Cynthia Barnhart reflects on her time as chancellor, looks ahead to new role as provost

Barnhart: ‘I really do want to help members of our community thrive here at MIT, because if they thrive, MIT thrives’

Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 assumed the role of MIT Provost March 7, 2022, as announced by President L. Rafael Reif in an email to the MIT community Feb. 10.

Barnhart, a Ford Foundation Professor of Engineering, first joined MIT’s faculty 30 years ago in 1992 and has since served as both associate and acting dean of the School of Engineering, as director of the Operations Research Center and the Center for Transportation and Logistics, and as MIT Chancellor 2014–21. During her term as chancellor, Barnhart worked to transform MIT’s approach to student support and mental health, most notably through launching the MindHandHeart initiative and the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response office.

The Tech spoke with Barnhart to reflect on her role as chancellor and look ahead to her tenure as provost. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Tech: Many students feel confusion around what exactly the roles and duties of the provost are. Is there anything you’d like students to know about what your position entails and how you plan to represent their interests as provost?

Barnhart: Students, I think, know the role of the chancellor. The chancellor’s role is focused on all things students. The provost role has some overlap. But the provost’s role is the chief academic officer, and the chief budget officer. So what that means is that the provost plays a role in a lot of things that affect a lot of people: faculty, students, of course, staff, because part of the role is academic program oversight. It has budget oversight, making decisions about many things that affect students and many others. I think you ask the question, how students will come into my everyday job as provost. I’ll begin by saying that having served as an advisor and faculty member, this is my 30th year as a faculty member at MIT. Before that, I was a graduate student at MIT. So I’ve been here a long time. And I think about my experiences, particularly as an advisor and chancellor. I saw MIT through the student lens. And so I think in everything that I do, that perspective comes with me. I worked closely as chancellor with the provost on matters that involve student mental health, financial aid — essentially, the wide gamut of topics that affects students. So that will continue. I will continue to have that partnership with the chancellor in this role as provost.

TT: Relatedly, you often emphasize communicating and establishing trust with students. How successful do you think your efforts have been? And how do you plan on continuing or building deeper relationships with students in the future?

Barnhart: My strategy with students is the same as with all members of the community. I think it’s really important that there’s broad engagement. One of the first steps that I’m taking — and it won’t just be a step followed by other actions, it will be a step that continues through my whole tenure — is to engage broadly, bringing students, faculty, and staff into conversations. MIT is an organization where we share governance. This is something that was very evident in my role as chancellor. It is necessary to keep that top of mind, I think, in every leadership role at MIT, so my approach will be to meet with, listen to, and learn from our community members, and to use those insights to make the community a better place.

TT: Something that is currently being widely discussed at MIT is the possible formation of a Graduate Student Union. How will your previous experiences as a graduate student and as a professor impact the way you respond to this issue? Do you think that the possible formation of a union will have a lasting impact on the relationship between professors and graduate students at MIT?

Barnhart: I’m hesitating a bit because this is a topic that is harder for me to know what is appropriate for me to say or not say. What I can say is that the approach that we have used and we will continue to use is one, again, of partnership with our students. We’re trying to work together with our students to achieve what we all agree are important things for them to have. And there’s a lot of commonality, I think, and a lot of agreement on that topic. So I guess I don’t want to say too much right now about that, other than that we always have at the top of our minds working together with our students, with our faculty, with everyone at MIT.

TT: You have focused largely on the commonalities in interests among people at MIT. But a lot of conflicts have emerged as a result of differences in interests among, for example, students at MIT versus administration. In those instances, what is your plan for dealing with these differences? What should students expect?

Barnhart: I think students should expect exactly what they have been seeing. And let me define what I think they have been seeing: I think there is an openness to dialogue, to sharing viewpoints, to brainstorming about possible solutions, and a commitment to transparency. So while the outcome of any discussion around differences will likely leave some people unhappy, the commitment is that there is the opportunity to voice concerns, to be heard, to have thoughtful consideration of what the different viewpoints are. And then for the administration, the leaders, the goal is to make decisions and explain them.

TT: Many of the controversies MIT has faced have also involved issues of diversity and inclusion, and students have often called upon MIT’s administration to act as a leader in demonstrating social and environmental responsibility. As provost, how do you plan to contribute to the shaping of MIT’s institutional values?

Barnhart: Well, as provost, my plan is to build on the tremendous efforts that members of our community have contributed over the last few years. So many faculty, staff, and students have invested their time and shared their expertise on these topics in the interest of making MIT a better place. I’m committed to taking the next steps where action is needed, and ensuring that MIT benefits from all of this hard work. That includes efforts related to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Strategic Action Plan, DEI Arts and Culture committee, Values Statement Committee, Free Expression Group, Climate Action Plan, MindHandHeart, and many more.

TT: You stepped down from your role as chancellor less than a year ago in July of 2021, reasoning that it would allow you “to think about the next thing [you] want to do” and “what impact [you] can have.” How did you arrive at the decision to return to an administrative position, and in what areas do you envision yourself making the most impact?

Barnhart: I’ll begin by saying that it wasn’t exactly what I expected to be doing. But with MIT being in this time of transition, with both the provost and the president stepping down over the course of one year, President Reif talked with me and reminded me that my experiences as chancellor could help me hit the ground running and provide some continuity, and help the Institute continue to move forward during this time of transition. And that was compelling for me. Because, like so many people at MIT, I care deeply about the Institute, and I want to help where I can.

Some of my goals are to advance efforts that help our faculty or students or staff do their best work. Another goal is to foster innovation in education and research to advance recommendations, priorities, and actions that have been identified by so many different groups who have worked hard for MIT over the last few years. They include Task Force 2021, the DEI Strategic Action Plan Committee, the various working groups that were formed in response response to the National Academy’s report on sexual harassment, the strategic budget priorities that were identified through a community engagement process, and the work of committees on mentoring and advising and mental health and wellbeing. A lot of people have worked hard to generate ideas that can make MIT an even better place. And I will work hard to help us realize the potential of all these efforts.

TT: As Chancellor, you focused on, and achieved significant improvements in, transforming MIT’s approach to student mental health and sexual harassment. I’m curious to know more about what the administration’s perspective is on how successful those past efforts have been, and what still needs to be improved upon.

Barnhart: My advice on that is to have a sit down with Suzy Nelson, David Randall, and Chancellor Nobles, but I’ll just say that I’m proud of that work. And I know that it continues to be a top priority for the team now. And again, they have some really exciting things they’re working on. So it would be great, I think, to talk to them about that. And I’ll just say that I share their excitement and prioritize this work as well.

There are other things that I will focus on as provost. I’ll begin again by pointing out some of the ongoing work that has been started, that I think is very important to continue pushing forward — identifying these strategic budget priorities related to our academic and research enterprise, including increased financial support for faculty, students and staff, and building a path forward for ensuring that these funding priorities are sustained. Another really important effort, I think, is to develop the Strategic Action and implementation plans. I’m very much focused on ensuring that ideas move to actions to address challenges related to diversity, community, sexual harassment, advising and mentoring, mental health and wellbeing, and many more. And another thing I think is important is to push for the recommendations for change in this MIT, post-pandemic world, and implement those plans, advance those recommendations. So my goal, I guess, broadly stated, is to ensure that the hard work of our community is advanced. And we do good things for our community as a result.

TT: Given that the main difference is that your new role will involve interaction with a larger number of stakeholders and you will have to represent more groups with varying interests, do you think this will be a challenge for you? How do you plan to reconcile that with your approach to your previous role, where you were more focused on student needs?

Barnhart: Let me talk about students first. In working with students, the role that I played was to think about MIT and what MIT needs in terms of fulfilling its mission, adhering to its values and principles, and then translating that to the particular issue at hand, and thinking about the various solutions that different students might want align with the Institute, schools, and values. So I think that as provost, it will be the same framework. It might not be a student that is involved in the issue, but it will be the same challenge. How do we ensure that we work together to find solutions that work for our constituents, our community, and adhere to MIT’s values and advance MIT’s mission? In my mind, it’s a really fun challenge to work on.

TT: Is there anything else you would like to say to students?

Barnhart: I really do want to help members of our community thrive here at MIT, because if they thrive, MIT thrives. That very much motivates how I think things must be.