As provost, Martin A. Schmidt is MIT’s senior academic and budget officer, with responsibility for the Institute’s educational and research programs and industrial engagements. A member of the MIT faculty since 1988, Schmidt conducts teaching and research in the areas of microscale and nanoscale fabrication and its application to micro-electro-mechanical systems. Schmidt spoke with the MIT Office of Gift Planning about MIT’s defining traits and how philanthropy helps the Institute fulfill its mission and rise to current challenges.
The role of provost is expansive and can vary among institutions. What is unique about being the provost of MIT?
MS: One of the things that differentiates MIT is the way we’re organized financially. Unlike many institutions, we have a centralized budgeting process that allows us to remove barriers to collaboration. When I talk to my peers, what I often hear is that they’re impressed with MIT’s ability to work across disciplinary boundaries. We also have the Corporation Visiting Committees, which engage deeply with and regularly assess our academic activities; this keeps us accountable and makes the Institute stronger. As the person responsible for budgeting and for sharing the Visiting Committee reports with MIT’s governing bodies, I am in the middle of these unique elements.
What role does philanthropy, and planned giving in particular, play in supporting core priorities, such as bringing the best students and postgraduate researchers to MIT?
MS: I view MIT as principally being in the talent business. We want to attract the best people to advance the Institute’s vision and mission. To do that, we need to create an environment for extraordinary individuals and provide them with resources to seed their ideas. That’s where the resources that derive from bequests and life-income gifts are critical because they tend to focus on core needs like scholarships, fellowships, and professorships and help secure the Institute’s financial future. Planned gifts also give us the ability to attract people without being encumbered by the need to fit them into a specific box of funding. We can say, ‘This is an impressive, brilliant, inspiring individual who’s going to bring a unique perspective to the community. Let’s get them here and see them do great things.’
You’ve hosted the annual Katharine Dexter McCormick (1904) Society (KDMS) event many times. What is it about the event and KDMS members that keeps you coming back?
MS: I recall my first KDMS event after I had become provost. The faculty speaker, Angela Belcher, did a terrific job, and she’s now head of the Department of Biological Engineering. It was exciting to have the participants see the passion of a talented faculty member like Angie, who is also the James Mason Craft Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering and is exactly representative of what core support enables us to do. Since being provost, I’ve been fortunate to go to all of the KDMS events, and I’ve gotten to know the society’s members well. Their passion and dedication to MIT motivates me in some of the more difficult times to do everything I can to make sure that the Institute lives up to everything they appreciate about us.
How has MIT, and faculty members in particular, adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic?
MS: The pandemic has been difficult for every single member of the MIT community—students, staff, and faculty. Perhaps the most challenging part has been the uncertainty. When will we bring students back? When will we be able to fully return to the laboratories? What do we do about students who aren’t progressing? Getting the answers so that we can do our job has been a challenge for everybody and especially for faculty, given their multitude of responsibilities. One of the key elements to getting through this pandemic has been resources. We are blessed to have the kind of resources that ensure the financial losses we have faced are not existential to the Institute itself. The flexibility with our funding enabled by our donors has allowed us to meet some of the very diverse needs we have experienced.
To learn more about how supporting core priorities makes a difference in the lives of faculty, researchers, and students, visit betterworld.mit.edu/core.