40 Years

Elizabeth Reed, Senior Associate Dean, DUE

[Editors note: This is an excerpt from Elizabeth Reed’s remarks at her May 27 Retirement Party.  She is retiring after 40 years at MIT. Her last day is June 30, 2014. Good luck Elizabeth, we will miss you!]

I am sure you all know Gloria Steinem's most quoted line "This is what 40 looks like." May 14, 2014 was my 40 year anniversary at MIT and this is what 40 looks like to me.

40 years in one organization, one profession (more or less) and at one address look like this: a room filled with many of my dearest friends, de facto siblings and some who are what New Yorker magazine calls “familiar strangers”- people I see regularly at MIT to whom I feel a connection though we may not know each other by name.

This is the community where I've grown up, which has helped me grow, challenged and inspired me, cheered me on and cheered me up, and where I learned how hard and how rewarding it is to build and be a community, an office and a team. Many of you have seen me do things less well than I wanted to and succeed at things I didn’t know I had it in me to do.

Of course MIT has changed a lot since I began. How could it not in 40 years? In some ways my MIT career feels like it’s moved with the speed of light.  May 1974 became May 2014 and now I am about to become “institutional memory.”

This means when I walk down the Infinite Corridor, I picture Bob Silbey coming from a 1996 Task Force on Student Life and Learning meeting, stopping to spiritedly describe the book he planned to write on “the neuroses of the MIT faculty.” It means I recall pausing to summon up my sense of self, before entering a room where I was usually the only woman and often the only non-faculty on an Institute task force or working group. It means I still hear the distinctive voices of Constantine Simonides, Shirley McBay, Bill Dickson, Jim Culliton, Chuck Vest, and Bob Weatherall (my first boss known to some of you as “the English man with a bowtie”) and other MIT figures from the past. It means that every January 28 on the anniversary of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger’s 10th mission, I remember signing up MIT grad Ronald McNair for an on-campus recruiting interview with NASA in 1976.  As some of you know, Ron and six other NASA crew members died in that launch.

But despite all the changes, there has been continuity of the most meaningful kind. You have been that continuity.

I often say MIT has been my third parent. In fact that is almost literally true. This community has been a shaping influence longer than my father who died when I was 31. Like a good parent, it has made me feel valued, provided essential life lessons, and shaped my standards and values. It also put me through graduate school, provided healthcare, food on the table and the 401K that enables me to retire. And I met my life partner Jan here and had the opportunity to know him first through the eyes of students who often provide the best litmus test of character. Here at MIT I found fertile ground where I have been able to thrive and use my mind and heart every day.

Transitions are complicated. That’s why as I am about to retire (regroup, as my husband calls it) I move back and forth between elation and sadness.   MIT is a very hard place to leave.  I tried to leave several times. But the strong gravitational pull of great colleagues, great bosses and students, the continual learning curve of MIT; its intensity, idiosyncrasies and rigor kept me here and inspired me to reinvest each time. 

The work itself has been so rewarding, especially the opportunities to improve for MIT students and alumni some of the experiences which had been so hard when I was a college student and recent graduate years earlier. Later it was something else, expressed in this quote which Jeanne Hillery gave me: "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it." The joy and purpose of recent career chapters have been in trying to be the mirror that reflects the light, by supporting and enabling students, alumni, the deans and other colleagues to do their best work in ways I so admire and respect.

As June 30 draws near, I am continually asked “So, what are you going to do?” As someone who has been doing for the past 40 years, I want to make no plans.  Quite honestly, I crave the wide margins of which Thoreau wrote. 

But there is also the feeling of being uprooted, of a seismic shift and the jolt of leaving people and a community I treasure. Only when I realized how deeply I had internalized the relationships, and certain values and characteristics of MIT, could I decide to go explore and find out what is down the road not (yet) taken.

As usual, this year I made New Year’s resolutions. This year there was just one from a line by the poet Tom Herron: “Help me to be in the world for no purpose at all except for the joy of sunlight and rain. Keep me close to the edge, where everything wild begins." These words of my 2014 New Year’s resolution express what I am going to try to do now: Live this way.   Thank you for everything.