Excerpts from Rhodes speeach at inaugural address
(The following is an edited transcript of the speech by Cornell University President Frank H. T. Rhodes to the participants and guests at MIT President Charles M. Vest's Inauguration Friday, May 10, as provided by Cornell to the MIT News Office.)
Today is a great day for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and for higher education, for today we gather to celebrate Dr. Vest's Inauguration as MIT's 15th president and formally pass to him the responsibility for guiding MIT in its efforts to "shape the future" in this inaugural year and far beyond it. The walk from 77 Massachusetts Ave. to the marvelous strains of fanfares composed by members of the MIT music faculty has been a fitting prelude to the ceremonies here at Killian Court.
Although I speak on behalf of all sister institutions, I must confess a special bond with Chuck Vest. Not only has he served
on Cornell's engineering college council, but he and I both assumed our present positions after terms of service as provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. I can speak personally on the value of that particular experience, and I am confident that with Chuck Vest's apprenticeship at Michigan and his own outstanding credentials as an engineer, teacher, researcher and administrator, both he and MIT are positioned to enjoy continuing success.
The university presidency has always been among the most challenging of life's professions, for Boards of Trustees -- in this instance the Corporation -- demand perfection from their presidents that the English only hope to find in their butlers. Some of you may have noticed the article in the April 8 issue of Newsweek on the challenges facing new university presidents. The headline read: "Wanted: Miracle Workers," and the article went on
to quote Robert M. Rosenzweig, president of the Association of American Universities: "It's about the hardest job in the United States." There is, I can attest, some truth in that observation, but Chuck Vest is more than equal to the task. His appointment comes at an auspicious time, for the challenges facing research universities have never been greater.
Current criticism of America's
The last several months have been a time of unprecedented concern and criticism of America's research universities. There is concern about the cost of both teaching and research. This is reflected in the perennial controversies surrounding tuition increases and the more recent ones involving indirect costs. There is concern about the quality of the product -- not only research, which in non-technical fields, particularly, is seen by some
as being of limited interest and utility, but also the quality
and breadth of some of our graduates.
The public is now questioning whether university graduates are adequately prepared to function in a dynamic world which demands both high-level skills and adaptability. There is concern about integrity. There is concern about true freedom of expression on some campuses. A few highly publicized incidents have created the impression that those in universities have given themselves license to operate beyond established rules.
No university is immune to these criticisms and the public concern they represent. We have an obligation not only to uphold both integrity and excellence in our scholarship, including both teaching and research, but also to be responsible and prudent stewards of the resources entrusted to us. Academic freedom depends ultimately on public trust and public support, and the price of public support is responsiveness to public accountability.
Since he arrived on campus last October, Chuck Vest has shown himself to be more than equal to addressing those concerns. He has been willing to deal with controversial issues honestly and straightforwardly. Equally important, he has been willing to think carefully about MIT's mission -- how to sharpen it and focus it in ways that build on the Institute's formidable strengths while meeting emerging societal needs.
That is as it should be, for to dwell on the problems facing research universities is to obscure the larger and overwhelmingly positive role that they have played -- and must continue to play -- in national and international life. Research universities are not simply engines of basic research, although they have proven outstandingly effective in that regard.
History of research achievements
Here at MIT, research achievements have ranged from the first chemical synthesis of penicillin and vitamin A, to the first complete synthesis of a gene; from the development of modern methods of food preservation and pioneering work on various computer systems, to the first satisfactory explanation of the development of the universe immediately after the "Big Bang." MIT research has enlarged our understanding of the universe while giving us an abundance of products and processes that have vastly improved the quality of human life.
But the value of private research universities extends far beyond their research achievements, significant though those have been. It is also the private research universities that have been particularly concerned with gifted students. Among MIT's Nobel laureates, for example, are 11 current or former faculty members and 11 alumni -- something that I think represents a fine balance.
It is also the private research universities that have been particularly devoted to quality in their programs and particularly concerned with innovation. Indeed it was here at MIT that the standard for engineering education was set some 25 years ago. With Chuck Vest's leadership and the faculty's commitment, I suspect that the time may be ripe for that to happen again.
All those achievements must surely surpass even what William Barton Rogers, MIT's founder and first president, envisioned when he determined to create a new kind of educational institution which would focus teaching and research on the real problems of an increasingly industrialized world. That is a tribute to MIT's past leadership, including that of Paul E. Gray '54 and David S. Saxon '41, Jerome Wiesner, Howard Johnson, Julius Adams Stratton '23 and many others, and it sets MIT apart as one of the small handful of world class universities.
Leadership is crucial
Yet, given the current climate of public skepticism and resource constraints, maintaining MIT's position will require leadership of the highest order. This is something that Chuck Vest is superbly equipped to provide. He brings to MIT, not only the highest skills as an administrator, researcher and teacher, but also unusual grace, rare ability and total commitment. Equally important, he has the resiliency and sense
of humor to withstand even the most ambitious MIT hack -- such as the one, carried out on his first day of work last fall, that hid his office behind a large bulletin board covered with clippings from The Tech.
I realize that leaders are out
of fashion today. They are either incompetent or too smart. The few that aren't too weak are too strong. There is a national attitude of ambivalence and skepticism. We are for leadership, but against authority; for a sense of direction but against any particular direction. Yet leadership in the most expansive sense is essential if America's private research universities are to move beyond the criticisms and constraints of the current era and realize the opportunities ahead.
Leadership is not management. Management involves supervising the details and presiding over
the established routine. We need managers, and we need good ones, but the task of leadership involves something infinitely more. It requires individuals of strength and vision, who are able to identify larger goals, to see opportunity in adversity, and to kindle in others the passion of their own commitment.
MIT is indeed fortunate to have found such a leader in Chuck Vest. The responsibility you give him is awesome. The office into which you install him is lonely. What he most needs now is your friendship and your support. Today he dedicates his high professional skills, his wide experience, his indefatigable energy, even his family, to your service, but you have a reciprocal debt to him.
MIT: strength in common hopes and goals
The strength of this Institute lies not solely in the skills of its president or the distinction of its faculty; not solely in the splendor and scope of its buildings, the balance of its budget, or the magnitude of its endowment, important though all those are. Nor does it depend solely on the loyalty of alumni, the quality of the students, or the devotion of the trustees, although these, too, are vital.
Rather, true strength derives from the extent to which all members of the community share common hopes and goals and are willing to commit themselves to their achievement. The inaugural ceremony represents a compact between you and your new president. That compact, endorsed today, links MIT to William Barton Rogers and others who brought this remarkable Institute into existence 130 years ago. It links
it to the larger community of men and women who have loved learning and defended it well.
It bridges continents, crosses oceans, spans centuries, stretching from Bologna, Paris and Oxford to MIT here today.
As you reaffirm that larger partnership, I am privileged to speak for all sister institutions
in congratulating you on your choice and in wishing you and Chuck Vest good success. May MIT's past be but a prelude to
an even more glorious future, which, especially in this inaugural year, it is MIT's special challenge and privilege to shape.