Cynthia Barnhart stepping down as chancellor

May 03, 2021

To the members of the MIT community,

I write to let you know that Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88 has decided to step down from her role as chancellor as of July 1st. After a richly deserved sabbatical leave, she will return to teaching and research.

In 2014, I was delighted when Cindy agreed to join MIT’s senior administrative team to oversee the chancellor’s broad portfolio, which comprises “all things students.” She came to the role having proved herself in the School of Engineering as a student-centered leader; the chancellorship has allowed her to apply those same values, skills and vision in service to our community as a whole. From the start, she has been a fearless advocate for student wellbeing; a calm, insistent force for new thinking and creative change; and one of my most trusted and thoughtful advisors. 

Clear-eyed assessment and a powerful philosophy

Since she joined the MIT faculty in 1992, Cindy’s academic interests in operations research have been a model of mens et manus; her insights have spawned widespread practical applications in fields from transportation logistics to aviation planning and operations. In her work as chancellor, her fresh eye and incisive systems thinking led her to reassess, reimagine and renew many of our approaches to student life and learning. 

Equally important, she inspired us to expand the wisdom of MIT’s mind-and-hand motto to give equal weight to heart – caring for oneself and others. The clearest example is the 2015 launch of the MindHandHeart initiative, a pillar of MIT’s ongoing efforts to prioritize mental health and wellbeing and to erase the destructive stigma around asking for help.

Wide-ranging accomplishments

This same emphasis on caring for and cultivating the whole student shines through in many of Cindy’s other signature achievements. Just months after starting as chancellor, she launched a student survey to understand the extent and effects of sexual misconduct at MIT. This pathbreaking effort informed significant new policies, new training and student problem-solving at MIT and became a national model for forthright campus assessment. As a natural extension of this work, in 2020 she expanded the mission of the office known as Title IX and Bias Response to create the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response office, giving the entire MIT community a single hub for reporting and seeking support in cases of discrimination, harassment and bias. 

While building new partnerships across campus, from Student Mental Health and Counseling to the Office of the General Counsel, she restructured and coordinated MIT’s student support and residential education offices, which led to the creation of Student Support and Wellbeing and the Care Team; spearheaded our efforts to help the students stranded abroad by the 2017 travel ban; and led MIT’s far-reaching response to the National Academies’ report on the personal and professional cost for academic women of sexual and gender harassment. On Cindy’s watch, our Admissions office continues to ensure that each undergraduate class is increasingly diverse and accomplished.

Cindy also deserves our gratitude for the leaders she brought to the Office of the Chancellor. In 2016, she recruited Suzy Nelson to serve as vice president and dean for student life; in that role, Suzy has worked to create a culture of student wellbeing and community, and to revitalize existing residential spaces and create new ones, from Site 4 and New Vassar to the West Campus graduate student dorm now in the works. A year later, Cindy created the Office of the Vice Chancellor to focus on undergraduate and graduate education, and persuaded former Dean of Engineering Ian Waitz to step into this new position to lead efforts from revamping the first-year undergraduate experience to strengthening mentoring and career advising for graduate students.

After six years of round-the-clock effort, Cindy was poised to move on from the chancellor role in the spring of 2020; when the pandemic struck, she agreed to serve through the crisis. I will always be grateful for that act of selflessness and for her extraordinary efforts to meet the needs of our students throughout this rolling public health emergency. 

You can read more about Cindy’s accomplishments on MIT News.

Next steps for Cindy

Throughout her time as chancellor, Cindy continued to supervise doctoral students; following her sabbatical, she expects to return to MIT to resume her teaching and research. She is also eager to contribute to MIT’s ongoing efforts to invent the future of education and expects this to be a focus during her sabbatical leave. 

Next steps for MIT

Given the importance of the chancellorship, I will immediately conduct a search to fill the role. 

The work of the chancellor includes oversight of a wide range of offices central to the daily functioning and core mission of MIT. To help identify the right person for this crucial leadership position, I welcome your input and ideas. 

If you have insights or suggestions about who might best serve our community in this moment, I hope you will let me know at Naturally, I will treat any guidance I receive as confidential.

Please join me in thanking Cindy for her transformative service to MIT.


L. Rafael Reif