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Susan Hockfield
Susan Hockfield
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Susan Hockfield Interview (page: 8 / 8)

President Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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  Susan Hockfield

Should a student try to get into the best college to get the best educational experience?

Susan Hockfield: Education is so much about an individual, and how an individual's mind can be expanded and how a student can reach to deeper understandings and new understandings. What's most important, I think, is getting the match right, and that means finding a place where a young person can allow him or herself to be challenged. And that's different, the recipe's different for different people. About MIT, I often say it's not right for everyone, but when the match is right it's magical. I mean, I see these MIT students coming in. These are students who, you know, the brightest kid in their high school and the brightest kid in the town, the brightest kid in the state, and they get to MIT and they've never been challenged in a way that MIT challenges them. We have a commonplace we use all the time about raising the bar. It's a place that raises the bar for everyone. We raise it for one another, we raise it for ourselves. So it's a place that really stretches people. That's what a great education should do. So it's up to a student to figure out what's the right place.

Since your time as an undergraduate in the 1970s, have you noticed changes with each graduating class? Any trends or cycles?

Susan Hockfield: I don't know whether it's cyclical or not, but I have enormous admiration for the students I see at MIT today. It's a very different group.

My generation saw that there were problems in the world. Every generation sees that there are problems in the world. But the response by my generation, and I say this with some embarrassment, was to march around and scream and shout about it and carry posters. This generation doesn't do a huge amount of hand-wringing about it. They roll up their sleeves and they get to work. So I am enormously impressed by this generation's optimism. Certainly at MIT I see a huge amount of practicality. They want to solve the problems, and they're very practical. They're very directed, they're very energetic about how they do it. So I think we are looking at a different generation. This generation is more collaborative, I believe. At least that's what I see at MIT. They're more collaborative, they're more ambitious, they are interconnected. There was a conversation at breakfast yesterday talking about the difference between this generation and my generation, and wondering how much of that is a product of the technology. You know, I see my daughter and students working from these network sites -- Facebook -- and they are connected to so many more people than we could've been connected to when we were young.

Susan Hockfield Interview Photo

Looking towards the future, do you see a change in the role of women in the sciences?

Susan Hockfield: I hope so.

The nation needs all of the scientists and engineers we can produce. So it's a huge mistake to somehow sideline half of the people who might go into it because they're not men. And we have growing populations of new Americans, growing populations of minorities, and I hope that many of those young people find their passion in science and engineering. We need everyone who wants to be part of this fabulous enterprise, for no reasons, just partly because of the numbers, but also all of the very interesting problems where I've seen advances made are made because people bring different perspectives to the solution. So people talk about diversity in a kind of reflexive way. Diversity is critically important, because you have to get people who think about problems in somewhat different ways. Not that they're going to have a different solution on their own, but they certainly bring a different perspective to every kind of conversation. And I think we need to continually bring in new insights, new kinds of perspectives into these solutions. Or if we bring in the standard people, we'll get the standard answers. And those answers have been pretty good, but I actually believe that the reasons that some of the answers that we've gotten have been great is because there's been different perspectives brought to the table.

As part of our mission at the Academy of Achievement, we often ask people if they have a personal definition of the American Dream. How do you define the American Dream?

Susan Hockfield: I am enormously inspired by the American Dream. The American Dream is the environment I've described, growing up in my family, that you can do what you want to do, that you can be who you want to be. And I see it at MIT. There was a marvelous demonstration of what the American Dream means.

A faculty member who gave the first lecture for our freshmen this past fall was talking about the incredible power of the American melting pot. That brilliant, ambitious people from all over the world have come to America because of the freedom, because of the ability to rely on yourself. Right? Because at the heart, it's a meritocracy. If you work hard, you'll be rewarded for your hard work. Dick Samuels, who is a professor of political science, was giving a lecture to our students, and talking about the power of the American melting pot and he said, "We'll do an experiment. Raise your hand if you weren't born in the United States." Now only eight percent -- eight to ten percent of our freshmen -- are international students, but about 20 percent of the students raised their hands, roughly. So these are the children of immigrants. And he said, "Keep your hand in the air. Raise your hand if one of your parents wasn't born in the United States." And another huge number of hands went up. And he said, "Keep your hands in the air. Now raise your hand if one of your grandparents wasn't born in the United States." I didn't actually... I couldn't count, but it looked to me as though 85 or 90 percent of the students had their hands in the air. This is what America's about, is bringing people from all over the world to these shores, giving them productive work, giving them opportunities. And what I think is incredibly important -- not just for the nation but also for the world, as an example of what people can do together from different backgrounds -- that we continue to be a nation that welcomes immigrants, that we continue to be a nation that offers everyone opportunities, and that we continue to be a nation also that rewards success. I think these are all important elements. And individual achievement, individual effort, I think, is an important part of it. So it's balancing opportunity for all, but also appropriate rewards for work that's been well done.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Thank you, Dr. Hockfield, for taking the time to talk with us today.

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This page last revised on Feb 16, 2010 15:02 EST
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