Joi Ito Will Put MIT Media Lab Back on World Stage, Says Maes-Watch for Hiring Binge

4/26/11Follow @wroush

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staff up. “One of the conditions—one of the things he wanted to know–was whether he could have an impact specifically by hiring more people,” Maes says. “He’s not going to be a status-quo type of person.”

The committee’s answer to Ito’s question, Maes says, was yes. But how many people Ito gets to hire “will very much depend on how successful he, and of course the faculty, are in raising more money,” she says. (The Media Lab currently subsists on a budget of about $35 million a year, mostly in the form of industry sponsorships.) “But he is not afraid of that,” says Maes. “He’s always been a natural fundraiser, and if he believes in something he has been very good at articulating to potential funding sources why something should be funded.”

Ito, 44, was one of 250 candidates considered by the Media Lab, its founding director Nicholas Negroponte told the New York Times, which broke the story of the appointment last night. Negroponte, a professor in the lab, served with Maes on the search committee, as did faculty members Cynthia Breazeal and Mitchel Resnick. Bill Freeman, associate director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and historian Philip Khoury, MIT’s associate provost, were also on the committee.

Though the committee had been working toward its decision for nine months, it got taken by surprise in the end. MIT had planned to release the news of It’s appointment this morning, but the Times left the blocks early with its story—which meant Maes was up late talking to this reporter.

She told me that while Ito “definitely thinks very much like us”—meaning the Media Lab faculty—there are also likely to be some changes under his leadership. “I think he will really want to put his stamp on things,” Maes says. “He’ll want to grow the lab and make it more globally and socially and economically relevant. We have plenty of faculty who think about academic relevance, but his role will be to think about the relevance to the rest of the world. That is what we want—-I think we’re ready to be shaken up a little bit.”

Ito’s sparse academic background—he studied at Tufts, the University of Chicago, and the New School of Social Research, but didn’t finish a degree at any of them—”was definitely not an issue” during the selection process, Maes says. Just the same, she expects some negative reaction from outside the lab. “But I feel like we have enough grownups at the lab now that maybe we are almost erring too much on the side of being acceptable and conventional,” she says. “We have incredible academic successes with most of our faculty, but I think it’s good to have somebody who isn’t necessarily blinded by that, and to hire somebody who ultimately looks at how this work is going to make a difference in the world.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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