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'All about the people on the team': Provost Sally Kornbluth reflects on nearly three decades at Duke, transition to MIT presidency

<p>After nearly 30 years at Duke, Sally Kornbluth will serve at the helm of MIT beginning Jan. 1.</p>

After nearly 30 years at Duke, Sally Kornbluth will serve at the helm of MIT beginning Jan. 1.

It was a mild afternoon in early December, and Provost Sally Kornbluth was dressed in many shades of her favorite color: light blue scarf, dark blue sweater and her signature turquoise-rimmed glasses.

But in just a few days, she’ll have to adapt her wardrobe to better fit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s colors of red and gray — one of the many changes she’ll make in her transition from being Duke’s provost to MIT’s president.

“I need the whole [MIT] sweatshirt, Patagonia sort of fleece look,” she quipped.

After joining the Duke faculty in 1994 as an assistant professor of molecular cancer biology, Kornbluth was appointed provost in 2014. The first woman to serve as provost at Duke, her role centers around the development of the University’s teaching and research mission.

She oversees Duke's 10 schools and six institutes, including admissions, financial aid, libraries and other facets of academic and student life. During her tenure, she guided the development of Together Duke, a strategic plan that engaged faculty to advance the University’s educational and research mission, led efforts to develop a pipeline of faculty from underrepresented groups, and oversaw the launch of the undergraduate degree program at Duke Kunshan University. 

After nearly 30 years at Duke, Kornbluth will serve at the helm of MIT beginning Jan. 1, bringing her quick thinking, witty humor and leadership skills to Cambridge. She will succeed outgoing president L. Rafael Reif, who has held the position since 2012.

“This is a person who has a great deal of memory, a great number of very broad experiences,” said Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis, who will serve as Duke’s interim provost. “The breadth that she brings is going to be honestly astonishing to [MIT].”

From medicine to steering Duke’s education

Before becoming provost, Kornbluth was vice dean for basic science at the School of Medicine from 2006 to 2014. During her tenure, she worked with Scott Gibson, executive vice dean for administration at the School of Medicine. Their offices were right next to each other. 

“When you have somebody that you work with closely and kind of have a shared sense of humor, you call them ‘foxhole buddies,’” Gibson said. “You're beside each other in the foxhole, trying to keep your head down and fight the good fight. So that's what we were.“

When former Provost Peter Lang stepped down in 2014, Kornbluth decided to apply for the job but didn’t have any “great expectations” of landing the title. While she interviewed, Gibson would leave a sign on her door that jokingly read: “This is Gibson’s personal gym space.”

But one day Gibson saw David Rubenstein, former chair of the Board of Trustees, walking down the hallway to speak with Kornbluth about the provost position.

“At that point, I said, ‘This is serious, and things are changing,’” Gibson said. Pretty soon, Kornbluth packed up and moved her belongings from the School of Medicine to the Allen building. 

As a provost and a leader, Kornbluth has been keen on following the philosophy that “it’s all about the people on the team.” 

She emphasized the importance of empowering colleagues and really understanding the people who are working with you.

For example, Kornbluth mentioned QuadEx, Duke’s new living and learning initiative — but she says that's not her accomplishment.

“That's Gary [Bennett] and Mary Pat [McMahon] and their teams. And me saying, ‘That sounds like a great idea,’ and enabling it basically,” she said.

Her philosophy was also at work when Abbas Benmamoun, whom she appointed to be vice provost for faculty advancement in 2017, led the initiative to develop a more diverse faculty community. Benmamoun and the staff at the Office for Faculty Advancement provide faculty career development resources and work to improve equitable hiring practices, which has resulted in the number of Black faculty members at Duke to increase from 67 in 2017 to more than 100 currently.

“Abbas and his office do all this programming that I can tell you 100% I never would have thought of,” Kornbluth said.

Shrey Majmudar, Trinity ‘22, was one of Kornbluth’s references to MIT’s Presidential Search Committee and worked with Kornbluth when he served on Duke Student Government as chief of staff and vice president of academic affairs. He remembers how Kornbluth sincerely understood that students needed a brief pause from school, leading Kornbluth to work with Bennett and MacMahon to carve a two-day break and a wellness day into the spring 2021 semester. 

“Sally immediately understood … because of her strong pulse that she has on the undergraduate and graduate professional students,” Majmudar said. 

Overseeing Duke’s educational and research missions is a heavy responsibility, but Kornbluth acknowledged it’s possible to “do a great job of things and still have a good time.”

Her colleagues know that well. Francis, who has worked closely with Kornbluth in the Provost’s Office since 2017, remembers one instance where she, Kornbluth and some colleagues flew to China to meet with DKU colleagues. Although they were jet-lagged and tired after the meeting, Francis and her colleagues had still planned a birthday surprise for Kornbluth at a karaoke room.

“Sally went from the edge of sleep to immediately stepping onto the stage, asked for the music list, and proceeded to sing every James Taylor song on the list. Twice,” Francis recalled.

‘Drinking from a firehose’

Now, after eight and a half years, all of Kornbluth’s belongings in her Allen 220 office have been shipped off to Cambridge. She hadn’t always planned for it to be this way — her “grand plan” had been to go back to Duke’s biology department and teach biology after her term as provost ended. 

But the MIT presidency opportunity was “just too attractive” to not jump at it, she said.

“Honestly, I’m just really excited about the science and the engineering going on there, and lots of other things: the urban planning, the political science, econ,” she said.

The presidency will involve oversight of not only MIT’s academics, but also its fundraising, governmental relations, communications and institutional equity. The institution also has a “very specific” culture that’s entrepreneurial and innovative, which Kornbluth says she’ll need to adapt her skills to.

Recently, the “advent of Zoom” had enabled her to conveniently meet with faculty in both Cambridge and in Durham. It’s one reason Kornbluth feels like she currently has two jobs — being Duke’s provost while simultaneously preparing for the MIT presidency.

“At MIT, they talk about drinking from a firehose,” Kornbluth said. “And I really feel like I'm drinking from a firehose, there is just a lot to learn.”

At the same time, Kornbluth will have to uproot herself from Durham, the place she’s called home for three decades, and start a new chapter in Cambridge, which she thinks is just as complicated as transitioning jobs. 

“Sometimes when you have too much to think about, it kind of neutralizes [the stress],” Kornbluth said. “I don't know if you blow a circuit or whatever, but it kind of calms you down.”

Thankfully, Kornbluth is acquainted with the Cambridge area, as her son is a graduate student at MIT. She thinks her son will be happy with her move, but “it would be like if your mom moved down the street from you, you know?” she joked. 

Kornbluth will still try to find ways to unwind as she settles into Cambridge. She has “funny hobbies,” like needlepoint and making felt flowers. At Duke, she found joy racing against her colleagues virtually on the Peloton, and she’ll continue connecting with them that way while she’s at MIT.

“I’ve got to get everybody back on the bike!” she said.

Looking forward

In her first six months at MIT, Kornbluth plans to talk to as many people and learn as much about MIT’s happenings as she can. 

“I think it would be foolish now for me to craft a vision when I don't know enough,” she said. “But the thing I did learn at Duke that I really want to bring forward at MIT is really [leaning] into fostering an inclusive community, enabling all the people on the team. I’m inheriting a really great leadership team there.”

Though her primary duties will soon lie at MIT, Kornbluth says she’ll still be in touch with Duke and Durham “from afar.” She plans to come back periodically to visit her mother, who still lives in Durham, and all her friends and colleagues that she’s known for so long.

Kornbluth is excited to see several initiatives, such as QuadEx and the Duke Science and Technology Initiative, approach their peak at Duke. She noted that many of these have built on the accomplishments of previous provosts. She’s also eager to see the next wave of leadership at Duk e— for example, from Yakut Gazi in her newly created role as vice provost for learning innovation and digital education, and from Bennett in his new role as Trinity College of Arts and Sciences’ next dean.

Kornbluth said that Duke is a trendsetter in engaging students in team-based work. She believes with the influx of new leadership, the University will continue this trend while engaging deeper with Durham in some of these projects. 

“I don't see some fundamental change of course — I think what it's going to be is that a lot of these things that have been revving up over the last decade are going to really come to fruition,” she said.

It’s understandable, then, that Kornbluth’s departure from Duke is a bittersweet one.

“I feel a little bit sad after all these years to be leaving Duke,” Kornbluth said. “I'm excited, but it’s definitely excitement that's interwoven with feeling sad about leaving a place that I've really loved.”

Majmudar said it’s been an “absolute privilege” for Duke to have Kornbluth as a provost for a little over eight years.

“I am very jealous of MIT,” he said. “MIT is going to be in fantastic hands, to say the least.”


Katie Tan | Managing Editor

Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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