As a teenager, Jeffrey Newton spent most of his non-school waking hours working as a hospital orderly. “In effect, it was a fulltime job,” says Newton, MIT’s new vice president for resource development. And because the institution where he worked was small, he got involved in activities that sometimes were off-limits to orderlies.
“I saw many people die,” he says, “and I actually had the experience of bringing some people back to life.”
His hospital work gave him a superb window on the powers — and limitations — of science and technology. Newton says he suspects that that’s one reason he’s been drawn to scientifically-oriented institutions, most recently Harvard Medical School, where he was dean for development and alumni affairs until joining MIT. Whatever the role of his hospital experience as a teenager, MIT’s new vice president has built an enviable record. And the leadership style that has made his achievements possible encompasses themes like communicating often and well, building team loyalty, and making sure an organization’s structure is right for its mission. Evidence of his skills, say former Harvard colleagues, is that he was able to completely re-engineer his department while simultaneously boosting a sense of loyalty and commitment.
Newton notes, though, that a particular personal priority is simply listening, and says it’s a skill he’s eager to apply at MIT. “I’m thinking about people who have an important societal goal, and who believe they may be able to advance that goal by supporting MIT,” he says. “We want to understand their aspirations, and then make it as easy as possible for them to connect with the right faculty and students.”
Newton grew up on a farm in the Ohio hamlet of Gambier. He was the oldest of six, and he and his siblings learned early what it means to do your share of the work. They also learned that breaking the rules meant being assigned the truly tough chores: weeding the strawberry patch, for example. “To this day, strawberries are not my favorite food,” Newton says with a smile.
Overall, though, it was a great life. “I’m still very close to my brothers and sisters,” he notes. “We get together as often as we can.” An academic whiz, Newton clearly had what it would take to be first in his extended family to go to college. He chose Kenyon, a well-regarded school just three miles down the road. It was, he says, a transformative experience. “I had some wonderful teachers,” he notes. “They changed my life.”
Inspired by mentors, he decided to become a historian. He did graduate work in the field at Brown and abroad — in the process, not coincidentally, learning how to speak fluent Italian.
Subsequently, he launched his teaching career at Rhode Island College. And there, a grad school experience unexpectedly provided an entree into the then-infant world of technology-aided education.
COMFORT WITH COMPUTERS
Thanks to an agreement between IBM and Brown, he and most of his fellow grad students at the university had had to employ computers in their studies. “I wrote my master’s thesis using a word processor that ran on a main-frame computer,” he notes.
That put him in the vanishingly small cohort of young historians knowledgeable about computational technologies. So he and a colleague sought, and won, a Digital Equipment grant to test whether history education and computers were a good match.
They were — so much so, in fact, that following his success with the experiment at Rhode Island College, Newton briefly explored a career in creating educational software. He eventually decided, though, that his real vocation lay in helping academic institutions find the support they need to do their own innovating, and signed on as Johns Hopkins’ associate director for corporations and foundations.
A series of executive posts at the University of Miami followed. He left that institution in 2003 for Harvard, and now has brought his background and talents to MIT. The key reason he accepted the Institute’s offer, says Newton, is President Susan Hockfield. “Her excitement about the future of MIT, and her determination to build that future, are genuinely infectious,” he says.
Hockfield returns the compliment. “Jeff has a wonderful background and track record in higher education,” she says. “He also has that rare combination of great managerial skill and the ability to take in fully others’ ideas and aspirations. He’s going to do a great job for MIT.”
For his own part, Newton — who’s been taking the high-intensity version of MIT 101 — says he’s been both impressed and slightly amazed. The Institute, he notes, has a stellar reputation around the world. But when you start to probe what undergirds that fame, he says, you discover some fascinating realities.
“There’s a world of intellectual excitement and talent on this campus,” he notes. But that combines with deep commitment to make a difference in society. “To find both those qualities in one institution,” he notes, “is very rare.”
Both qualities resonate for Newton, who says they argue for an all-out effort to make sure potential contributors get the information they need, whether they’re making that first major commitment or building longterm ties.
“The individuals who support this place are crucial to its future,” he notes. “They need to understand that, and also to be assured that their resources are being used to achieve their goals. To a large extent, it’s my job, and that of my colleagues, to provide the information and connections that provide such assurance. We intend to give that the highest possible priority.”