CAMBRIDGE – Sally A. Kornbluth, a cell biologist whose eight-year tenure as Duke University’s provost has earned her a reputation as a brilliant administrator, a creative problem-solver, and a leading advocate of academic excellence, has been selected as MIT’s 18th president.
Kornbluth, who is Jewish, was elected to the post last week by a vote of the MIT Corporation. Last Hanukkah, she helped light a menorah and led the holiday blessings at Jewish Life at Duke’s menorah lighting celebration. She will assume the MIT presidency on Jan. 1, 2023, succeeding L. Rafael Reif, who last February announced his intention to step down after 10 years leading the Institute.
A distinguished researcher and dedicated mentor, Kornbluth is currently the Jo Rae Wright University Professor of Biology at Duke. She has served on the Duke faculty since 1994, first as a member of the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology in the Duke University School of Medicine and then as a member of the Department of Biology in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.
Born in Paterson, N.J., Kornbluth grew up in nearby Fair Lawn. Her father, George, was a music-loving accountant; her mother, Myra, was an opera singer who performed regularly at the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and elsewhere.
After earning her BA in political science from Williams in 1982, Kornbluth received a BA in genetics from Cambridge in 1984. She earned a PhD in molecular oncology at Rockefeller University in 1989, and went on to postdoctoral training at the University of California at San Diego. She joined the Duke faculty as an assistant professor in 1994, becoming an associate professor in 2000 and a full professor in 2005.
As Duke’s chief academic officer, Kornbluth oversees Duke’s 10 schools and six institutes, and holds ultimate responsibility for admissions, financial aid, libraries, and all other facets of academic and student life.
“Dr. Sally Kornbluth is an extraordinary find for MIT,” says MIT Corporation Chair Diane B. Greene SM ’78. “She is decisive and plain-spoken, a powerhouse administrator who has proactively embraced critical issues like free speech and DEI. “Although she is new to MIT, Sally Kornbluth is a scholar who seems cut from our own cloth,” adds Lily L. Tsai, the Ford Professor of Political Science and chair of the MIT faculty. “She is a bold leader with exceptional judgment, an active listener who seeks all viewpoints with a genuinely open-minded approach, a principled, high-integrity individual. I look forward to welcoming her to our community.”
Wide-ranging gains for Duke faculty and students
As provost, Kornbluth prioritized investments to fortify Duke’s faculty, strengthened its leadership in interdisciplinary scholarship and education, and pursued innovations in undergraduate education. She also spearheaded a concerted effort to cultivate greater strength in science and engineering at Duke.
Simultaneously, Kornbluth led efforts to develop a pipeline of faculty from underrepresented groups, aiming to make Duke more diverse and inclusive. Her team sought opportunities to make Duke more accessible and affordable, including new scholarships for first-generation students, increases in need-based financial aid, a preorientation program that includes all first-year students, and a new residential system that more closely links living and learning. She has sought to extend Duke’s international outreach and has encouraged the development of new partnerships with a focus on social, economic, and environmental issues impacting societies around the world.“Sally Kornbluth has demonstrated the ability to lead across disciplines, and to catalyze the type of cross-disciplinary initiatives that have been so instrumental to MIT’s ability to contribute advances in technology and engineering for the betterment of the world,” says Kristala L. Jones Prather, the Arthur Dehon Little Professor of Chemical Engineering, who served on the presidential search committee.
Research impacts in cellular behavior – and far beyond
At Duke, Kornbluth’s research focused on the biological signals that tell a cell to start dividing or to self-destruct – processes that are key to understanding cancer as well as various degenerative disorders. She has published extensively on cell proliferation and programmed cell death, studying both phenomena in a variety of organisms. Her research has helped to show how cancer cells evade this programmed death, or apoptosis, and how metabolism regulates the cell death.
Her first senior administrative position came when she was named vice dean for basic science at the Duke School of Medicine in 2006.
In this role, Kornbluth served as a liaison between the dean of medicine and faculty leaders, oversaw biomedical graduate programs, implemented efforts to support research in basic science, allocated laboratory space, oversaw new and existing core laboratories, and worked with department chairs to recruit and retain faculty. From 2009 to 2011, she also oversaw the clinical research enterprise in the Duke School of Medicine.
Among other honors, Kornbluth received the Basic Science Research Mentoring Award from the Duke School of Medicine in 2012 and the Distinguished Faculty Award from the Duke Medical Alumni Association in 2013. She is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Kornbluth’s husband, Daniel Lew, is the James B. Duke Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at the Duke School of Medicine. Their son, Alex, is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and their daughter, Joey, is a medical student at the University of California at San Francisco.