Boston Business Leaders Reflect on Susan Hockfield’s MIT Presidency

Susan Hockfield made waves when she became the 16th president of MIT in late 2004. She was the first female president of the Institute, and the first person from life sciences to hold that position. (Her faculty appointment is in neuroscience.) But today, after Hockfield announced she will be stepping down as president after MIT finds a successor, those historic firsts seem much less important than what she has accomplished during her tenure.

Certainly the MIT president has had more than a few things to worry about—including fundraising (nearly $3 billion during her term), research initiatives (in cancer, energy, and manufacturing), education and diversity, new buildings on campus (Sloan School, Media Lab), and budget cuts during the global economic crisis. But what is her legacy in terms of fostering startups and technological innovation, and building ties with the business community?

Xconomy reached out to several Boston-area business leaders who are familiar with Hockfield’s work in that regard. Here’s what three of them had to say:

Frank Moss, former director of the MIT Media Lab, co-founder of Bluefin Labs and Infinity Pharmaceuticals:

“She was incredibly supportive of my agenda at the Media Lab, and the Media Lab in general. When I came in, I was facing serious challenges that had been in play for some time, maybe since the dot-com bust. She was very instrumental in convincing me to come into the Media Lab. It needed to be understood better. As a scientist, she was able to understand the risk-taking and the fact that there was, and is, rigorous science done at the lab. She loved our approach to innovation. Her influence as a practicing scientist had an impact on our ability to hire faculty like Ed Boyden and Ramesh Raskar.

“I was extremely impressed by the ability she had, together with the board of MIT, to weather the storm [of the financial crisis] extremely well, and to lead the faculty and make the cuts that were necessary. We saw a lot of other universities, including the one down the street, struggling. MIT is in a lot better shape than when she came in—its role in society, its place in the world. It was always the preeminent technological university. But she broadened it quite a bit in terms of its impact on society.

“I think she can make a significant contribution to this country in many ways. God knows, we need the kind of leadership she provided at MIT. I think it was an A+ run. She’s going to be hard to replace.”

David Fialkow, managing director and co-founder, General Catalyst Partners:

“She’s a star, and what I think she’s brought to MIT is that MIT has clearly re-emerged as a leader in the area of deep science—and her focus around encouraging deep investment in science, entrepreneurship, and business building around science has been terrific.

“She has actually been very active in the recruiting process of getting Big Pharma to move here, of getting Google and Microsoft to move R&D here, and getting savvy entrepreneurs once again to start great businesses here.”

Noubar Afeyan, managing partner and CEO, Flagship Ventures:

“Susan has been a true leader not only at MIT, but throughout the ecosystem of entrepreneurial innovation surrounding MIT, stretching from Kendall Square to the whole world. Through MIT-wide, bold initiatives to foster innovations in energy and life sciences, and by placing increasing emphasis on educating and training a rising tide of entrepreneurs, Susan has contributed greatly to extending MIT’s leadership position.”

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