“Sue has set a tone for the School that emphasizes warmth, openness, acceptance, and endless encouragement."
— Deborah Fitzgerald, Kenan Sahin Dean,
MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Tending a community for 25 years
As the oldest of 10 children growing up in a North Cambridge housing project, Susan Mannett learned early how to take care of people—skills she has put to good use for just shy of 25 years as director of human resources for MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). Now Mannett is retiring, and many who work with her say they can’t imagine the School without her.
Deborah Fitzgerald, Kenan Sahin Dean of the School, sums up what many feel: "Sue has set a tone for the School that emphasizes warmth, openness, acceptance, and endless encouragement. She also has an encyclopedic memory of everything that has happened in the Dean's Office over these many years. For so many reasons Sue is utterly irreplaceable."
"She’s going to be truly missed,” agrees Mary Grenham, who has worked with Mannett for 17 years as administrative officer for the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. “Before I even started working here, people told me Humanities is a great place to go, and Sue is part of that dynamic. That’s the reputation that she had, even back then.”
Expertise — and legendary humor
Mannett’s position involves managing all of the salary increases for faculty and staff, administering the School’s affirmative action plan, and handling all the promotion and tenure cases. “I mediate and negotiate with everybody,” Mannett says. “I’m the central spot everyone comes to when they have a problem of any kind.”
Fortunately, taking care of people is something Mannett has been doing all her life. Reminiscing about her youthful family life, she says, “By the time I was 5 years old I had five siblings to help take care of, and by the time I was 18, there were 10 of us. That’s a lot of different personalities that you have to learn to deal with.”
Associate Provost Philip Khoury, who worked with Mannett when he served as Dean of SHASS, from 1991 to 2006, says, “She has a kind of magical way of making everyone who sits in front of her with a grievance or a problem feel that they can tell her, in confidence, what this is about.”
She is also famous for handling her job with a good dose of humor. Doug Pfeiffer, Assistant Provost for Administration, who worked with Mannett for roughly 20 years as SHASS’s Assistant Dean for Finance and Administration, says, “If I think of the 10 times in my life when I laughed the hardest, perhaps half of those times were with Sue,” Pfeiffer says. “She has a knack for putting some of the more serious issues in perspective.”
“Sue changed the place for the better, and given MIT’s already amazing quality that’s not easy to do — if I may say so as an historian."
— Philip Khoury, Associate Provost, and Ford International Professor of History
Mannett arrived at MIT in August 1982 to work as a temporary administrative assistant for the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (WHS). She had little prior work experience, having been focused until then on her role as wife and mother of three. But, she realized her family needed a second income, so she took a one-year word processing program at Katherine Gibbs, then signed up for a temp agency.
MIT was her first assignment. “To be honest," she says, "when I first came to MIT and the Writing Program, I felt like I had landed on an alien planet. Academia was completely unfamiliar to this project kid, and I couldn't imagine staying more than a few weeks. But, it didn't take long to make a lot of wonderful friends and to begin to value the unique culture of the Humanities at MIT.”
MIT was also quick to recognize Mannett’s value. By October of that year the WHS job had become permanent, and before long then-Dean Harold Hanham was calling Mannett into his office “to meet the person who managed to make everybody in that very contentious program like [her],” Mannett says.
“Sue’s the type of person that can take a situation that’s difficult and find the humor in it,” Grenham notes. “She can see both sides of the story and she’s a really good listener.”
Mannett says the secret is to recognize that no one formula will work for everybody. “You have to listen to people and let them know you understand what they’re feeling.”
Ally to three Deans
Although Mannett briefly left MIT for a corporate job in December 1984, she returned in August 1986 as the School’s undergraduate Course XXI coordinator, handling all of the School’s Course XXI majors. Then, in fall 1987 the School decided to have the departments handle their own majors, and Mannett found herself being phased out of a job.
That’s when Khoury, who had seen Mannett in action at WHS, put her name in for promotion to the human resources position in the Dean’s Office (the title then was “personnel coordinator”). The dean at the time, Ann Friedlaender, initially hesitated to hire Mannett because she did not have a college degree, but Khoury (then Associate Dean) pushed hard, arguing that Mannett “added value to people. She figured out how to make people better at what they were doing,” he says.
“[Friedlaender] hired Sue, and the rest is history,” Khoury adds. Mannett went on to serve as a remarkable ally to three deans of MIT SHASS.
2003 | L to R: John Curry (then Vice President); Bob Brown (then Provost); Susan Mannett; Phillip Clay (then Chancellor)
In 2003, Mannett received an MIT Excellence Award. Her nominators had these things to say: "a wonderful negotiator,” "committed to actively supporting diversity within the Institute," and "an indefatigable advocate for administrators and staff, while tirelessly supporting the needs of the faculty.”
Forms of education
Mannett eventually did earn her bachelor’s degree, in American Studies, from Lesley University in 2002—after eight years attending night and weekend classes. To celebrate the accomplishment, Khoury and his colleagues in SHASS threw her an elegant dinner party at Oleana restaurant. “It was unbelievable who showed up for this dinner,” Khoury says, noting that leading faculty in SHASS and members of the staff came out in enormous numbers to celebrate Mannett's achievement. “You saw the respect for her. They loved her and they respected her.”
“I certainly received a great education from my formal studies," Mannett says, "but I feel that my real education happened while working in SHASS every day—especially listening to the conversations around the table each week at the SHASS School Council."
Although she's proud of her degree, Mannett doesn’t mention this milestone when asked to name her greatest accomplishment. Instead, she cites her part in gaining recognition for other exceptional MIT employees. She helped create MIT’s Rewards & Recognition Program, which launched in 2001 and oversees the Institute-wide Excellence Awards for staff. “MIT used to be known as a praise-free zone,” Mannett says. “The level of morale has lifted immensely.”
“She changed the place for the better," says Khoury, "and given MIT’s already amazing quality that’s not easy to do —if I may say so as an historian."
Of course, human resource work often means dealing with problems—including helping people recognize that it’s time to move on. What makes Mannett stand out is the way she has handled such issues with compassion, humor, and empathy. “Sue was always able to help make everybody happy in the end,” says Kerry Ducharme, who worked with Mannett for 10 years as SHASS personnel administrator.
“She is just unparalleled at being able to relate to people at a personal level,” Pfeiffer says. “She used humor in tactful ways to add to her effectiveness. It’s a great way to conduct negotiations or have conversations with people who might be tense.”
Noting that the School has benefited enormously from Mannett’s continuous efforts to improve the quality of the staff, Khoury says, “She’s able and willing to find solutions that work and that’s an art form.”
Earlier this year, Sue agreed to be the "poster girl" for the campaign for the Infinite Mile Awards. They are a tradition she helped to launch, and we can't imagine a better person to represent the spirit of the program.
Those efforts led to Mannett receiving an Excellence Award of her own in 2003—for “Bringing Out the Best.” Her hard work on affirmative action was particularly noted. One nominator wrote, "She is committed to actively supporting diversity within the Institute, encouraging broad-based searches, demanding adherence to equal opportunity procedures, and sponsoring meetings with HR representatives on issues of diversity recruitment and staff retention.”
“Sue brought a lot integrity to HR,” Khoury notes. “All of us—from AOs to senior administration—get advice and get wisdom from Sue.”
In many ways, Mannett’s success ties directly back to her role in her family, where she now extends her caring ways to the generations beyond her many siblings—with all the challenges that that implies. “To this day I’m the one they go to for help. I’m the matriarch of the family,” Mannett says.
Taking care of everybody at MIT naturally followed. “She keeps everyone together and she worries about everyone,” Khoury says. And, like a good mother, she can be tough when she needs to be. “She’ll tell you what she thinks of you.”
“MIT became her family,” Ducharme says. “Everyone she worked with, that’s her second family.”
Now that she is retiring, Mannett says she is looking forward to spending more time with her first family, including her husband, Larry “Duke” Mannett, three children—Ron Kenney Jr., Brian Mannett, and Amanda Delaney—two grandchildren, and a new great-grandson, born in June. She is also delighted to report that another grandchild is due in September. “I love babies. I think if I get bored with myself in retirement I will probably volunteer to help babies somehow. It’s better than any sedative in the world,” she says.
She also hopes to spend more time scrapbooking, which she considers a form of storytelling. “Creating a scrapbook of someone's life is a way of putting a narrative together, with photos, beautiful images, and commentary,” she says. “[It’s] something I love to do.”
It is mutual, Sue.
Nevertheless, Mannett admits she will miss MIT. “I will miss being part of the action. There’s nothing like belonging to MIT to feel like you’re part of a mission that helps the world. It’s such a wonderful place with so many smart, wonderful people.”
MIT will miss her right back.
“There’s no one who’s like Sue,” Khoury says. “It has been just glorious working with her."
Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editor and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Portrait and poster photographs: Jonanthan Sachs