Vest cautious on campus issues, controversis
By Dave Watt
Recruitment of underrepresented minorities and engineering education reform are the issues most likely to engage President-elect Charles M. Vest during his early tenure as president of MIT. For now, he is taking a cautious approach to specific campus issues, including the rising
costs of education, graduate student housing, gay rights, and divestment.
While Provost at the University of Michigan, Vest established a good record of minority faculty recruitment. But even Vest admits it is good in relative, and not in absolute terms. In a speech to the Michigan state senate last September, he said, "This task is not, and will not be easy . . . we simply must roll up our sleeves and improve the racial, ethnic, and gender balances in our faculty and staff, and most important of all, in our graduates."
Vest feels that an educational institution must meet the needs of the society around it. "Our educational system must better serve an increasingly pluralistic society," he said last week. "In the MIT context, this certainly implies that efforts to attract women and students of color and to provide an environment in which they can successfully complete their education must continue and grow increasingly effective."
Engineering students and faculty can expect a long debate on reforming the engineering curriculum. "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," he said at a press conference June 18. He hopes to increase "the knowledge of the social and historical context
in which engineering work is done.".
However, he has backed away from calling for a uniform five-year undergraduate degree in engineering, in part because of the difficulties of financing a fifth year of education and because technically-oriented students might want to attend business, law or medical schools. "We need more policy and decision makers with technical backgrounds," he said. In spite of his own strong views on the subject, he emphasized that "the faculty and deans of engineering are, of course, responsible for guiding MIT's decisions about this matter."
It seems likely that Vest will at first defer to the wishes of the Corporation, and continue the policy of not selling stock of companies that do business in South Africa. He avoided presenting his own views at the press conference, and has no track record on which one might guess his views, other than his commitment to diversity on campus. The MIT Corporation made no inquiries about presidential candidates' stands on divestment during the search process, according to Corporation chairman David S. Saxon '41.
On the issue of discrimination against gays in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, Vest supports Provost John M. Deutch '61's view that the military's policies toward gays must change if universities are to continue to support the program. Vest has not yet developed a position on deadlines for the ROTC to change their policies, but will likely
have more to say on this issue once he takes over as president in October.