President-elect speaks at news conference
MIT's role in education
Question: Can you be more specific about the role of MIT?
Charles M. Vest: I think the fundamental role of MIT will remain what it has always been -- which is to be a wellspring of science and technology and educated young men and women.
I do believe as I look ahead that there is much that is outmoded in the education of engineers. The patterns of educating engineers have remained relatively unchanged for nearly 25 years now, and I know that MIT has already begun some significant studies of what does need to change. I am a firm believer that the breadth of education provided to young engineers must increase and that probably some expansion of time is going to be required, either through a five year undergraduate program, or perhaps through a combination of undergraduate and masters programs for those who intend to pursue primarily technical careers.
I do not come with these things fully thought out, but it is an area of great interest to me and an area that the Institute is already beginning to take leadership in and I look forward to working on it.
Q: One of the complex issues on this campus is racist violence. Information that we have from black students at the University of Michigan is that you have a poor track record in dealing with racist violence. Specifically, you opposed racial sensitivity training for white students who had attacked black students on campus. Is that something that you see continuing? That is, a trend where you're insensitive to the needs of black students and minorities?
CMV: Well, first of all, I do not share that conception of my values. I feel very strongly about the need to have a welcoming and accepting environment in great universities for people from all segments of our society and all races, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. I further would not accept that characterization of my actions at the University of Michigan. I believe I have been sensitive to these issues. It is untrue that I have opposed sensitivity training. Indeed during this last year I have been a prime mover in establishing a new task force, or commission, of students, faculty and staff that is looking into the issues of not only recruitment but the success of students of color in our university.
I have through my office led one of the greatest expansions in the number of faculty of color that has occurred over the history of the University of Michigan and I would tend to have that very high on my agenda here.
I assume that the incident that is being referred to is a two-year study by Michigan's College of Literature, Science and the Arts over the establishment of a required course of some sort or set of course requirements that would address the background issues of racism in the United States. But it is not true that I have opposed that; what is true is that that is a curricular decision. Curricular decisions are made not by administrators but by faculty of the college. The deans of my office funded a pilot section of the very course that is referred to and we look forward to its development and to the ultimate resolution of the issue not by administrators but by the faculty.
Defense and social issues
Q: MIT has had a large role working in concert with the nation's defense industries. Where do you see that role headed in the 90s?
CMV: I think that our crystal balls are rather uncertain about that. I will tell you that I am certainly not ashamed of the fact that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a long record in . . . providing people and knowledge that have kept our nation secure, and I suppose that there will continue to be research supported by the Department of Defense in this and all other major university campuses. At the same time I think we all are very thankful that we appear to be moving into a more peaceful period, a period of reduced tensions between East and West, and it is my hope on the national scale that we will be able to change some of the talent base and human and economic resources that over the past decades have gone into defense to look at other areas of social and economic importance to the nation and to the world.
Q: Any specific areas you can think of?
CMV: Well there's no question, of course, that, as I alluded to in my prepared remarks, there are major transformations that our nation's industries have to undergo to regain their competitiveness and, hopefully, leadership. The MIT study most popularly known through the book Made in America . . . is one of the key guidelines available to the nation in this area, and I think we should be paying more attention to the manufacturing and the service sectors . . . I think we also have a great role to <>
play . . . in the development of biotechnology and the allied health sciences, which I think are very exciting fields as we move into new ways of therapy, new ways of viewing medicine.
Striving for excellence
Q: You said in your prepared remarks that "large segments of the nation have lost the will to excel" -- on what do you base that?
CMV: That is a personal belief as someone who grew up in an academic community in a small, relatively rural part of the nation with a very strong work ethic and saw, within that somewhat more limited context . . . a great desire to excel, to be the best one can, and to live a life that contributes to the society around us. I do believe that the past two decades or so have seen an increase in concentration on self and concentration on materialism that does not have full congruence with my own personal values. So it is in that sense that I say as I look around the nation I do fear that we are throwing up our hands in the face of very difficult social and educational issues.
I look back over the history of the United States and the role that institutions like MIT have played and see how we have risen to occasions -- such as the establishment of the Land Grant Act, which of course led to much of the structure of MIT as it is today. And I see how we responded as a nation to threats to the survival of freedom and democracy during the Second World War, and . . . responded as a nation and as an institution to the dawn of the space age. I think the United States is ready to jump forward again, and to commit itself, but the difference between those times and the present is that the problems we faced in those eras I referred to came upon us rather suddenly. I think what we are having difficulty adjusting to today are changes that are creeping up slowly upon us, the loss of our economic power and so forth.
I think somehow we have got to educate young men and women to get on in such a way that they do want to be the very best that they can, and that they want to be such not only for their own personal needs and progress but for their fellow citizens, the nation and the world.
Q: Here at MIT, we in the past several months have had a number of protests and arrests of students around the divestment issue. I was wondering, what is your position regarding divestment?
CMV: That is obviously an issue that I will want to be rather rapidly coming up to speed on. I think it is premature to state a position when I know that the MIT Corporation as well as the student body and the faculty have given considerable thought to this over a large number of years. I have been assured that it is an issue that the Executive Committee of the Corporation continues to wrestle with and discuss. I look forward to learning a bit more about the thinking behind MIT's position and participating in those discussions.
Q: I'm sure that the search committee asked for some indications of your sentiments in the course of moving a long way toward recommending you, and perhaps you could give some of that perspective.
Corporation Chairman David S. Saxon '43: That is something that's incorrect. The search committee did not explore that issue.
CMV: Well, I think that I certainly share a sense of reprehensibleness of the history of apartheid in South Africa. <>
I am looking forward very much to the visit of Mr. <>
Mandela . . . The institution I come from, by the way, has awarded an honorary degree in absentia to Mr. Mandela and I am certainly very sympathetic to the cause. I do believe, however, that it is a bit premature to talk about personal views on the specifics of this issue until I've had an opportunity to understand the thinking of the Corporation and interact with them.
Q: The MIT campus has also been a site of continuous police harassment of minority students, particularly the black students. They are being constantly asked for ID even though they are acknowledged to be going to school at MIT. The school has been accused of such harassment several times. Are you going to do any kind of inquiry on the racial harassment reported on this campus?
CMV: That's an issue . . . at MIT I am not familiar with. However, the kind of phenomenon that you describe unfortunately pervades our society, and on the face of it, I certainly believe it's wrong. If the students, faculty or staff of this institution do feel that they're being harassed, and do have questions about that, I assure you that I will pay personal attention to those questions and look into them.
Q: It's true that racial harassment is a problem within the larger society, but it seems more blatant and more prominent on this campus, particularly because there are very few minority students.
CMV: I would not want my community to be characterized in that way . . . .
Q: Would you make this one of the main points on your agenda when you start?
CMV: It is certainly an area of deep personal interest and concern to me . . .
Q: (Inaudible question concerning the length of the search process.)
CMV: It has been a long and arduous process for the Institute, obviously, that has extended over many months. Our personal experience is quite different, though. Our experience with the search has lasted only about seven or eight weeks. It has in fact come upon my family and me very, very suddenly and so far as to thinking a lot about the long and difficult path the Institute has followed to this conclusion, it has happened with lightning speed as far as we were concerned. The job was just offered two days before my family and I left for a two-week vacation, so we spent most of our vacation thinking about this and the significance to our lives and came back and let the Institute know that we were willing to make this change if the trustees so decided, and here we are. So what has been long and complex for you has been a whirlwind for us.
Q: (Inaudible follow-up question.)
CMV: My initial appearance before the committee was with some reluctance, given the fact that I had been only 18 months in my current position as provost at the University of Michigan. I might say that when one occupies that particular job many presidential searches automatically contact you, and MIT's was the only one I agreed to talk to, and one thing lead to another, and here I am.
Q: Who were the other offers . . .?
CMV: No other offers.
Q: When were you offered the job?
CMV: I was asked about three weeks ago now, if the trustees of the Corporation so decided, would I be inclined to accept the position, and that's the question really I was referring to.
Q: (A reporter asked Saxon if the Executive Committee made the decision to give the job to Vest on Commencement Day.)
Saxon: No, we did not.
Q: Do you find it strange that this search took so long? Do you read any meaning into that?
CMV: If other universities were conducting their searches in a few months and everything was going very smoothly and their first go-rounds were successful and so forth, I might view this differently. The fact of the matter is that presidential jobs at major universities today are difficult jobs. And it often is quite complex, difficult and time-consuming finding a congruence between what the institute and its search process is looking for and the interests, aspirations and abilities of all the candidates. To the best of my knowledge, it is not at all unusual for a presidential search to drag on at least as long as this one has. Given the stature and importance of MIT it has perhaps had a bit more visibility . . . than other universities. So I don't believe that the process is really that unusual.
The fact that the job was offered to one person and indeed accepted before MIT turned to me . . . I view as very positive. I'm proud to be associated with an institution that has distinguished faculty members who stop and think, and realize finally that being a faculty member, being involved in cutting-edge research with students, is ultimately to that individual much more important than assuming an administrative service role such as that of president. I am not bothered by that at all. I am proud to be a colleague of people like Professor Phillip A. Sharp.
Q: Did Michigan find itself in competition with MIT for some of these [minority] faculty members? What perspective might that give you on what could be done at MIT?
CMV: Michigan's record is an exemplary one, I believe, on a relative basis. I don't believe that any university in the country has succeeded in attracting the numbers of faculty of color and indeed women faculty as is desirable. What Michigan has accomplished is, first and foremost, without question, due to the leadership of its president, Jim Duderstadt, and the document . . . referred to as the Michigan Mandate that he has promulgated.
I think that Michigan has had a couple of advantages vis-a-vis a school like MIT, and I speak without a lot of deep thought and insight on this end yet. The advantages to Michigan would certainly include the size and breadth of the University of Michigan, a school that has 17 different schools and colleges to which to attract faculty, rather than five. Michigan's record also occurred during a time when there was a sufficient number of retirements that had made available on an absolute scale a larger number of faculty lines positions than may be the case in this, a somewhat smaller private university.
I do not know all the details of the situation here yet. But I will be looking at it and trying to understand it, and if some of the lessons that we have learned at Michigan, which again are based on a record we are proud of on a relative, perhaps not absolute basis, are translatable, I certainly will look into that and am interested in discussing the issue with the faculty here.
Q: (Did Michigan go head-to-head against MIT in minority faculty recruitment?)
CMV: Have we gone head-to-head at Michigan in recruitment of faculty against MIT? I honestly do not remember, but we certainly have with several of the other major research universities, and as one would expect we won some of those and we lost some of them.
I must admit that there does seem to be a critical mass phenomenon. The greater successes we have had in this area at my previous institution have been in the few departments where critical mass began to accumulate, an intellectual core developed. I'm thinking about our history department, which had interestingly one of the worst records for several years, and finally began to make a few key hires, and began to build from there.
So this is an area of keen personal concern to me, and if we're able to translate some of those ideas into what is in many ways a different context, we certainly will be trying to do so.
Big science projects
Q: With regard to your desire to have MIT help increase the American will to excel, what role do you see as president of MIT in speaking out on such "large science" issues as the space program, nuclear power, superconducting supercollider, the genome project, cold fusion and the like?
CMV: I think that my role as president, as the role of any other person just coming into the presidency, particularly from outside the institution, will in fact will take some time to define itself and see what kind of team can be built among the officers of the institution and so forth.
I do believe that the presidency of MIT is certainly one of the greatest "bully pulpits," so to speak, for science, technology and education in the United States. I hope to use that, and to have the wisdom to use it appropriately. But the real strength of MIT in areas like this of course comes from the expertise of its faculty. And that is certainly the greatest single attraction to this institution: the sheer intellectual power and accumulated wisdom and experience that exists in the faculty.
So what I really will be looking forward to as I become acclimated to MIT is helping to sort out what some of the key issues are that MIT should play a role in or I should play a role in as a spokesman. But I will try to choose those issues very advisedly, working together with the faculty and with my colleagues across the nation.
I think it is unwise for a leader of any institution to just continually speak out on one issue after another. I think I will try to focus over time and be as effective as I can on behalf not only of MIT but of the nation. But that is a role that I look forward to very much.
Q: You had said that you were in office for 18 months before you changed jobs. Do you have any idea how long this job is going to last?
CMV: I can assure you that in leaving an institution and a community that we all love very deeply and that we've been part of, literally, for 27 years, we are not coming to be here only a few years.
For one thing, in my humble opinion, there's nowhere else to move on to. I think this is without question one of the finest opportunities any man or woman could be offered. And I look forward, if the institution and the Corporation are willing, to many years of service here at MIT.