Susan Hockfield’s daughter, Elizabeth, was six when she was dean of the graduate school at Yale.
“One day,” Hockfield says, “while riding in the car, my husband and I were discussing the fact that a colleague, a man, had been appointed dean to one of the schools at Yale. And Elizabeth opined from the back seat, ‘But a man can’t be dean!'”
Now, seven years later, Susan Hockfield is MIT’s first woman president, and she continues to be a symbol — not only for her daughter but for the world — of what it means to transcend limits, making the seemingly impossible possible.
Soon after she was named president, Hockfield got more than 1,000 congratulatory e-mail messages from people across the globe. The most touching ones, she says, were from young children in China and India, who said they dreamed that one day they would study at MIT. Hockfield, who answered all of the mail, and who hopes MIT will be the dream of every child who wants to make the world a better place, says those messages underscored for her that the focus of her presidency would be world service.
On this day, Susan Hockfield is sitting in her mahogany office, and she is saying that transcending your own limits is a powerful way to serve others. From her days as a graduate student, to launching her first laboratory as a scientist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where she was chosen for the job by James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkin for discovering the structure of DNA, Susan Hockfield has always worked hard and pushed herself beyond her limits.
Think of it this way, she says.
The conversation shifts to Chariots of Fire, her favorite movie, a story that details two British track athletes in the 1924 Olympics, who took several medals over the favored Americans. The story, she says, tells of two men who discovered their natural abilities, then pushed themselves to develop those abilities to their physical limits.
“The thing that I have come to appreciate so powerfully as an adult,” she says, “is this marvelous idea that when you develop your own natural talents to the highest possible state, it not only brings personal joy but it also serves the greater world. This is the greatest privilege that we have in the world of higher scholarship. To be able to pursue the thing you love, and to receive the most personal satisfaction, and at the same time to be serving humankind, is just a tremendous gift.”
ARE YOU BUSY?
“One student asked me recently if I was very busy as president. I just laughed,” she says. “Everyone at MIT is at work 24/7. I was joking with some students last night that it feels more like 36/10.”
Hockfield has spent much of the time since she took office hosting receptions, granting interviews, visiting alumni, having breakfast with students, lunch with faculty, dinner with housemasters, and dessert with graduate tutors. Mostly, she says, she spends her time these days in conversation. “It’s very important for me to understand the community’s aspirations for MIT. People ask me, what is my vision? And I say, your vision will be my vision.”
She is constantly talking with faculty, department heads, deans, and officers of the Institute. She’s in conversation with the trustees and the executive committee, with alumni, government leaders, leaders of other major institutions, business leaders, and the list goes on. “What I love about this job is that it brings me into contact with a huge range of people,” she says, adding that as long as she is president she will likely never be lonely. “The only thing I dislike,” she says, “is that I would love to have 48 hours in a day and 14 days a week. There’s so much more I would like to do. Some days I feel that I am making progress, but other days, I feel as if I am throwing pebbles into the Grand Canyon.”
There are many challenges ahead, says Hockfield, who plans to continue MIT’s tradition of being a significant voice in national policy in science, technology, and education. She intends to keep MIT accessible to international graduate students. She plans to increase diversity on campus. And she promises to expand MIT’s teaching and research excellence. She is in favor of accelerating the national discussion on improving math and science study in K through 12. And she intends to encourage collaborative work among MIT’s Schools, departments, and interdisciplinary labs and centers.
Perhaps it is this spirit of collaboration that most clearly defines Susan Hockfield. Those who know her well say that, above all, she is a woman who is brilliant at working with others. She is inclusive, they say, and a great listener. She thinks well in a group, and she consistently seeks ideas and input from the whole team.
“I believe profoundly in the inventive power of collaboration,” Hockfield says. “It is vital for people with different perspectives and different backgrounds to come together to work on problems. When you work together on a problem, you see things emerging that you couldn’t imagine alone. Collaboration brings an outpouring of great ideas and insights and allows you to go far beyond where you can get alone.”
She says that, like good collaboration, the essence of good leadership is to inspire people to do more than they ever imagined they could do. In fact, she adds, the best lesson she ever received in good leadership came from James Watson, her former boss, who once told her that the job of a great leader is to say yes to the great ideas coming forward, and then to find the resources to make it possible for people to fulfill their dreams.
FRIENDS WITH EVERYONE
Susan Hockfield no doubt developed her ability to work well with others when she was a child.
She was born in Chicago in 1951, the second of four girls. Her mother, Fayetta, was a homemaker, and her father, Robert, was an electrical engineer who later became a patent attorney. In those days, it was the pattern of many corporations to move employees around, so the Hockfields moved to cities across the country every two years, until Susan was 10, when the family settled in Chappaqua, N.Y.
Whatever city Susan lived in, she made friends with all the kids. She learned to feel at ease meeting new children and became facile at winning their acceptance. Never in childhood games did she want, nor ever imagine herself, to be the leader. She wanted always to play in a group.
As a child, she liked to ride her bike and sew, and she really enjoyed jigsaw puzzles because she loved assembling and disassembling objects. “I always took apart my toys. Sometimes I could put them back together. Often not,” says Hockfield, who remembers once taking apart a watch and her mother’s iron.
As a girl, she loved science and math. As far back as nursery school, she says, she remembers contemplating the difference between an equilateral triangle and one with just two equal sides. “Given my interest in science and math, the obvious career direction for me at that time was to become a doctor,” Hockfield says, adding that “I probably had the world’s largest collection of doctor kits.
“I never felt there was ever any constraint on what I, or any of my sisters, could achieve. When I was about four, it was just accepted that I would go to medical school, and my older sister would go to law school. It didn’t turn out that way for either of us, but I always imagined that anything I wanted to do would be a real possibility for me.”
Hockfield’s father died in 1984. He would have been proud of her success, she says, adding that she actually turned out much like both her parents. Her father was a logical person who thought carefully about problems and was enormously insightful. And her mother, she says, who still lives in Chappaqua, N.Y., “is never daunted. She sees no impediment. She just gets things done.”
Susan Hockfield was six and in the first grade in Houston, Texas, when the Soviets launched Sputnik. It was the dawn of the space age, and she remembers it like yesterday.
After Sputnik, she says, “it seemed that the nation was mesmerized. We were inspired by the power of science, engineering, technology, and math — and it was cool. For me as a child, it seemed that we had tremendous enthusiasm for these things as a nation, and now the nation needs to be reinspired along those lines. There is great value, great benefit, great opportunity waiting for us because so much is based on science and technology — clean water, sustainable energy, improvements in health care, computers. If MIT can play a part in reinspiring the nation — and the nation’s children — about the excitement, the interest, the beauty, the fun of these activities, that will be a wonderful contribution.”
TIME WITH FAMILY
The child Susan Hockfield has perhaps inspired most in life is her own daughter, Elizabeth, now 13, whom Hockfield calls, “an infinite source of joy.” These days, they spend as much time together as possible, along with Hockfield’s husband, Dr. Thomas Byrne, a neurologist whom she met on a blind date. He is on the staff of the Massachusetts General Hospital and also teaches classes at MIT on the human brain.
Hockfield says: “When my father died, the lesson I learned was that when you love someone, you never have enough time together. It’s the same with Elizabeth and Tom. We really value being together because we never seem to have enough hours.”
When the family is together, they enjoy the activities of daily living — grocery shopping, museums, movies, long walks along Memorial Drive with their golden retriever, Casey. One thing Hockfield says they will make time to do this summer is walk the Freedom Trail. “We want to revisit all those icons of American independence that I haven’t seen since fourth grade.”
Although Hockfield has achieved much in life, she says there is much more she would like to do. “I would love to learn Latin, and there are thousands of books I would like to read. I wish I had four lifetimes to learn all I would like to know.
“I do not feel as though things are easy,” she is saying. “I believe very strongly that there is always more to do, always more to learn, always new people to serve, and new goals to reach. It’s so important to take one’s own talent seriously and work hard to develop it in service to others.
“I feel enormously privileged,” she says. “I have been very blessed in my lifetime, but one of the most important things that I carry around internally is that nothing is achieved without hard work.”