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Dr. Leo Rafael REIF

79th Congregation (2015)

Dr. Leo Rafael REIF
Doctor of Laws


Many people of Jewish background fled from Eastern Europe in the later 1930s, escaping from the persecution they were already experiencing and the even worse horrors they could see coming.  Among them was a young man called Chaim Reif.  In 1938, he, his wife and their infant son eventually arrived with almost no possessions in the South American country of Ecuador.  From there they moved first to Colombia and then to Venezuela, where they settled down. Chaim and his wife would eventually have four sons.  They were poor, as their only support came from Chaim’s work as a photographer. At home their languages were Spanish and Yiddish; they spoke no English.  But their sons were the first generation of the family to attend college.  Education brought great advantages to this poor refugee family.

The youngest son was born in 1950.  His name was Leo Rafael Reif.  At the age of 23, he received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela, before moving to the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas for a year in his first teaching position.  But the next step was the decisive one for him, into a new language and a higher stage of education.  He had perhaps learned from his parents that you have to take risks to progress.  He entered graduate school at Stanford University in 1974, despite speaking little English.  He nevertheless earned his Master of Science degree in the following year and his PhD in 1979, ultimately serving at Stanford as a Visiting Assistant Professor.

He had intended to return to Venezuela, despite his reservations about the cold weather in Massachusetts, he was persuaded instead to apply for a position at the institution which has become his permanent home. He took up his first post at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an Assistant Profess or of Electrical Engineering in 1980.  By 1988 he was a full professor.  He had already received a United States Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1984 and had held the Analog Devices Career Development Professorship in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).  From 1990 to 1999, he was Director of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories, supporting research and education in microscale and nanoscale systems.  He then served as Associate Head and finally Head of the EECS Department, MIT’s largest academic department, from 1999 to 2005.  In 2004, he was named the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology.

Dr Reif had already become internationally recognized as a leading micro-electronics researcher who helped address the technical challenges arising from the ever-accelerating miniaturization of electronics in recent decades.  His research has centred on three- dimensional integrated circuits, in which layers fabricated through different processes are stacked to form complex monolithic systems.  This allows a variety of electronic functions to be integrated into a smaller chip area.

Dr Reif and his group have also achieved distinction in identifying and developing environmentally benign alternatives to chemicals in the etching of patterns on microchips. Some gases widely used in the semiconductor industry are believed to contribute to global warming, and the group has worked on a variety of alternative compounds.

Dr Reif has been widely recognized for his contribution in these fields.  He was named a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1993 for his work in ‘the low-temperature epitaxial growth of semiconductor thin films’.  In 2000, he received the Aristotle Award from the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) for his commitment to the education and impact on the careers of SRC students.  He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the US National Academy of Engineering.  He holds 15 patents and has authored, edited or co-edited many books and papers.

But his extended leadership experience also led to a new phase in Dr Reif’s career, with his appointment as Provost of MIT in 2005.  In this role, he helped MIT weather the economic downturn that started a few years later, oversaw partnerships with governments and foundations to create four new centres and universities worldwide, promoted a major faculty-led effort to address race and diversity challenges, and helped foster the emergence of an innovation cluster adjacent to MIT.  He also led the development of two pioneering online education initiatives: MITx, the Institute’s own online learning platform; and edX, a partnership between MIT and Harvard that has enriched residential education and, to date, has brought online learning to six million people from 196 countries.  For his work in developing MITx, he received the 2012 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award. As a visionary champion of digital learning, he was also recognized with the 2015 Frank E. Taplin, Jr. Public Intellectual Award.

The youngest son of a refugee family had come a long way, including raising a family.  But the journey was not over.  In July 2012, Dr Reif was appointed as the 17th President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  In that distinguished role, he was asked by the White House to co-chair the Steering Committee of the National Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.  He has also launched the MIT Innovation Initiative.  As part of this effort, in November of 2015, MIT announced the launch of an ‘Innovation Node’ in Hong Kong intended to connect the MIT community with various resources, capabilities and opportunities in Hong Kong and its neighboring Pearl River Delta. To drive progress towards creating a sustainable human society, Dr Reif also launched the cross-disciplinary Environmental Solutions Initiative, which includes the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Laboratory, a new effort to help humanity adapt to a rising population, a changing climate, and increasing urbanization and development.  In this same spirit, in October 2015, Dr Reif announced MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change. In just one generation this enterprising refugee family produced an individual capable of exercising world-changing responsibility.

For his outstanding contributions to micro-electronics, environmental sustainability and online education, as well as to global university leadership, it gives me great pleasure, Mr Vice-Chancellor,  to present  to you Dr Leo Rafael Reif, for the award of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


This citation is written by Professor Simon Haines