Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Cynthia Barnhart named MIT provost

Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88, a longtime faculty member and MIT’s former chancellor, will be the Institute’s next provost, President L. Rafael Reif announced today.

Barnhart, a Ford Foundation Professor of Engineering and professor of operations research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has served the Institute in a variety of roles since joining the faculty in 1992. She has been both associate and acting dean of the School of Engineering, and co-director of the Operations Research Center and the Center for Transportation and Logistics. As chancellor, from 2014 to 2021, she led a team that took numerous measures to enhance student well-being, support, and success.

“A widely respected member of the faculty, Cindy is both a pleasure to work with and one of the most energetic, determined and effective managers I have ever known. We are extremely fortunate that she has agreed to step forward once more in service to the Institute,” Reif wrote in an email to the MIT community, which also announced his intention to step down as president.

The provost is MIT’s senior academic and budget officer, with overall responsibility for the Institute’s educational programs, as well as for the recruitment, promotion, and tenuring of faculty. Working closely with the president, the chancellor, the academic deans, and other members of the Institute’s senior leadership team, the provost heads efforts to establish academic priorities, manage financial planning and research support, and oversee MIT’s international engagements. Barnhart’s appointment is effective March 7.

“As I step into the role of provost, I am energized by the exciting prospects that lie ahead,” Barnhart says. “And I am grateful to Rafael for once again giving me the opportunity to try to make a difference at MIT. I look forward to helping him carry out his priorities as he finishes his term.”

Removing barriers to success

Barnhart succeeds Provost Martin Schmidt, who will be leaving the MIT community after 40 years to become president of his alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Marty was an exceptional colleague and thoughtful leader. I’m delighted to be able to bring continuity to the post after working with him closely as chancellor,” Barnhart says.

Upon stepping into her new role, Barnhart plans to build on critical efforts already underway: “I deeply appreciate the many members of our community who have generously invested their time, their thoughts, and their creativity over the past years to identify needs and opportunities for MIT’s future,” she says. “I am committed to continuing this work with the community and advancing our strategic imperatives.”

She also plans to connect directly with faculty and other members of the MIT community to get a sense of the full range of perspectives and priorities across the Institute.

“I see exciting opportunities to address some of the longer-term pain points for our community and remove barriers or hindrances to success,” Barnhart adds, citing ongoing work on strategic budget planning as one area where meaningful change is achievable.

Open learning and MIT’s role in improving access and affordability in education are other areas of interest for Barnhart. “Tackling these challenges has always been a passion of mine, and of Rafael’s, obviously,” she says. “What we at MIT have collectively accomplished and learned in navigating through the pandemic must not be lost as we envision the future of education at MIT and beyond.”

An advocate for students

As chancellor, Barnhart was responsible for “all things students” at MIT. Along with Schmidt she also advised the president on graduate and undergraduate education, and participated in strategic planning, faculty appointments, resource development, and campus planning.

With Barnhart at the helm, “Team Chancellor,” as she called it, expanded student health and wellness programs, launched a campaign to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct on campus, and focused on new efforts to enhance undergraduate and graduate education.

Soon after becoming chancellor, Barnhart was charged by President Reif to take action to combat sexual assault at MIT. After conducting a landmark survey of MIT students, she and her team worked to provide more education to students about support resources, reporting options, and how to challenge harmful attitudes and behaviors. To meet students’ needs, Barnhart also bolstered staffing for a variety of offices and services related to student support, mental health and counseling, and violence prevention.

In 2015, Barnhart created the Title IX and Bias Response Office, and later expanded it to become the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office, serving as MIT’s central resource for students, faculty, and staff with concerns related to discrimination, discriminatory harassment, and bias.

Student mental health also became a top priority at MIT during Barnhart’s tenure as chancellor; her team expanded support services and encouraged students to ask for help whenever they need it. Along with William Kettyle, then-director of MIT Medical, and Professor Rosalind Picard as founding faculty chair, Barnhart established the MindHandHeart initiative, expanding MIT’s “mens et manus” (mind and hand) motto to recognize the importance of well-being, self-care, and taking care of others.

In 2020 and 2021, Barnhart led the Covid Decision Team, the group of senior officers overseeing Covid-related policy and planning decisions and response efforts.

“In her seven years as chancellor, Cindy’s values, skills, vision and collaborative spirit made her a superb member of MIT’s senior leadership team — and I look forward once again to drawing on her analytical powers, humane wisdom and calm self-confidence in taking on tough issues, qualities we will count on in sustaining momentum during the leadership transition,” Reif wrote in his email to the community.

A professional home at MIT

After earning her master’s and PhD in transportation systems and civil and environmental engineering in the 1980s, Barnhart joined the faculty at Georgia Tech. She returned to MIT four years later as an assistant professor in 1992, becoming a full professor in 2002, with an appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and affiliations in the Operations Research Center and the Center for Transportation and Logistics.

She served as co-director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics from 2001 to 2003, and has served twice as co-director of MIT’s Operations Research Center, from 1999 to 2002 and from 2006 to 2010.

Barnhart became associate dean of the School of Engineering, MIT’s largest school, in 2007, working with the dean on matters including tenure and promotion, budgets, strategic planning, and day-to-day operations. She served as acting dean of the School of Engineering from July 2010 to January 2011.

Barnhart has been an undergraduate adviser since joining the MIT faculty, and has supervised graduate and undergraduate theses of students in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; in the Engineering Systems Division; in the MIT Sloan School of Management; and in the Operations Research Center and the Center for Transportation Studies and Logistics. She has taught courses on large-scale optimization, airline operations research, the global airline industry, and transportation operations, planning, and control.

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