most to students is to be accessible to them and to listen to them. I’m going to reach out and I will be available to students. I have started to set up meetings with student leaders, and I look forward to hearing what’s on their minds. There are organized channels and tons of student committees, starting with the graduate and undergraduate associations; these are obvious places I’ll reach out to. Students should also reach out to me. I recognize that student voices are heard not only through organized governance, but in residence halls, at student club meetings, in their departments, and at office hours. In those meetings, I will have a chance to get a strong sense of what students care about and we can begin to think about the ways in which student voices are incorporated; so one way to effect change is to keep the lines of communication open. 

TT: Are there specific areas or particular issues for which you’d like student feedback?

Nobles: I expect that as I learn more about what students are thinking, there may be certain priorities that jump out to me and jump out to students. Once we identify those common priorities, we can get together and figure out how we can best work towards implementing them. I have some ideas to pose, but we’ll have a better idea of common priorities after we collect student data and opinion. A bit more specifically, some things out of Task Force 2021 may require immediate student input. And in the longer term, I would very much benefit from students’ perspectives and insights on how to expand the meaning of an MIT education and educate the whole student. 

TT: Could you highlight some specifics from Task Force 2021 for which student voice could be useful?

Nobles: One of the things that has come up quite a bit has been issues of space on campus. We found that the Banana Lounge, for example, was a place to casually gather; the bananas were an offering of sorts, kind of an expression of caring for someone. Extrapolating from that, a lot of students were saying they needed more spaces together in a way that wasn’t tied to anything other than being together, with a certain randomness about it. People appreciate that you can run into friends or you can meet others. We began to think more creatively about space, gathering not as academic spaces or sleeping spaces, but as gathering spaces.

Another thing that’s already come out of those discussions has been thinking about outdoor spaces, and that’s really been pushed forward by COVID. So creatively thinking about spaces around campus is one example. We’re bringing these issues to the forte, and the it’s important for students to think about the campus in terms of how they want to live here.

We also talked a lot about rethinking the curriculum. This isn’t necessarily about adding new things in requirements, but it came through very strongly from a lot of students expressing the sentiment that somehow, what they were learning had to be more obvious in its relevance to the world. We called on faculty to think more creatively about their assignments and how problem sets are introduced, the architecture of a problem set. The academic task force looked at that kind of thing. 

A third aspect of the task force has to do with advising and mentoring, and having students think more about the student journey.

TT: Have you learned anything from Dr. Barnhart’s time as Chancellor? Have you taken lessons from her time, positive or negative?

Nobles: Through a combination of vision, advocacy, and care, Cindy created an incredibly solid foundation that makes it possible for us to address the serious issues we face today. She assembled an extraordinary team and prioritized working with students to bring about positive changes in our culture. From addressing sexual misconduct, prioritizing student wellbeing and mental health, innovating student life and learning, and helping to lead the Institute’s response to the pandemic, she’s made enduring contributions to our community.

TT: Finally, what does a successful first three months or first six months look like for you? Do you have milestones in mind for gauging your progress and performance?

Nobles: If everything goes as planned, I hope to have a much better sense of landscape of student opinion. I wouldn’t want to say too much more than that right now. I want to get a good sense of the groups I’m representing and working with. I take that seriously, and I won’t know that until I talk to folks. After six months, if I can say with some confidence that I’ve heard from these groups and can sum up what I’ve heard, I will consider myself on the right road.