To Better Society

Tufts’ incoming president, Anthony Monaco, talks about the role of academia in the world, his research, his family and their impending big move
Anthony Monaco
Anthony Monaco on the Oxford University campus, which he will soon leave behind. Photo: Rob Judges
March 8, 2011

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The next president of Tufts holds a peculiarly British title, pro-vice-chancellor, at that most British of institutions, the University of Oxford. But there is nothing staid or tradition-bound about either the man or his pioneering work in neuroscience. Anthony Monaco—Tony to friends and colleagues—grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. He attended Princeton University on a generous financial aid package and went on to an M.D. and a Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School, specializing in the genetics of neurological disorders.

Monaco’s fascination with genetics took him to the U.K., then the hub of this burgeoning field. He worked on the human genome project at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London and started the human genetics laboratory at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford. At Oxford, he co-founded the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, which identifies the genetic underpinnings of common human diseases. Monaco’s own research has focused on the genetic basis of disorders such as autism, language impairment and dyslexia. Under his leadership, the Wellcome Trust Centre doubled in size: it is now the largest externally funded university-based research center in the U.K.

As Oxford’s pro-vice-chancellor for planning and resources since 2007, Monaco developed strategies for academic, capital and student-enrollment planning; senior academic appointments; and budgeting and resource allocation for Oxford’s academic divisions, libraries, museums, administration and colleges. He has worked to broaden access to Oxford, create and fund interdisciplinary research ventures, and boost support for the humanities.

At 51, Monaco has acquired just the skills one would hope to find in the 13th president of Tufts University. Introducing him to the Tufts community in November, James A. Stern, E72, chair of the Board of Trustees, noted Monaco’s “record of exceptional accomplishment as a university leader, biomedical researcher, and teacher.” He added, “Tony will bring to the presidency of Tufts deeply held commitments to academic excellence, diversity, a global perspective and the university’s central role in society.”

Tony Monaco—reader of historical novels, father of three active boys, ages nine to 12, who can’t wait to sled down the hill behind the president’s residence on the Medford/Somerville campus and spouse of Zoia Monaco, a cell biologist who heads a research group at Oxford—will succeed President Lawrence S. Bacow on August 1. While vacationing at his home in Delaware, he spoke with Tufts Now about his aspirations, his science and his family.

Tufts Now: What’s on your agenda for your first year as president?

Anthony Monaco: I’ll be spending a lot of time meeting people and listening. One of my major goals is to understand the strategic issues facing each of the schools, and what the interdisciplinary issues are that knit the schools together into one Tufts. I’ll spend time in each school with the deans and their faculty and students to understand what they do well, what things could be done better and strategically what they would like to achieve. I will also spend much of my time going out and meeting with alumni and friends of Tufts.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I try to approach leadership through transparency and consensus building. I want to synthesize and bring together strategic approaches to develop innovative solutions to problems. For me, I need to do that from the ground up. It’s about devising strategies and making choices. The most important ingredient is to work with people and listen to their views. That’s where I spend a lot of time before making big decisions.

How do you see your research background serving you as president of Tufts?

At the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, there were thirty different research groups, and I had to bring them together into a mission where the sum was greater than the parts. I used that approach when I became pro-vice-chancellor. At Oxford there are four divisions—mathematical, physical and life sciences; medical sciences; social sciences; and humanities. Each had its own strategic issues and its own funding problems. My job was to work together with the heads of those divisions, match their objectives with funding and get the four divisions to cooperate to bring the entire institution to a higher level. I think those experiences are essential to leading a major research university.

At Oxford, what has been your involvement with the humanities?

As pro-vice-chancellor, I spent a lot of time working with the humanities division. They had their funding cut by government, and were struggling to break even. We are reviewing how we teach the humanities and trying to get a humanities center—which Tufts already has—to create an environment in which faculty can perform interdisciplinary research and graduate education.

I spent a considerable amount of time trying to facilitate their top priorities and assembling the resources, facilities and fundraising programs so that they could have a more solid financial basis. More personally, my own research crosses into the humanities in a certain sense—I work on the genetics of language and communication and reading.

I think the humanities in particular foster an appreciation of the creativity of the human mind. Humanities scholars are always challenging and questioning established ideas and modes of thought. So in some ways, I don’t see the aims of humanities scholars as that different from the aims of colleagues involved in science and math. Both disciplines try to challenge the current ways of thinking about an important issue. There are parallels between the sciences and humanities that maybe aren’t appreciated as much as they should be.

What are some of the differences between student experiences in the U.K. and the U.S.?

At Oxford, the tutorial system is based on very small classroom teaching with leading academics in a college environment. That’s very difficult to replicate elsewhere, because it does have its costs. But the practice of having more personal contact between faculty and undergraduate students in a small classroom setting or as advisers or mentors is something I value, and Tufts values as well.

I’m also very interested in developing the skills of graduate students beyond training in a particular discipline. Graduate students need to acquire other skills that are important to their personal and professional development. At Oxford and in the U.K. in general, there has been increasing emphasis over the last few years in building up transferable skills such as communication, presentation and writing, time management and team management, in addition to the supervision of graduate students on their individual projects. Being able to communicate your ideas and the excitement of scholarship and science—to the media and others—is vital. It’s an area I’ve been involved in at Oxford for many years.

The other big difference is that undergraduate study in Oxford and most U.K. institutions is subject-specific. For example, if you are going to study chemistry at Oxford, you do not normally enroll in humanities and social sciences courses to round out your liberal arts education. So that system does create a different type of graduate at the end.

Is that better?

I prefer the American style. I think it is advantageous to give students a bit of time to decide what they want to focus on and enable them to experience a range of subjects in higher education.

Active citizenship is part and parcel of the Tufts identity. Is that idea of service to others important to you, too?

Absolutely. You’re not just studying something to understand it better—you’re trying to better society by demonstrating that your research has an impact beyond its essential findings. I think you can bring active citizenship to many different levels, ranging from people performing research on K–12 educational issues or getting involved in their local communities to the big international issues, such as the international veterinary program at Tufts or the global health issues in which multiple schools at Tufts are involved. These are all important ways of being active citizens.

At Tufts, there’s increasing interdisciplinary collaboration, such as between the engineering school and the medical school. Is that an approach you’d like to see more of?

Yes, absolutely. It certainly needs to be a faculty-supported initiative. For example, at Oxford, the biomedical engineers decided to work in the medical school, right in the midst of the medical researchers and some distance away from the rest of engineering. The biomedical engineers now have better access to clinicians and other medical research programs. It’s an example of a great experiment in cross-disciplinary collaboration that is working well. Oxford also has a similar issue to Tufts: our medical sciences division and the hospitals are on two separate campuses, two miles outside the center of Oxford. So you’re always trying to deal with cross-campus practical issues as well as more strategic issues. That said, I think there are ways of integrating across campuses.

The Boston area has many research institutions. How do you see Tufts fitting into that mix?

I’d like to see Tufts build on its strengths as both a competitor and a collaborator with other universities and institutes. Tufts should focus on those areas in which it is identified as world-leading and then ensure that we have the facilities, resources and people in place to compete for external funding. Some of this can be accomplished by collaboration. For example, if there’s an area where two institutions, by working together, can win grants from the National Institutes of Health, then the scientists will figure that out, and the central administration should facilitate that collaboration.

The life sciences are a niche area for Tufts, with the veterinary, nutrition, medical and dental schools, as well as the basic science research being performed on the Medford/Somerville campus. There are ways of organizing different programs in the life sciences that would build on the strengths of Tufts and involve other research institutions in the Boston area.

How will you foster diversity in the student body?

I obviously want to continue the great tradition that Larry Bacow has built up, trying to make need-blind admission at Tufts a reality. It’s very close, but it’s not quite there yet and will require further fundraising and engagement with alumni and friends of Tufts. It does seem that the admissions policies are quite robust at Tufts, and I want to continue to create opportunities to attract a diverse student body.

What drew you to genetics in the first place?

As an undergraduate at Princeton, I was really interested in neuroscience and behavior. When I was in the neuroscience program at Harvard, the geneticist Lou Kunkel gave us a talk on how he was going to take on Duchenne muscular dystrophy using a genetic approach. It was just clear to me that this was going to work. I camped out on his doorstep, and when he came in the next morning, I said, “I have to do my Ph.D. with you.” He took me on—I was his first student. He had just started his own lab and had received a grant to try this genetic approach. We worked together for several years. It was great fun, and also challenging.

What have you discovered?

For the last 15 years, I’ve focused on learning disabilities and other neurodevelopmental problems in children—where language, the ability to read, and the right social skills don’t develop properly, as is the case with autism, for example. There’s a lot of overlap between these different areas. By studying all of them and taking a general, non-biased genetic approach, we’ve been able to identify genes that are specific to one disorder as well as some genes which are involved in multiple disorders.

Some of these genes can be involved in reading and language; some can be involved in language and autism. Our research, as well as the research of others, has shown that these genes do have effects across these different areas. The outcome can be autism or epilepsy or a language problem, depending on other factors. Once we get a handle on the genetics, we want to understand what those other factors are. If you can influence these other factors and the outcome, you can develop treatments or interventions that might help children compensate for their neurodevelopmental problems.

You kept your research group together at Oxford after you were appointed pro-vice-chancellor. Do you plan to continue with that at Tufts?

I’m certainly not going to set up a lab at Tufts, but for a transition period, I’m going to try to supervise at a distance the students and postdoctoral fellows I have at Oxford, with senior people there who will be leading the group on a day-to-day basis. I will have to achieve it with Skype and other methods of communication—as I do now as pro-vice-chancellor. I have an obligation to those students and those research programs to stay involved as best I can. I think I’ve already shown that the group can be productive in this situation.

What are you most proud of besides your family?

I’m really proud of the members of my lab who, as I have taken a step back over the last three-and-a-half years, have risen to the challenge and have kept the lab at the cutting edge. They developed themselves as the next generation of scientists in this area of research and have been incredibly productive. They identified one of the first genes involved in dyslexia and described its mechanism of action in brain development. In addition, they have just identified one of the first genes involved in human handedness.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

Identifying the gene for Duchenne muscular dystrophy with Lou Kunkel, and overcoming problems that researchers hadn’t had to face before. It was an intellectual challenge, and also a physical challenge, because of the way we performed molecular biology back then. It wasn’t a thought experiment: you had to get in the lab and do lots and lots of repetitive things and isolate DNA using big centrifuges. Collecting pieces of DNA from human chromosomes in those days before the genome project started was quite a physical process.

How have your three sons reacted to the big move?

I think that they are quite excited because it’s a new opportunity. There will be new schools, new sports—no more cricket, not much rugby. They love soccer, so they will be trying that. Zoia and I keep them involved, and we try to stay involved in what they are doing. We support them and give them the opportunities, and they do the rest.

And they are moving into a home on a college campus.

It will be fun, with all the events going on at Gifford House, the president’s residence. My sons are pretty outgoing, so I don’t think they will shy away from meeting people. They certainly enjoyed the announcement weekend at Tufts.
They also can’t wait for that first big snow so they can sled down the hill behind Gifford House. Larry Bacow sent us some pictures of the blizzard on December 27 so the boys could see what it would be like.

What’s on your reading list?

I like reading historical novels such as The Dancer Upstairs, by Nicholas Shakespeare, and An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears. For nonfiction, I like history, such as The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, a history of medicine by Roy Porter. I’ve also read America, Empire of Liberty: A New History of the United States, by David Reynolds, and The Ascent of Money, by Niall Ferguson. Also, I just read An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts, 1976–2002, by Sol Gittleman.

Have you and your family visited the U.S. much?

These last five years we’ve come over at Christmas, because we have a house in Delaware, and we usually come over at Easter. During the summer, we go to the beach near our home. The boys like swimming, and they tried surfing last year and took sailing lessons.

This won’t be the first time you’ve lived in Boston.

I spent seven years at Harvard Medical School, and I did my Ph.D. at Children’s Hospital with Lou Kunkel. I did my clinical rotations at different hospitals—Massachusetts General, Roxbury VA Hospital, Brigham and Women’s and Children’s.

What did you miss most about Boston when you were at Oxford?

The soft pretzels they sell outside Fenway Park.

How do Boston and Oxford compare?

I would say the biggest difference is that Oxford has one major university. In Boston there is the excitement of having so many major universities in one city. That’s one thing I missed about Boston when I was in Oxford. When I leave Oxford, I am going to miss the city, its traditions, my colleagues and friends that we’ve built up over 20 years.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.