From The Faculty Chair
Why I Decided to Transition to Professor Without Tenure, Retired
“I’m retiring at the end of June, on the eve of my 65th birthday.” I’ve said this countless times over the past five months and the reaction of my colleagues nearly always ranges somewhere on the spectrum from puzzlement to astonishment. (A few “Good for you” comments were received.) This certainly reveals some things about the MIT culture, and hence bears some examination.
My attitude toward my work has had its ups and downs. The up times have involved promotions, having highly capable support staff and graduate students, and strong support from my family. The down times have been periods during which I’ve felt a degree of professional stagnation or suffered some personal loss. After stepping down from a six-year term as DMSE (Department of Materials Science and Engineering) Executive Officer in 2006, I had the feeling that my MIT career had reached its peak and I began to think seriously about retirement.
In 2007 I suffered a “very minor” heart attack. Four months prior I had run a half-marathon in just under two hours, and I had been an active distance runner since 1986. It came as a real shock to me (and those who knew me), and caused me to think more deeply about all the things I was hoping to accomplish while I had the opportunity. This reinforced my thoughts about retiring early.
A year or so later, my wife, Annie, began to question my loosely formed retirement plan, saying in effect: “You will need something to do.” I had convinced myself that I could easily fill my time with my hobbies that include wooden boat building, sailing, birding, and blacksmithing. Annie persisted in pressing me to broaden my thinking about how I could use my time, and it caused me to begin reflecting on the aspects of my MIT career that had been most satisfying. I began to appreciate that interpersonal relationships were central to my work satisfaction, particularly mentoring, advising, and helping people in conflict.
Early in 2009 I was interviewed by Jessica Landry (now Assistant to the Dean in the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education) who was working on a project that studied the “REFS” program of peer-to-peer graduate student advising that started in MIT’s Department of Chemistry. Jessica’s project arose from her taking classes in UMass Boston’s graduate program in Dispute Resolution, and on learning about that program I was immediately struck by the thought, “I could do that!” I began with an introductory-level class later that year, and continued in the program for five semesters. This work provided me with useful skills for my remaining years at MIT, as well as the basis for a somewhat different career trajectory after retirement.
Midway through my studies at UMass Boston, I began to talk to my department head about retiring, thinking that I might make the move in the summer of 2010. Then something very unexpected happened: Jesus del Alamo, then Chair of the Committee on Nominations, contacted me to ask if I’d consider becoming Chair-Elect of the Faculty. My initial thought was “no, I’m retiring,” but Annie immediately saw it as an opportunity to further serve MIT in a capacity that would potentially be very fulfilling for me, while giving me additional practical experience using my conflict resolution skills. The fact that I was actively studying conflict resolution boosted my confidence that I could handle the responsibilities associated with being Chair of the Faculty. So I decided to postpone retirement until I concluded my term as Chair in 2013.
I have told many, many colleagues that being Chair of the Faculty has “been the best thing I’ve done at MIT,” and I truly believe that. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have worked with so many fine people while navigating some serious challenges that arose during my two-year term as Chair. I am especially grateful to Associate Chair of the Faculty Mary Fuller, Secretary of the Faculty Chap Lawson, and my extraordinary Staff to the Chair of the Faculty, Aaron Weinberger. I wish the new faculty officers – Steve Hall, John Belcher, and Susan Silbey – all the best as their two-year terms commence on July 1.
My resolve to retire did not dissipate while serving as Chair of the Faculty. In many ways, I viewed my service as Chair both as a way to serve and “give back” to MIT and as a way to eventually begin a different career trajectory working on a part-time basis. The Chair position is very nearly a full-time job, and I do feel I have withdrawn somewhat from life in my department. But when I have been able to attend department faculty meetings and events, I have seen that there are many younger colleagues who are helping the department evolve and grow. I can “make way for younger talent” and retire with a sense of satisfaction that the department and the Institute will continue to flourish without me.
I have a close friend, Bob Weiss, who is a sociologist and wrote a book with the title The Experience of Retirement. A major take-away for me was that people who have significant friendships and activities that are outside of their workplace have a far easier time adjusting to retirement. I’ve been very active in my church community – for 10 years I’ve belonged to a men’s group that meets every week; I pursue various creative hobbies, and value deeply time spent at our vacation home on Maine’s midcoast. And I have been proactive about developing skills in conflict resolution that will allow me to work in a different milieu during retirement, if and when I choose. In short, I feel well prepared to step down from full-time service to MIT.
My initial transition to retirement will be to become Professor without Tenure, Retired. I will maintain a small lab here and continue to supervise a graduate student and research associate. I am still on a number of doctoral thesis committees and will see those students through to completion of their degrees. I look forward to spending more time in the DMSE Forge and Foundry, and in the MIT Hobby Shop.
I eagerly await the flexibility that these very reduced commitments to MIT will provide. Having the time to pursue opportunities for extended travel with our children and grandchild, during any season, is something Annie and I are eagerly anticipating.
Returning to my colleagues’ reactions to news of my retirement: I find it somewhat perplexing. A colleague once told me that the reason some MIT faculty don’t take sabbatical leaves is that doing so would confirm that the Institute can indeed survive without them. I’m sure there is a kernel of truth in that, particularly when it comes to retirement. I can relate to the desire to play an active role in research past one’s normal retirement date. I also see the appeal of being part of the innovative transformations such as those in progress through digital learning, but putting that in the capable hands of others seems like the best path for me.
An eventful two years
“What does the Chair of the Faculty do?” is a question I get often from friends within and outside MIT. There are so many facets to the position that I usually keep the answer short, saying something along these lines: “I attend lots of meetings and events.” “I represent the interests of the faculty in meetings with the administration.” “I am positioned right at the interface between the faculty and the administration.” “We have 11 Standing Committees of the Faculty, and I chair the top-level committee.” While all these statements are true, they do not capture the breadth of activities with which the Chair must become engaged.
I can see my term as Chair of the Faculty as a series of overlapping events with major consequences, some carefully planned and some descending at random.
Among the most significant from my perspective are: (1) The June 2011 announcement of MIT’s collaboration with Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology; (2) finding a permanent oversight structure for the Energy Minor; (3) the announcement of MITx in December 2011 by then Provost Reif; (4) Susan Hockfield’s February 2012 announcement that she was stepping down as MIT’s 16th President; (5) participating in the Presidential Search Committee that recommended Rafael Reif as MIT’s 17th President; (6) the announcement of edX by Harvard and MIT in April 2012; (7) working with the new President and Provost Chris Kaiser as they settled in to their new roles in the summer and fall of 2012; (8) formation of the Task Force on Community Engagement in 2030 Planning by Provost Kaiser in August 2012; (9) Aaron Swartz’ suicide in January 2013; (10) the Patriots’ Day bombing at the Boston Marathon; (11) mourning the shooting death of Officer Sean Collier and attending his Memorial Service on Briggs Field; and (12) adopting the Faculty Resolution on Freshman Advising at the May 2013 Institute faculty meeting.
I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve as Chair of the Faculty these last two years. One of the most rewarding aspects of the position is to meet and work with so many faculty and staff colleagues to help shape the future of this great institution. MIT has provided me with a wonderful career and I have the satisfaction of retiring at what I consider the peak of my contributions here. I am truly blessed.
Thanks to all who have contributed in so many ways to making these past two years so rewarding!
With best wishes,