Charles Vest next president
By Dave Watt
Charles M. Vest, provost of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, will take over as MIT President in mid-October, replacing Paul E. Gray '54, who will become chairman of the MIT Corporation. The Corporation unanimously elected Vest to the post on June 18.
Vest has been on the faculty of the University of Michigan, a public university with a total enrollment of 36,500 students, since 1968, when he was hired as associate professor of mechanical engineering. He later served as associate dean for academic affairs and dean of the College of Engineering. Vest has been provost at Michigan for the past 18 months.
Vest's appointment ends a process which began in March 1989 when Gray announced his resignation. The search apparently concluded last February when the presidency was offered to Phillip A. Sharp, professor of biology and director of MIT's Center for Cancer Research. Sharp initially accepted the offer, but he declined the job less than a week later, citing his unwillingness to break up his research group.
Vest did not become a candidate until after Sharp rejected the search committee's offer. He said he had been involved with the search process only since mid-April.
The presidential search committee asked Vest on May 27 whether he would accept the presidency if it were offered to him. On June 11, Vest said he would. The offer was then made and accepted.
Vest has made no announcement yet on who he might be considering for provost, but he has said that he is looking for someone from within MIT.
Vest highlights concerns
at press conference
In a June 18 press conference, Vest advocated a broad review of engineering education, not only at MIT but nationwide. But he did not specifically advocate such controversial reforms as five-year bachelor's programs. "I think that much the same result can be achieved through the combination of a bachelor's degree and a master's degree," Vest said. "This would be particularly true if key industries were to make the master's degree the entry-level degree for engineers wanting to concentrate to a large extent on technical work."
There is also "a strong societal value to the four-year degree in engineering for those who then move into other professions such as medicine, business [and] law," Vest said. "We need more policy- and decision makers with technical backgrounds." And "the availability of a four-year engineering degree makes the field more readily accessible to students of limited financial means," he wrote from Michigan.
But "the time has come for a fundamental reassessment of engineering education," Vest said. "If that leads to a significant redefinition of objectives and curriculum, and if the entire system of education and industrial expectations and responsibilities is reexamined, I can easily imagine that the five-year degree could emerge as the best option."
Vest sidestepped a question on his views on divestment, saying that he thought it "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." Vest said he shares "a sense of the reprehensibleness of the history of apartheid in South Africa," but that he thought it "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."
Vest strongly supported Provost John M. Deutch '61 in his active opposition to anti-homosexual discrimination in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. He called Deutch's April letter
to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney "an excellent statement, which I believe . . . represents the view of most academic leaders in the country." He has not yet taken a position on whether he would set a deadline for breaking ties with the ROTC, but said he hopes that "the Department of Defense will resolve this matter expeditiously."
Vest also called for an improvement in universities' records on hiring and retaining minority faculty. The University of Michigan has added 78 minority instructional faculty since Vest took over as Provost, which Vest characterized as "an exemplary [record], on a relative basis."
But he added, "I don't believe that any university in the country has succeeded in attracting the numbers of faculty of color and indeed women faculty [that] is desirable."
Students react to Vest
Students leaders at Michigan have differing views of Vest. A reporter at The Michigan Daily said he is very accessible and knowledgeable about student affairs at Michigan, and answers questions quickly. He gives out his home phone number and electronic mail address to the media, and responds quickly to their written questions. Jennifer van Valey, president of the undergraduate student government at Michigan, finds Vest "very political -- everything [he] say[s] is very measured." She found his style "not very confrontational," and said that he "listens carefully, respects other people's opinions, but makes his own decisions."
By contrast, the MIT Alternative News Collective distributed
a press release June 18 quoting Pam Nadasen of the Michigan United Coalition Against Racism saying that people of color at Michigan have had "a lot of problems" with Vest.
The Collective, whose press release called Vest a "Teflon Administrator" and "nebish technocrat," told the story of a scavenger hunt organized by students in the UM American Society of Mechanical Engineers chapter in 1986, while Vest was dean on engineering. Students participating in the hunt were requested to bring back a piece of an anti-apartheid shanty on campus. A board was removed that evening from one of the shanties, probably by someone participating in the hunt.
According to the Collective's press release, Nadasen claimed that Vest refused to ask the students to apologize for attacking the shanty, and opposed racial sensitivity training for the ASME students who organized the scavenger hunt. Vest denied both charge, saying that he met with members of the groups involved, and told them "in no uncertain terms that these actions had been unacceptable." The students later wrote a letter to the Michigan Daily apologizing for the incident. Vest said that he "could not recall opposing racial sensitivity training" in this context.
During the press conference, Vest emphasized his opposition to racial harassment in any form. "If the students, faculty or staff of this institution do feel that they're being harassed . . . I assure you that I will pay personal attention to those questions and look into them."
Vest and his wife Rebecca M. Vest have a son and a daughter. Their daughter Kemper Vest recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and will begin graduate work in international affairs at George Washington University in the fall. Their son John is a sophomore at Berkeley. Rebecca Vest runs TLC Packaging, Inc., a small business in Ann Arbor, packaging and delivering food and novelty items for birthdays and other occasions to students.