Former MIT president Charles M. Vest dies at 72

Former MIT president Charles M. Vest — a tireless advocate for research and science, and a passionate supporter of diversity and openness — died last night of pancreatic cancer at his home in the Washington area. He was 72.

As MIT’s 15th president, serving from 1990 to 2004, Vest led the Institute through a period of striking change and growth. A mechanical engineer by training, Vest was president of the National Academy of Engineering from 2007 until earlier this year.

During Vest’s presidency — the third-longest in the Institute’s 152-year history —MIT renewed its commitment to education and research through major innovations in both areas; developed strong ties with academic, government, and industry partners around the world; broadened the diversity of its people and programs; and transformed its campus with dramatic new buildings. MIT’s endowment nearly quadrupled during Vest’s tenure, growing from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion.

“Through its own work, and especially through the lives and works of its graduates, a great university can strive to make the world well,” Vest wrote in 2004. “The knowledge we generate, the things we come to understand, and the devices we build can improve health, economies, security and the quality of life. MIT must continue to be optimistic in its vision of why we are here and what we can do.”

An era of multifaceted growth

Consistent with Vest’s optimistic interest in the expansion of knowledge, MIT’s research enterprise grew substantially during his tenure. Vest spearheaded expansions into fields including brain and cognitive sciences (with the establishment of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Picower Center for Learning and Memory); nanotechnology (with the creation of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies); genomic medicine (with the founding of the Broad Institute); biological engineering; engineering systems; and new media, among others.

“Personally and professionally, Chuck Vest set an exceptional standard of intellectual clarity, moral courage, and generosity of spirit,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “And there was no better example of his vision and values than the creation of MIT OpenCourseWare — the simple, elegant, unprecedented idea that MIT should make all of its course materials available online to anyone in the world, free. Thanks to Chuck’s leadership, OCW has become a source of outstanding content for 150 million global learners, the model for the global OpenCourseWare movement, and the foundation and inspiration for everything we are striving to achieve with edX and MITx.”

In 1999, Vest charged a faculty committee with considering how to use the Internet in pursuit of MIT’s mission. That committee, led by Professor Dick K. P. Yue, made a revolutionary proposal: the online publication of teaching materials for MIT courses, free and available to learners worldwide. By November 2007, OpenCourseWare had completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, more than 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines. MIT’s move would catalyze similarly bold efforts by universities around the world to democratize access to education.

“Chuck Vest was a staunch supporter and champion of MIT OpenCourseWare literally from day one. OCW would not have been possible without his singular vision, courage, and leadership,” says Yue, the Philip J. Solondz Professor of Engineering and Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering.

Vest fostered MIT’s international engagement through large-scale ventures, often undertaken in conjunction with other institutions. These included the birth of the Singapore-MIT Alliance, intended to promote global engineering education and research using synchronous distance-teaching technologies.

Closer to home, Vest undertook a major examination of student life and learning. His tenure as president was defined by campus innovations such as the introduction of cellular and molecular biology as a core requirement for all undergraduates; the establishment of the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program to recognize and reward excellence in teaching; the creation of a five-year combined Bachelor/Master of Engineering program; a restructured housing policy including a common first-year experience; and the construction of three new student residences, all designed to enhance interaction among students and faculty, and a state-of-the-art sports and fitness center.

Vest’s strong belief that MIT could best address certain educational and research challenges in partnership with others took the form of collaborations with industry that he helped foster. “Industrial issues have become intellectually challenging and exciting … and we need each other as never before,” he wrote in 1993.

A scientist on the national stage

On assuming the MIT presidency — an occasion he later described as “a call to national service” — Vest set out to rebuild public understanding of and support for higher education and research. He became a regular presence in Washington, championing research, science, and innovative partnerships among universities, government, and industry. Vest logged more than 100 visits to the nation’s capital, personally conferring with some 250 federal officials during his time as MIT’s president.

“Chuck came to lead MIT at a difficult time for American higher education,” says Paul Gray, who preceded Vest as MIT’s president. “In 1990, many in Washington had come to feel that the nation’s universities had not acted as wise stewards of their federal funding. He made frequent trips to Washington as an ambassador not only for MIT, but indeed, for academia as a whole — and he did so supremely well.”

Vest served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and chaired the Task Force on the Future of Science Programs at the Department of Energy. At the request of President Bill Clinton, he chaired the Committee on the Redesign of the International Space Station, which revitalized the space station at a time when its future was in question.

"Chuck Vest was both a product and a champion of this nation’s powerful scientific and engineering community," Clinton says. "He served with distinction as an ambassador and spokesman for science in Washington, advocating tirelessly for the essential role of research in our economic growth and national security."

“Chuck Vest’s irrepressible good humor and easy laughter mixed effortlessly with his earnest, persistent pursuit of the right path in all things,” says Susan Hockfield, who succeeded Vest as MIT’s president. “He took up with passion the role of MIT’s president as national spokesperson for higher education and research policy. MIT affords an especially clear view of the dependence of the American innovation economy on federal investments in education and research, and President Vest expanded the Institute’s engagement in federal policymaking, becoming a consistent, trusted voice of the research university in Washington, earning the gratitude of college and university presidents across the nation. Later, as president of the National Academy of Engineering, he continued his role as advocate-in-chief of sound policies for education and research. At MIT and beyond, he will be terribly missed, because his advocacy success was inseparable from his personal warmth.”

“Chuck Vest was, above all, an extraordinary human being: Not only was he perhaps the most respected figure in higher education, he was a man of extraordinary decency, integrity, and grace,” says Lawrence S. Bacow, who served as MIT’s chancellor under Vest before being named president of Tufts University in 2001. “His principled courage stood him, and MIT, in good stead on countless occasions when the going got tough, and he was a good friend and extraordinary mentor to so many of us. I will miss him terribly."

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Vest became a national spokesperson on the importance of higher education and research to the nation’s well-being. As research universities grappled with the balance between security and openness, Vest argued directly, and passionately, in favor of the latter. “Knowledge creation thrives in openness and suffers in isolation,” he wrote in 2002.

In 2004, Vest was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. The commission ultimately concluded that in reporting the presence of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. intelligence agencies were “dead wrong” and their collected information “worthless or misleading.” In 2006, Vest was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Bush "for his visionary leadership in advancing America's technological workforce and capacity for innovation through revitalizing the national partnership among academia, government, and industry."

A champion of diversity

Vest’s deft handling of one of his presidency’s greatest challenges — a public examination of MIT’s troubled history on issues relating to gender equity — ultimately proved a high point of his tenure, reinforcing the Institute’s status as a beacon of meritocracy.

In 1998, Vest forthrightly acknowledged serious gender-equity problems cited by senior women faculty in the School of Science; he then supported corrective measures to address longstanding imbalances. A stunningly candid and publicly released report detailing gender inequity at MIT — and Vest’s subsequent leadership on the issue —stimulated examination of gender equality at universities across the country.

“I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception,” Vest wrote in a much-cited preface to the MIT report on gender equity, “but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

Vest’s leadership team, and those of MIT’s five schools, reflected Vest’s personal commitment to diversity and inclusion. Under Vest, MIT appointed its first female department head in the School of Science; its first two minority department heads in the School of Engineering; its first five female vice presidents; and the first African-American chancellor.

Throughout his presidency, Vest also strived to bolster the diversity of MIT’s student body and its faculty. Underrepresented minorities grew from 14 percent to 20 percent of the undergraduate population, and from 3 percent to 5 percent of the graduate student body. The number of women grew from 34 percent to 42 percent of undergraduates; when Vest stepped down as president, women outnumbered men in 10 undergraduate majors. The proportion of women graduate students increased from 20 percent to 29 percent during his tenure.

Vest was a staunch advocate of need-based financial aid. In 1992, MIT went to trial to fight the Justice Department’s contention that antitrust statutes were violated when top universities, including MIT, shared information about applicants’ financial need. A lengthy court battle ultimately established the “MIT Standards of Conduct,” enabling colleges committed to need-based aid to exchange certain data, and also led to legislation permitting colleges to adopt a common methodology for measuring need.

A campus reimagined

Vest’s presidency reinvigorated MIT’s campus, bringing new construction whose square footage exceeded the scope of MIT’s original 1916 campus in Cambridge. Indeed, as Vest left office, one-quarter of the Institute’s square footage had been constructed during his term. His tenure also produced some of MIT’s most celebrated buildings: Vest championed engagement with world-class architects to design facilities such as the Ray and Maria Stata Center; Simmons Hall, an undergraduate residence; the Albert and Barrie Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center; Building 46, which houses the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory; and the Media Arts and Sciences building.

“I believe that the buildings at this extraordinary university should be as diverse, forward-thinking and audacious as the community they serve,” Vest said. “They should stand as a metaphor for the ingenuity at work inside them.”

Beyond the construction of new facilities along Vassar Street, MIT’s revitalization of Vassar Street itself — with new trees, lighting, bicycle lanes, and paving — breathed new life into what had for decades been a grim and rundown area of Cambridge.

A career immersed in engineering

Charles Marstiller Vest was born Sept. 9, 1941, in Morgantown, W.Va.; 49 years later, in his inaugural address at MIT, he recalled his upbringing in “a warm family in a small town in West Virginia.” Vest earned a BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University in 1963, and MS and PhD degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1964 and 1967, respectively.

Vest joined the Michigan faculty as an assistant professor in 1968, teaching courses on heat transfer, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics, and conducting research in heat transfer and engineering applications of laser optics and holography. He and his students developed techniques for making quantitative measurements of various properties and motions from holographic interferograms, especially the measurement of three-dimensional temperature and density fields using computer tomography. He became an associate professor at Michigan in 1972 and a full professor in 1977.

In 1981 Vest’s career turned toward academic administration when he became Michigan’s associate dean of engineering. He was named dean of engineering in 1986, and served as Michigan’s provost and vice president for academic affairs from 1989 until he became MIT’s president on Oct. 15, 1990.

“Serving as president of a major research university is not a sandbox ambition for any child — I remain frankly astonished at the road that led me here,” Vest wrote upon stepping down as president in 2004. “But looking back at that road — the bends and dips, the forks and unintended shortcuts — I’m struck by how little one can predict at the journey’s outset and by how much of life comes down to how one handles the points where the roads cross. I am also overwhelmed with the sense of how much I owe to the insight, imagination, inspiration and judgment of the many, many gifted people I have been lucky enough to work with at MIT.”

Vest is survived by his wife, Rebecca; daughter and son-in-law, Kemper Vest Gay and John Gay; son and daughter-in-law, John and Christina Vest; and grandchildren Mary and Robert Gay and Ameri and Charles Vest.