Skip to content ↓

Inaugural Address

MIT President Sally Kornbluth

Thank you, Madam Chair.

  • President Hockfield. President Reif. For everything you’ve done to foster the strength, spirit and potential of MIT – thank you!  I aspire to build on what you achieved for the Institute. 
  • President Sheares Ashby – Valerie, my old friend! I’m a little overcome by the kindness of your remarks. And I can’t believe you even managed to be here, with your own inauguration barely in the rearview mirror! 
  • To our dear, distinguished guests from across higher education – the warmest welcome and hello!
  • To all those who may be watching remotely, near and far ­– from our neighbors in Cambridge and Boston, to the great global family of MIT, including our alumni, 145,000 strong;
  • To our entire campus community – this small city of intrepid problem-solvers;
  • And to my family and friends, and all of you gathered here in Killian Court, under the world’s largest umbrella (Just in case!)…                                                                                

I’m so grateful you chose to be part of this solemn, ancient ceremony. And this afternoon, I hope to inspire you to join us in something important and new.

*          *

So, ideally, I’ve piqued your curiosity! Now: Please hold on to that sensation – that wanting to know – while I offer a few observations.

  • I’ll venture my opinion on what university leaders are good for
  • I’ll talk about why I came to MIT – and what I’ve found
  • I’ll sketch out how we can fulfill our potential: our opportunities and our obligations
  • And I’ll ask you to join me in meeting the moment ­– together.

*          *          *

(To my fellow university leaders: I’m starting with a question that may feel a little bit…close to home. But I don’t worry! I’ve got you!)

“What are university leaders good for?”

I got my first inkling about 30 years ago. Before I was a vice dean or a provost or a president, I was a cancer biologist. A hands-on, pipette-and-centrifuge, buckets-and-buckets-of-frog-eggs biologist. My lab had maybe 12 people – and we did the most fundamental, curiosity-driven research you can imagine, tinkering and tinkering with biological systems to understand the deep cell biology and biochemistry that go wrong when cells turn cancerous.

It was fascinating. And I loved it.

There’s nothing like the pleasure of being part of a team when an experiment shows you something new – something no one else has ever seen before.

On the days when you’re in the flow, you never want to leave the lab.

But there were also other kinds of days!

On those days, I was frustrated – because I needed things I could not get on my own. I needed the institution to transform the way it recruited young researchers, so we could get the best graduate students. And I needed it to invest in sophisticated core facilities, so I could sequence all those proteins we’d purified.

In other words, selfishly, to do the science I loved, I needed the collective to work.

So I took my first job in academic administration. And over a number of years – with help from lots and lots of people – I helped to make those changes happen.

For my lab, the new talent and core facilities were terrific! And it turned out that they were also terrific for many other labs in the medical school, and across the whole campus. 

And that was when I began to understand what university leaders are good for. I started to see that leadership makes a difference: that I could lead the way to changes that accelerated progress way beyond the narrow band of my research.

So I took on new leadership roles. And each time, by listening to voices from across the community, I found new ways that I could help the whole:

  • Things like improving the quality of life for all our students
  • Developing staff leaders at every level
  • Building a more diverse faculty – and more.

So – 30 years on – what are university leaders good for?

Picture a place like MIT.

In effect, every day we send out 1,000 expeditions to explore the mountain range of New Knowledge and Innovation. Curiosity unbounded!

For the faculty, researchers and students involved, it’s exhilarating and exhausting; fascinating and frustrating; unpredictable and very, very hard. You rarely know for sure if you’re on the right path – or heading for another dead end. The people who succeed are guilty of an outrageous persistence against all odds.

So, in that high-risk, high-reward picture, what are university leaders good for?

Three things – that add up to something big.

  • First, we can help provision the trip – the right resources and the right talent.
  • Second, we can clear away bureaucratic boulders that block the trail.
  • And finally: We can scout out the best routes for scaling the toughest peaks – and build and inspire the right teams to get there. This capacity to link vision and action – that may be the greatest accelerant of all.

If we do those three things right, we create an environment in which every individual has the freedom and support to flourish and grow, and in which we all have a sense of community, connection and shared purpose – those human bonds that allow us to go farther and faster together than any of us could go alone.


Striving for that ideal of university leadership – that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

(OK, technically, the dogs get me out of bed. But it is what gets me to my desk!)

And I love this work! So last fall, when MIT’s presidential search committee came knocking, I was happily settled at a school I loved, in a role that still held interesting challenges. I was not in a mood to leave.

But frankly, when the MIT offer came, I could not possibly say no.

Not because I dreamt of living where winter is five months and spring is five days. Not because of some alluring new title.

But because there is simply no place quite like MIT.

Dozens of great research universities are represented here today. Yet even in this distinguished company, MIT has a distinctive recipe for impact: this community’s signature ability to foster the very best in fundamental research and harness it to confront society’s hardest problems.

As humanity struggles with so many interlocking global crises, it has never needed the people of MIT more than it does now.

For those of us who are called to the challenge of leadership, the world always offers lots of opportunities. But very few could be more compelling than the chance, in this moment, to lead MIT.

*          *          *

Since I arrived in January, I’ve spent nearly all my time on a “listening tour.” I’ve met with many dozens of people across the Institute, in every role.

And I have to say – as a longtime fan of novels that leap between past, present and future – getting to know MIT has felt like a kind of time travel.

In four months, I’ve flown over the whole course of MIT’s 162-year history – including momentous achievements, times of great pride and great struggle, and many acts of delightful irreverence. I’ve been beamed into past controversies. I’ve visited the good old days. I’ve heard MIT-student-tales from 50 years ago – and talked with seniors who’ll graduate next month. I’ve seen MIT grow from a scrappy little technical school to its present scope and stature.

And – most important – in exploring MIT’s past and present, I’ve gotten tantalizing glimpses of the future.

My first week on the job included reviewing young faculty who were up for promotion – three long days, back to back. Honestly, you cannot imagine a more intoxicating introduction to the human potential of MIT: one candidate after another, each somehow more impressive than the last. And each of them a window into the future of knowledge, and the future of MIT.

Reviewing these incredible talents was a preview of one of the striking aspects of this community: That the fuel for what gets done here is the brilliant creativity of each and every individual.

It’s like a night sky, impossibly dense with stars. Each one particular and beautiful. In the darkness, when we look up, we naturally look for patterns and connections. That’s the pleasure of picking out a constellation: It doesn’t dim the stars within it. But it holds our attention, because it creates a larger meaning.

In my listening tour conversations, that image has come to me again and again. Because everywhere, in every setting, I’ve heard an intense desire to see the people of MIT come together, in meaningful ways, to meet all the great challenges of our time. Above all, and most urgently: to marshal a bold, tenacious response to the run-away crisis of climate change.

I’ve found a community of people who, to a person, treasure the best aspects of MIT’s history and culture, and take great pride in its achievements. Yet I’ve also found a place – always decentralized and further fragmented by the pandemic – that is still finding its way back to a shared center.

There’s a palpable craving for re-attachment and connection. If you’ll allow me: What I hear in all of this is a craving for new constellations.

*          *         

In coming to MIT, I’ve found something magnificent: In its history, culture, character and achievements; in its people, and their clear-eyed focus on the hardest problems.

In short, like so many of you before me, in coming here, in a wonderful new way, I found my people – and I Have Truly Found Paradise. 

Yet I’ve also learned – from MIT’s unstoppable engineers! – that even paradise can be optimized! So let me talk a bit about what that might look like.

*          *          *

Since I’m still trying to unlock minor local mysteries, like how MIT numbers its buildings and courses, for me to bring forth today some detailed strategic vision would be arrogant in the extreme.

Instead, I want to take you on a little “trip through time,” to the future – a decade or so from now.

Setting the dial for the year 2033 – we can see an MIT that is, in important ways, deeply the same – just as quirky, nerdy, unconventional and bold. An MIT that is true to its fundamental purpose. But we also see an Institute that has built up its core strengths to be ready for whatever comes next.

  • The MIT of 2033 has unraveled daunting intellectual puzzles, from mathematics to materials science, urban planning to economics, neuroscience to nuclear engineering, physics to philosophy to finance.
  • It has cleared away internal boulders – freeing its people to make important discoveries and innovations.
  • In 2033, our undergraduates are thriving with an ambitious new take on MIT’s core curriculum, which is setting the standard for what tomorrow’s leaders need to learn.
  • And MIT has truly become a place of inclusive excellence and enthusiastic diversity, where everyone feels that they matter, and they belong.
  • I’m proud to tell you that the MIT of 2033 has helped humanity come to grips with the tectonic forces of artificial intelligence, containing its risks and harnessing its power for good.
  • The music building isn’t new anymore – but it’s central to a new flowering of the humanities and the arts at MIT, the fields that tell us what it means, and why it matters, that we are human beings – fields that must be equal partners in inventing a just, humane and equitable future.
  • By forging new synaptic links between engineering and life science, including synthetic biology, the MIT of 2033 has helped invent the future of making, the future of healing, the future of biomedicine itself. And it’s made Greater Boston the hub of the next biotech revolution too.
  • In 2033, the Met Warehouse is a bustling hub of making and design, sparking new ways of seeing and solving old problems.
  • The people of MIT have used the power of entrepreneurship to propel profound solutions out to communities around the world, from preventing pandemics to cleaning up plastic waste.
  • And ­the MIT of 2033 is proud that – a decade earlier ­– it helped lead a powerful cross-sector coalition and placed big bets on big solutions, to dramatically accelerate progress against climate change.

*          *          *

I hope you can see yourself in that future – because it will call on all of us, together, to explore and commit to new ways of concentrating our strength and quickening the pace of progress.

To be clear: We want every one of our thousand bold expeditions to succeed! And there are many deeply significant areas where we can do more, together, from the bioeconomy to AI.

In fields like these, the world is crying out for courageous thought leadership and practical solutions. For a mind-and-hand place like MIT, answering that call is an opportunity – and frankly an obligation.

But, as so many of you have told me, one subject above all demands our shared attention.

*          *          *

Today, at least 20 percent of MIT faculty work on questions related to climate change: the greatest scientific and societal challenge of this or any age.

The people of MIT are pioneering crucial fields – from nuclear fusion to grid-scale batteries to climate policy. They’re decarbonizing everything from steel production to supply chains to computing, from architecture to agriculture.

That’s fantastic!

But I believe that, with all that talent and imagination, we can and, honestly, we must find new ways to work together, and to work with other sectors and institutions, to achieve even more – much more.

We need to ask ourselves: What is MIT’s contribution going to be? Would we feel satisfied if the answer was, “Well, MIT contributed to the knowledge base”? Would we? Is that enough?

What could we do that would really move the needle – and break the dial? Wouldn’t it make you proud to be part of the team that went all in, on the most important question of our time?

The people of MIT have done this before – and now, in this moment, we can do it too!

So many of MIT’s signature achievements have been triumphs of concerted collaboration:

  • The LIGO program, whose thousands of contributors from dozens of institutions together found a way to detect gravitational waves from outer space.
  • The Human Genome Project, where MIT scientists contributed a third of all the sequencing.
  • The Apollo guidance systems that put humans on the moon.
  • The work of MIT’s legendary Rad Lab, whose thirty-five-hundred members developed the radar systems that helped end World War II.

At the time, MIT’s 9th president, Karl Taylor Compton, called the Rad Lab “the greatest cooperative research establishment in the history of the world.” And the scientific miracles it achieved, at record speed, were mostly done by very young researchers, across a wide range of fields, with an extraordinary sense of purpose.

To meet the challenge of climate, it’s time for the people of MIT to engage in Rad-Lab-level thinking and commitment again. I want you, and I need you to help me imagine what that should look like, and how it can succeed – the kind of grand creative enterprise in which the energy you release together is greater than what you each put in. A nuclear fusion of problem-solving and possibility!

I certainly would not presume to lay out all the details of this new climate endeavor. That is work we will do together, starting now. We need energy and expertise from every MIT School and the College, from every lab and every center, from every member of the faculty – and from every one of you.

  • To our students and postdocs: You are among our most brilliant stars. Help us focus unflinchingly on the horizon of your future and on the urgent need for action now.
  • To our faculty and researchers: Let’s do everything we can, as fast as we can. Let’s have the courage to venture the impossible – for our students; for our children and their children; for the world.
  • To MIT’s incredible staff: You are critical to the Institute’s success, its unsung heroes. As we take on this great shared challenge, we will need every ounce of your expertise, institutional knowledge and principled leadership.
  • To our alumni and friends, and to our steadfast partners on the Corporation: You know, without my saying it, that we cannot do this work as well, or at all, without your support, encouragement and inspiration. 
  • To our neighbors in Cambridge and Boston, and to leaders across the Commonwealth: Let’s find ways to support each other in this work, so we can move as fast the moment demands!
  • And to my fellow university leaders: This problem will require that we all enlist our galaxies of stars. Let’s do this together – and remind the world that so many of the thorniest problems are solved at universities.

But let me be clear: We’re not going to wait around for a perfect vision. We need to start trying new things! Because I am absolutely certain that this urgent project is the singular effort that needs our shared attention. We can only meet this crisis if we’re brave enough to lower our shields, reach out and work together in new ways. And we cannot be satisfied with the normal academic tempo – there simply isn’t time.

You’ll hear more from me soon about how this effort will take shape. I hope many of you will want to participate directly. Please think about how you can answer the call. How will your work help make the whole of our efforts on climate greater than the sum of the parts – a multiplication of our talent and our capacity?

And whatever your role at MIT, I want you to feel part of this. Every member of this community is an essential part of the ecosystem that makes the breakthroughs possible. I want us all to take pride in how this community comes together to meet the existential challenges of humankind. I know I will take great pride in joining you.

*          *          *

I started this speech with a little bit of intrigue: I asked you to hold onto the sensation of wanting to know. Why?

Because it only takes a few hours on this campus to learn that what propels MIT is an irresistible force: the sheer motive power of curiosity, on every subject, at every scale, across disciplines and without limits: Curiosity Unbounded

It’s the passion to understand how things work, and why, and how they can work better.

In this perilous moment, I believe that curiosity can give us the hope and courage to do what needs to be done.

Importantly, curiosity is also the one and only path to understanding one another – to empathy and appreciation and mutual respect. In effect, curiosity is the indispensable first step in both collaboration and community.

Today, the problems before us – the problems of human society, and of its only planet so far – require that we harness our curiosity in exceptionally productive ways. The people of MIT have always wanted to know how things work, and how we can be part of big solutions. Now, it’s imperative that we know – and that we help lead the world to action.

*          *

In some fleeting way, the world may attend to what I say here today. But I know the world will be watching what we do next.

Let’s give them something to talk about – something to cheer for, something to join! Something worthy of MIT.

Thank you.