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Moving the Institute forward into the next century, Charles Vest thinks globally

Interview

By Prabhat Mehta

The man who walked out of his 3-208 office to greet me at 10:10 am Monday was quite different from what I had expected. Countering the reserved, quiet, almost shy demeanor presented in the numerous publicity photos circulating around The Tech office, this man delivered a hearty, low-pitched greeting betraying his Appalachian and Midwestern roots.

He sits back, not behind his enormous desk, but at a chair on the other side of the office. He is at ease, even though he is the first "outsider" to occupy his current position since Karl Taylor Compton. He is Charles M. Vest, 15th president of the Institute.

I spoke with him only a couple hours after he took his new post, but already, he noted, he had been victimized by a hack. "I almost couldn't find my way to work," he told me, referring to the wall-sized bulletin board covering his office door that morning.

"My first major policy is that we're going to keep that," he said later that day. "The first time issues get hot on campus, we'll pull it out."

Q: You haven't been here too long.

A: That's right. . . . Well, it's been two hours.

Q: I suppose you're still trying to get acquainted with MIT. Have you formed an opinion on what you think is good about MIT -- what you think we should continue doing -- and what you think could be changed?

A: Well, let me try to make a few observations given the fact that I've only really been on the job for two hours and do not have a very specific agenda set forth. I think the best way to begin answering that is to tell you a little bit about how I spent the last two months since I've known I was going to be coming here.

I have tried to spend about three days a week up here most weeks; sometimes it's been four. During that time I have met with a very large number of faculty, a few students, but primarily faculty and administrators -- I think somewhere over 110, individually -- for about an hour at a time, largely in a passive mode, asking them what they see as the key issues here at the Institute and what things they believe I'm going to need to learn about and understand and worry about as we get started this fall. I've kind of taken that down and begun working that into a full and lengthy outline of what the issues are, from the very specific things to the broader ones. But there are a few themes that have really come through in all of those discussions.

First, virtually every faculty member I talked to within the first five or 10 minutes got around to talking about undergraduate education. It has given me a sense that the faculty do, within this great research university context, believe that education is the primary reason they're here. I know that students everywhere always believe that teaching and undergraduate education are downplayed. But I really think it is at the core of the Institute, and I hope to keep that and amplify it as well.

The second thing is a sense of uniqueness at MIT -- particularly in the extent to which people here are concerned about the present and the future. If you look at the classical university structure of a school that is more dominated by the liberal arts, you notice that people spend a lot of more time thinking about and learning about the past, which is very important. But the way in which MIT engages with private industry and government is quite unique. It gives us a real presence in the way the world operates. This tremendous creative energy we have, looking forward to the future -- it is the second thing that falls out of almost all of these discussions.

The third thing I've noticed, and this may sound a little altruistic, is that there is a real sense of service to the world at the Institute that you don't find on many campuses. I think MIT really does believe it plays a leadership role in the United States and in the world at large. It certainly has, at least since the Second World War, and I think that we ought to continue to build on that.

So when you put all of these things together, I think the issue is what are new areas of endeavor that we need to be looking at. That really is for the MIT community to define, but I want to work with the university over the coming years to begin some global planning and thinking about the future.

A few things come immediately to mind. One is that somehow -- despite the stringent budgets that all universities are going to be facing in the next few years -- somehow we have to be sure that we maintain the flexibility to let MIT faculty and students do the really creative and innovative and unusual things that they have always done. That's how you become a leader. You don't just say, what are the big trends? And let's move with the trends. But you ask how do you do these things? How do you start a Media Laboratory, for example? Or, going back several years, what brought about the really innovative work that went on with radar and microwave systems and so forth? Somehow we have to be able to maintain our ability to do new things.

I think also another obvious trend in both education and research is going to be grappling with how we work with problem areas that cut across so many different boundaries. A rather obvious example is global and environmental change. It is a problem which involves physical science, technology, politics, social science and internationalization. How do work together across boundaries to grapple with problems like that?

Other obvious examples include how to use the world's energy resources more wisely and efficiently and effectively; thinking about the ramifications of the rapid advances in biotechnology, that have not only a scientific basis but ethical and policy questions associated with them. I think MIT is very well situated to deal with issues like this and that is an area that has tremendous appeal to me, and I hope it does to our faculty as well.

I think all of us also have to become concerned with the problems associated with our nation's educational system. As thoughtful citizens, we must see it as one of the most daunting challenges in front of us right now. It encompasses the entire spectrum of education, and in many ways the problems in the K-12 system are even more troublesome than those that are facing higher education. There has been a lot of interest and enthusiasm expressed by the faculty I have talked to around the Institute for finding appropriate ways for MIT to help with some portion of that problem, whether it is defining what science curricula should look like today, or finding new ways of using technology to improve and assist education. As I looked around the Institute there were 50 programs of one sort or another going on already, including individual faculty involvement with secondary schools. That is encouraging. But I think all of have to be worried about our educational system.

Another area that weighs quite heavily on my own mind is the whole area of the diversity at the Institute. I think that, particularly given the large emphasis on technology and science here, the amount of diversity that has been created in a fairly short space of time in the undergraduate student population is something we really should be proud of. On a relative basis, it is much better than most other first-rate institutions and certainly those emphasizing science and engineering.

But I think we are going to have to work a lot harder on the faculty and staff levels over the coming years because ultimately I think making progress in that area -- changing the face of the professoriat, so to speak -- is a major part of meeting the challenge of educating more minority students. So that's something that I hope I can help bring to the top of peoples' agendas over the next several years.

We must keep up our efforts, particularly at the graduate level, to attract more women and underrepresented minorities because MIT is a great supplier of faculty for other universities around the world, and I think we can help the long-term problem in that way, but I'm also hoping that in the short term we can make more progress in our own faculty.

So those are a few things that I have on my mind.

Q: It's interesting to talk about changing the face of the professoriat. That's a big problem nationwide, obviously, and you just made an interesting point -- that MIT is as a supplier of faculty, and so we have what may be considered a double effect with regards to attracting more women and underrepresented minorities. As we make progress in improving diversity for our own campus, we do so for those colleges and universities which hire faculty from MIT as well.

Obviously enriching the MIT community is not easy to do because it involves, as you pointed out, reforming our educational system K-12, as well as at the university level. But have you thought of any specific ways that MIT could change its posture to help attract more women and underrepresented minorities, for both the student body and the faculty?

A: Well, I think that the question is much easier to answer at the student level. That's why we've made fairly strong progress there. I think there is no substitute for having an involvement with young minority people and young women in junior high school, particularly in junior high school, and perhaps into high school. Some of that we may do directly from the Institute, with students, faculty, and so forth, helping out. It may also mean getting professional organizations more heavily involved.

The number one thing you have to do is get to the young people and build their enthusiasm for science and education in general, as opposed to just publicizing MIT. I think we must begin with building enthusiasm for mathematics and science and those other fundamentals they must have. I think there are good opportunities to take those young people and work together with the private sector to get them intern-like jobs in the summer to see a little bit about what goes on in a real company in engineering. We just need to do all those "inspirational" kind of things.

Improving diversity in the faculty is much more difficult because the current production of minority PhDs, particularly in science and engineering, is so small. I saw a stunning way of stating this not long ago, and my numbers may not be exactly right, but they're close. If you took the number of African-American PhDs graduating annually in engineering right now, assume that the same percentage of those people went into teaching that typically goes into teaching among all PhDs in engineering fields, and spread them uniformly across all of the US engineering schools, you would be able to hire an African-American faculty member once every 19 years. That's the magnitude of the problem we are facing. Looking at women, it's every five or six years, I believe. So that's why I think that a large part of what we do has to be concentrating together with other major universities on attracting those students who now are beginning to come in somewhat more representative numbers in the undergraduate population, and really encourage them to work in advanced research and teaching careers.

In terms of building our own faculty, given that environment, I think that the number one thing that I can do is really just continue to let people know how important I believe this is, and keep it on all of our consciousnesses collectively and just get people to bring that in as major factor as they think about individual hiring decisions. There's no magic solution. I think we just have to move it up on all of our agendas.

Q: We've talked both about issues specific to MIT and about larger issues in which MIT can play a role as far as policy goes. There has been a debate emerging recently about what the national role of a university is -- what obligations it has to serve the national interest. An article which ran in The Wall Street Journal a few months back claimed there was "Rising Nationalism at MIT."

You can look at MIT strictly as an educational institution or as an institution that has a larger role to play in its society. Obviously MIT must play some sort of larger role given its position as a leader in science and engineering. How do you view our national role as changing within the next 10 years, specifically with regards to issues like international trade and national productivity and prosperity?

A: When I referred earlier to the fact that at MIT much more than most universities is going to be engaged in real time with the world around it, that is very much what I had in the back of my mind. I think that MIT does have and should continue to have a role as leader in the United States, and really in the entire international community.

I am disturbed about the extent of techno-nationalism that is beginning to develop around the country. Unfortunately it is likely to become even more of a factor if the economy continues to move more deeply into a real recession -- I hope it doesn't happen, but it certainly is a clear and present danger for all of us.

But I still think that in the long run that the cosmopolitan nature of American universities and certainly at a place like MIT is very important. I think that the dividing lines between national interests and global interests are going to get fuzzier and fuzzier over the decade ahead. We have to contend with Europe, we have to contend with the Pacific Rim, and I think that it is not appropriate to view that simply as a horse race. I think the world is interconnected now in ways that it has not been in the past, and those interconnections are going to be even greater in the future.

So yes, we simply need to pay a lot of attention to American productivity and I think we've begun to absorb a real leadership goal there, for example through the groups that led to Made in America and The Machine That Changed the World. The latter, which has just been published, while I have read only excerpts, clearly helps analyze the changes in formats of manufacturing technologies from craftsmanship to mass production and now to lean production. These are lessons that we're learning back and forth across the world. We've learned a lot about management and, increasingly, technology from other countries, and we've served as a wellspring, as well. So I hope that we will be able to maintain a fairly internationalist view because I believe that in the long run that best serves the nation.

Q: You talked about techno-nationalism. I imagine you were also partly referring to problems MIT has had with its Industrial Liaison Program -- controversies regarding foreign access to technologies developed at MIT. Do you see techno-nationalism as a force countering efforts at universities in the next 10 years?

A: Techno-nationalism will be a forceful pressure -- there is no question about that. And I think we want to maintain a healthy balance of US involvement, that is I certainly hope that most of our programs continue to be dominated by US corporations because I hope US corporations will value what we do here and value that interchange.

But as I stated earlier, I also would not want to see us beginning to throttle back on the amount of interaction we have with other countries. I hope that we will continue to broaden. In particular, I would like to see Europe become a stronger component of our interactions. I think what we need to do is to place as much emphasis as we can on the quality of access to information and making sure that relationships are really two-way flows, because we have things to gain from these other countries as well.

Q: Getting back to educational issues . . . I've noticed we've discussed the broader problems afflicting our educational system on a national level. Have you given any thought to some of the specific educational concerns at MIT? One very interesting proposal is that engineers be required to study for five years. What is your opinion of lengthening the engineer's term?

A: I think that the answer to that question really needs to be focused not on "Should we have a five year degree, or not?" but "What is it we want to accomplish in engineering education?" What creates what I like to think of as a robust education for the future -- one that can move and change as the world changes so rapidly? It is clear that you could do a better job of providing all the information and learning skills that people need if you required five years, six years, or seven years; one could learn forever.

I think that MIT again has played a leadership role in beginning to study and address this question. There are major issues about what the content of the curriculum should be; what the economics of a five-year degree are; what the job market is; how it would be viewed by the private sector. It is not obvious to me that we would want to just switch to a five-year curriculum. The whole system of university education, training, experience, and work and how it's financed has to be looked at as a whole.

But I do think that it is time for the curriculum in engineering here and elsewhere to begin changing to reflect some of the realities of the world -- the increasing international nature of all that we do, the interdependence of technology with society at large. We need to do an increasingly better job of teaching students how to participate well in team approaches to problem solving and design, while not giving up an inch of what America has always been really great at, which is individual innovation and initiative. All these things have to be balanced. My guess is that out of this thing will eventually come a subset of students who may have a five-year option of some sort to look at.

If you stop to look at it, there really is a lot that could be done within the context of a four-year bachelor's degree and a traditional master's degree. I suspect that whatever emerges, if it is a five-year plan, it is going to include some degree that is a non-bachelor's degree. And it will probably start as an experiment, and go from there. But again, I would want to emphasize that that's not something the president decides -- that's a faculty decision -- and the key thing is to keep the faculty engaged in serious debate and consideration of what is needed in an engineering curriculum.

Q: One of the things Dr. Gray stressed was having our engineers understand the more humanitarian aspects, or social consequences, of their engineering. By doing so, he'd hoped the engineer would more forcefully take on leadership roles in science and engineering policy. Partly the efforts of undergraduate education reform aimed at facilitating that. Do you see any areas in education which need further reform?

A: I believe that engineers must understand more about the societal context in which they practice their profession. I personally believe that not just at MIT, but in general, that the undergraduate curriculum needs to be broadened a little bit. I think we need to work with our colleagues in humanities and social sciences to better define what we mean by that. I would like students to have the opportunity to think much more deeply about the context in which technology is applied. I think that as we look at the environmental and energy challenges that are facing us, it's obvious we need to do that. Whether one approaches that in sort of a massive way, by saying that everybody must spend more and more time on those aspects of education, or whether this becomes a branching out in education, I don't know. I think that's open for debate.

We must recognize that MIT will always attract some of the brightest students in the world, and we want to make sure that they are able to understand not only teamwork, production, manufacturing, social content, but also the other side of the spectrum -- that the science base of engineering is changing. There is more and more to learn here; I think we have still just scratched the surface of computer and information technology as it applies to the practice on engineering. Advances in biology will have widespread effects on all areas of engineering that we really haven't begun to understand yet. There is an increasing feedback into engineering from the social sciences that used to always go the other way. Now it's coming into engineering.

All of these things have to happen simultaneously, and I think the core of the debate is whether you try to force an understanding of all these aspects into a four- or five-year curriculum.

Q: Getting to a different issue now that you might have to deal with in a couple of days at the faculty meeting. One of the biggest controversies on campus last spring involved the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. What do you think about ROTC's policy of excluding gay men and lesbians, and how do you think MIT should respond to it?

A: There are some things that make me optimistic, and some things that make me pessimistic. First of all, let me just be unequivocal: I support a broad participation of gay males and lesbians in our society. I am 100-percent behind the Institute's non-discriminatory policy, and I feel there is an absolute incongruence between our policy and those of the Department of Defense.

What gives me optimism is that as I talk to people, I sense that there is as near unanimity on this topic as one could ever hope to find on any topic on a university campus. I think that students, faculty -- almost across the board -- believe that we need to work toward resolving that problem, and not having repeats of the incident that happened to [Robert L. Betticker '90] last spring.

The pessimism is that the wheels of a large bureaucracy such as the Department of Defense turn very slowly on social-based issues. And quite frankly, as I've talked to people around the country, I've come to believe that we can't expect a lot of support from the Congress, or really from the population as a whole. I think we must recognize that this is an issue which will take time to resolve. But nonetheless, we should not let up our efforts to try to bring it to a resolution.

I think we have to approach this by building a coalition around the country, and whether we like it or not, we've got to recognize that the only real solution to the problem is in Washington. So we've got to focus our collective efforts on that; recognize that it is not likely to be changed overnight, but frankly I believe that it's inevitable that eventually it will be changed, and I think that we just need to do our part to try to speed up the time scale.

Q: What do you think of the efforts of some faculty members to put a deadline on MIT's commitment to the ROTC program if the DOD fails to change its policy in the near future?

A: Well, this is an area that the faculty is going to have to debate and decide on, and I think it's inappropriate for me to make a specific statement right now. I look forward to the debate at Wednesday's faculty meeting and hope that something that is pragmatic and has a chance of ultimately being effective will come out of that discussion. I have complete faith that it will.

Q: Another issue from last spring was the Coalition Against Apartheid's divestment protests. Divestment aside, many community members were concerned about how the students were treated during the demonstrations. Twenty-six students were arrested on a single day last spring. Jennifer Huang '90 was recently convicted of assault for a crime she allegedly committed during the protests. I don't know if you read a lot about what happened, or talked to people about the protests. But how do think MIT should deal with its students in such circumstances?

A: This is a university campus, and we should thrive on forthright statements of views and on major issues, we're going to have dissent and freedom of speech and expression around here -- it's a great part of the tradition of this and any other first-rate university.

At the same time, of course, there do have to be some reasonable standards of conduct on the part of every member of the community so that what we do and say and how we act don't infringe on the rights of others. It's my understanding and experience that unless one can arrive at a truly broad consensus around the campus of what those limits of conducts are and how they will judged and dealt with, we will just have one occurrence after another of problems that we won't know how to handle. So I'm very much in hopes that the committee on demonstrations that Dr. Gray has begun putting together will come back with a set of recommendations that as a community we can live with.

Otherwise, what happens is you get forced into positions where I or others have to make ad hoc decisions, and that's not the way for the community to best thrive.

Q: What is your opinion on the divestment issue?

A: The issue in my view is not as simple as whether to divest or not. It is really an issue of shareholder responsibility. I believe MIT's is a position that has been thoughtfully taken and that the moral and ethical issues have been thought through, but it's an issue that I think will continue to be discussed and monitored within the Corporation, and I look forward very much to taking part in that now and in the future and doing what's needed for progress in South Africa.

I also understand that we have had or have some educational interaction with people of color from South Africa. I'd like to learn more about that and see if that is something that can be maintained and possibly strengthened as a way of doing something positive and meaningful.

Q: Tuition increases have consistently been outpacing the inflation rate in recent years, and it seems as if there hasn't been any real attempt to address the problem of how we're going to bring tuition under control. The University of Michigan being a public school, you probably haven't had to deal with this issue very much. But do you have any thoughts on the problem?

A: I'm very concerned about this general trend. What is happening is that we are expecting of ourselves, and society around us is expecting universities to do more and more and more, and there are no resources in the long run to take care of these increased responsibilities. Every day across any university administrator's desk come requests for perfectly good things to make us better employers; to provide better facilities for teaching; to keep competitive with salary pressures and faculty; and so forth and so on; but no new resources. So that is the real problem.

As the costs are rising faster than revenues, something has to be done to bring them in balance, other than simply to increase the revenue through tuition. Now MIT has taken a very bold step to begin to deal with this problem through the Campaign for the Future. Ultimately, the success of the campaign will have to be a very major part of our coming to grips with this. Although we do a much better than most schools right now, I think we have to continually monitor our own operations to be sure we are focusing appropriately on the fundamental mission of the Institute and not carrying a lot of costs that are not needed to accomplish that.

I think all of these things are going to have to be done: careful monitoring and continuing attention to the administration of the budget and costs within the Institute; heightened efforts to raise more private resources; renewed focus on our primary mission as much as possible. But we're in a terribly competitive world and the pressures aren't going to go away. At the same time, I certainly agree with the premise that tuition cannot grow in an uncontrolled manner. The balance that I really worry about is the balance between tuition level and our ability to provide appropriate financial aid. If that begins to get out of kilter then we will have problems of the first magnitude.

Q: Speaking of resources, MIT lost a lot of resources when the new magnet lab went to Florida. Dr. Gray and others have been very outspoken about this controversy. Do you have any opinions on the matter?

A: I'm not sure we have enough time to go into that. I'm very disconcerted by the nature of that decision, not only for the Francis Bitter Lab, but in general. It is clear that the peer evaluations of the two proposals did not end up being the dominant force in that decision, and that does not bode well for American science and technology. This is an issue that I have followed very closely, and I look forward to working with the new director of National Science Foundation and others to try to make sure that in the future, decisions are made on a more rational basis. In the mean time, of course, we will all be rolling up our sleeves to do all we can to maintain the excellence of the Francis Bitter Lab.

Q: You're probably going to give yourself more time to get comfortable with the Institute. What sorts of things are you planning to do in the next couple of months?

A: This is sort of the next phase; I've already described what I did over the summer. To an extent one just jumps into the job at this point, and the next phase of my learning about the Institute will be total immersion.

To answer your question, I do plan to go out of my way during this year to be at various events and meet people, and I'm going to do that to a greater extent than I might normally; so that's going to be an informal component. I'm going to make sure I have the chance to interact very informally with student groups and go to dinners and dormitories and things like that.