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Vest reflects on first year as president

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By Reuven M. Lerner

interview

President Charles M. Vest arrived at MIT a little over one year ago. He was, in addition to being the Institute's 15th president, a newcomer to this place, someone who had a great deal to learn about his new surroundings. What has he learned in that year, and what directions would he like to see MIT take now that he has had some time to adjust to his new surroundings? These were the questions I had in mind when I spoke with Vest in his office on Wednesday evening.

Q: What do you see as your most important accomplishments from this past year?

A: I would like to engage the MIT community in discussions -- and ultimately actions -- regarding the major issues in higher education today, and one of those is the matter of academic integrity and responsibility. The ap[it0,4p6]pointment of the committee chaired by Professor Widnall, which recently published its interim report, will be a vehicle for getting discussion between faculty, students and staff on these issues. We hope the committee will come back with some recommendations for the Institute in the spring regarding ways to ensure that we continually renew and revitalize our commitment to the underlying integrity and way in which we conduct research and scholarship.

Second is the issue of teaching within a research university, and obviously we are beginning to engage people in trying to understand how we can better interweave teaching and research to make a strong learning community, with the Institute colloquium.

Also important is the Skolnikoff committee, which has helped us examine relationships in the international context, our relationships with corporations and issues on the number of international students on campus.

I think those are good examples of us trying to become a leader on the major issues of higher education. We hope what we've accomplished this year is a stimulation of that kind of discourse.

Q: What would you say were your greatest problems this year?

A: It's hard to say what is a failure in a year, since a president's job is to try to keep his eye on the long-term in some sense, and the measure of success of a president isn't known for 10 or 20 years.

Some of the things in which it is difficult to measure rapid advancement are probably headed up by more socially oriented issues, including issues of trying to eradicate harassment on campus, a deeply ingrained issue that is running throughout our whole society. The fact that you cannot overnight make strong progress toward increasing racial diversity, particularly in the graduate program and among the faculty, is also a problem, but something to which I'm very [it0,0]committed in the coming years. That's something that has gone more slowly than I would have liked.

The year has been dominated by an unfortunate series of contentions between the Institute and the federal government, and really much more broadly between some in the federal government and in the universities. So if I had to say one thing that I was disappointed about, the amount of time that my colleagues and I have had to devote to arguing, if you will, against our own federal government.

The partnership between MIT and the government has been extremely important and has served the nation well for three or four decades. The biggest disappointment of all is finding yourself in court being sued by the Justice Department for trying to thoughtfully and responsibly administer undergraduate financial aid on a need basis, and I'm sorry it had to happen, but there's a strong principle here.

Q: Do you think the anti-university feelings in the government reflect popular opinion?

A: I think that ultimately, our system of government represents what the people think. I do think there is a lot of discontent out there; I gave some of my views on this in the President's Report. I think that some things plowed the ground for these concerns, including, obviously, the continual rise in the cost of education over the last decade.

There were also a number of fairly number of books that were published in the 1980s, including Profscam and The Closing of the American Mind. The charges and allegations of those improprieties have had an effect. We have to get by that and not only assure the public that their funds are being wisely utilized, but also that people understand better the value of universities and research and scholarship to society as a whole.

Q: How do you propose to retain MIT's reputation as a world-class institution?

A: I think that we are going to have to do a number of things, and I've tried to articulate some of these points in my inaugural address.

We have to continue in our efforts to be more representative of the society that our graduates are going to be leading 10 or 20 years from now. I think we've made some progress on that, but we can't let go. MIT has to continue to change. You need to engage some of the large-scale, big complicated foundations are facing the United States and the world, in areas like global climate change and other complex environmental matters.

Understanding complex issues will require going far beyond the traditional disciplinary boundaries, and this is an important part of what I would like to see MIT be in the future. Certainly not to the extent that I believe everyone has to rush out and participate in that kind of thinking; there must forever be plenty of room here for the strong individual scholar who follows his or her own discipline in depth. But I think you'll see a larger percentage of the community involving itself in other kinds of issues.

Another area that I think we are about to take a real leadership position in is some fairly significant evolution of the engineering curriculum. Schools around the country are looking to us now to see what the outcome of the discussion and debate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Scienceand the Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. I think that's something that within the next year or two, the faculty here will want to take.

Q: Do you think there's a place for "teaching professors," as opposed to "research professors," on campus?

A: We recently announced the pending establishment of the program of faculty fellows. That is really what we are trying to accomplish through that program, to recognize people who we hope will have every bit as much prestige as any endowed professorship, carried with it the same kind of scholar's allowance as endowed professorships do -- but will be awarded solely on the basis on quality of contribution to teaching and education.

We hope to be able to award six or seven fellowships a year. The would hold that faculty fellowship for a decade. This is a very substantial program that addresses exactly the idea you are talking about.

I do not favor the concept that you bifurcate the faculty, and have people who will be teaching and other people who will be researching. The value of a research university is a careful interrelation of teaching and research in the form of learning. Our quality, including the quality of our undergraduate instruction, is derived from that. So I do not favor the idea of having people who want to teach, and other professors who only want to do research, and never the twain shall meet. We must be, and we are, increasingly tolerant of people being centered at a variety of positions around that spectrum, between teaching and research activities.

Q: What is the status of the report of the (Potter) Freshmen Housing Committee?

A: As far as I'm concerned, we have come to no resolutions about the recommendations from the Potter committee report. I think it is a very thoughtful report, and raises some important issues that MIT has to continue to grapple with, and consider it to still be an open issue.

I believe that we need to give fairly serious consideration to the recommendations. I was quite amazed by what I will term the "defensiveness" of the community of the system as it is, or at least as it was remembered being back in the 50s and 60s by many of the faculty. I have not come to a position that we should or shouldn't think about changing the system, but I think we've got to come to grips in our own mind why it should be changed, and why it shouldn't be changed.

I don't think it's clear that a system that served this institution very well in a day and age when the student body was almost entirely male and extremely homogeneous in its makeup will necessarily be the best system for 10 years or 20 years from now. After all, that's what the Potter committee was really talking about -- where do we want to be going, given the situation 20 years from now? I think that the points it made about the ways in which the students tend to clustered by certain identifiable groups is something that in a world in which diversity and cosmopolitan nature is important is something you need to worry about and think about actively.

On the other hand, as a newcomer, I am very impressed by the way the system here early on puts upperclassmen in [it4p6,0]touch with incoming freshmen and fosters an atmosphere in which older students do tend to provide guidance and leadership to the younger students. I think that's a very positive feature of the system.

I don't think this is an issue that's crystal-clear which way we should go, but we have to look ahead -- even in terms of physical plant -- to what should be happening several years into the future, and planning accordingly. I would anticipate that there will be further open discussion in the next year or so.

There are no plans currently extant to construct a new dormitory for the purpose of ensuring that all the freshmen can be housed within the dormitory system. We have more abstract plans that we are putting together for the future, to be sure we have land, and we hope eventually to have additional graduate housing, but there's nothing that is pending as a real project.

Q: Has last year's Report on Sexual Harassment made an impact on the community?

A: There are a couple of things that have occurred. First of all, this week, we are mailing a very important booklet which meets one of the major recommendations of the committee chaired by Provost Keyser, and provides the roadmaps or guidance for people in the community who need help with, and those who have been alleged to have been engaged in harassment, giving them guidance as to where they can seek help, who to report to, how to initiate discussions, and so forth. I very much hope that everybody in the community will read this booklet and use it as a resource.

We have also seen some statistics recently by our two ombudspersons in the president's office who have reported a substantial decrease in the number of cases that have been reported to them this year as compared to the previous year, and a great increase in the number of people who are [it0,0]going to them for guidance in how to handle and resolve instances of harassment that have arisen. We are beginning to put into place some of the recommendations of that report, and we have the evidence that shows that perhaps awareness is increasing, that we have apparently seen some significant decrease in the number of instances, but obviously is a high priority of ours to eradicate it on the campus.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: There are three features of MIT that have really impressed me: One is that despite the self-criticism that we engage in, I believe that the dedication to teaching and learning here is really very great, and that the quality of most of what we do in education is as good as any place in the country that we know of.

Secondly, I've been very pleased with the sense of service that MIT has -- its willingness to engage in and address really important issues for the country and the world, and trying to contribute to research and education.

Finally, I think the one thing that we must all be proud of and dedicated to is the uniqueness of this institution. There really is not another university like it, and I think we should be proud of the ways in which we march along our own path, and I hope that we can retain that uniqueness and excellence of MIT through what will be a difficult period, financially and in many other ways.