Larry Susskind

Urban Studies and Planning
Participatory reflection

In half a century of teaching and mentoring, Professor Larry Susskind has sometimes advised the children of his former students.

Susskind is the Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning. His research focuses on the theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution, particularly as it pertains to cybersecurity for urban infrastructure, land claims of Indigenous Peoples, climate change adaptation, and other science-intensive policy disputes. Professor Susskind founded the Consensus Building Institute, a nonprofit that mediates globally on resource management topics, and is the Director of the MIT Science Impact Collaborative. Susskind has authored or co-authored twenty books, and received both the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning “Educator of the Year” award and MIT’s “Award for Digital Instruction.”

Inclusive leadership

Affectionately, some students refer to Susskind as “Professor Dumbledore.” They describe him as wise, hard-working, and generous. Student nominators mention his “respect[ful] and earnest” engagement with their work, emphasizing that he “always spent the time to seriously consider [students’] opinions and treat them with legitimacy.” Susskind is skilled at helping students suss out the core of what they are trying to say, even when they feel they are sometimes approaching him with a garbled argument.

Ensuring students have a voice in the workings of the department matters deeply to Susskind. Writes one student nominator, Susskind “always puts students first.” He is attentive to student feedback, even when it is critical of the department, and works to incorporate students’ views across the spectrum: from new faculty hires, to financial support; and from academic needs to housing challenges. Susskind actively makes students with “challenges [feel] heard and… that there is a path forward,” according to student nominators.

A theory of practice

Graduate mentorship is a phased process for Susskind. Students reflect on the manifold ways Susskind guides them and provides connections, enabling their research to flourish. He connects students with research programs and a wide professional network, incorporates them in the practice of science diplomacy, co-authors papers with students frequently to introduce them to the academic publishing pipeline, and offers students opportunities to take on leadership roles. In commenting on this, one nominator cites it as “critical to the subsequent success” of Susskind’s students.

Lessons of the complex multiparty negotiations Susskind studies and enacts are central to his advising approach. Writes one student nominator, Susskind pursues approaches in “the mutual interests of everyone involved, and invests in each team member while giving them an opportunity to contribute… in a real way.”

Susskind fuses practice and theory. He considers “taking action, reflecting jointly, and reformulating personal theories of practice [to be] the best way to prepare for post-MIT life.”

Steady support amid adversity

In over 50 years as a mentor, Susskind has reflected often and adapted accordingly. Susskind writes that he is “increasingly patient as a mentor,” taking a step back and helping empower students to solve their own problems as well as link them to resources rather than trying to solve problems for students.

Susskind works with myriad colleagues, learning from their variation in approaches to guidance and advice. He writes that this “forces me to reflect on what I am doing and why. That reflection is crucial.” Indeed, the tremendous volume of letters attesting to Susskind’s depth and compassion as a mentor exhibit this.

Securing funding for the full course of their studies can be a major source of stress, particularly for students in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Multiple students mention Susskind finding funding resources, helping them to “stay financially solvent.” Such tangible advocacy is a Mentoring Guidepost, identified by the Committed to Caring program.

Others mention Susskind making “harrowing hospital visits” as well as helping carry them through immense challenges in graduate school. Several students comment that they might well not have graduated, had it not been for Susskind’s mentorship, and “certainly our paths would have been less joyful.”

At times, Susskind helps extricate students from faculty interactions that diminish their confidence. A first generation student writes that their first year, “[I was] told that I did not have what it takes to get a Ph.D. at MIT by a senior faculty member in the department.” Later in the year, they took a class with Susskind, where “He made me feel confident, like I belonged, and that whatever insecurities I had about being a first generation student were completely misplaced.”

One DUSP alum mentioned grappling with suicidality during their student tenure, in large part due to a dysfunctional advising situation. Susskind took them on as a mentee and the student writes, “I’m not overstating it when I say that he saved my life. I will be forever grateful.”

Precarity and inequity

Susskind is weathering Covid-19 in a multigenerational household featuring twin grandchildren just under two years old. He finds communication demands have increased with the pandemic and remote forms of interacting are often “exhausting.” Susskind stresses that mentors’ own needs matter and should not be indefinitely placed below those of others. He notes, “I’m a much better and more empathetic advisor when my own life is in balance.”

Grappling with persistent racial inequities gained traction in 2020. Susskind is building themes of racial equality and environmental justice more prominently into his courses. He argues that MIT should adopt clear, measurable goals to build social and racial equity. Observes Susskind, “The kinds of students and faculty we want to keep attracting are very likely to demand that they have a chance to play a leadership role in tending to this new social equity agenda. Saying that we are helping to solve some of the most difficult (technical) problems in the world, and that [alone] should justify MIT’s existence, is not good enough.”

Susskind also urges MIT to reflect on its values and better advance quality mentorship. As one method to this end, he writes, “faculty advisors would benefit from a much more systematic and institutionally-supported process of gathering 360-degree feedback every semester on all of their work with students. There are so many examples in the private sector of how to do this and why it is important.”

Frequent reflection has grounded Susskind’s advising practice in care, compassion, and creativity.