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Vest Looks to Future in Inaugural Address: 1: 20

By Jeremy Hylton
Managing Editor

Although the pomp and circumstance of the presidential inauguration last May hardly qualifies as the year's most significant event, President Charles M. Vest's inaugural address confronted many of the issues that will face the Institute during the 1990s.

Vest's address focused in part on the public's declining confidence in the cost and conduct of research at major universities. "We need to rebuild trust in this nation's research universities and scientific enterprises. We must ensure that the foundation of scientific and scholarly research is secure," he said.

Vest's attention to public support of research apparently referred to two of the year's most significant events: indirect research costs MIT inappropriately charged the government for and the controversy surrounding scientific misconduct at the Center for Cancer Research.

MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research made payments totaling over $700,000 to the federal government to make amends for what the Institute claims was a misunderstanding. Nevertheless, auditors continue to assert that MIT owes the government $22 million.

The scientific misconduct involved a paper co-authored by former Whitehead Director David Baltimore '61. A government investigation that determined another author of the paper falsified her data sparked a debate over the policing of science.

"The year has been dominated by an unfortunate series of contentions between the Institute and the federal government -- and much more broadly between some in the federal government and in the universities," Vest said in an October interview.

"One thing that I was disappointed about [this year] was the amount of time that my colleagues and I have devoted to arguing against our own federal government," he continued.

A third conflict with the government involved the so-called Overlap Group of 22 private colleges and universities that met to discuss student financial aid packages. The Justice Department took the Institute to court because it felt the group violated anti-trust laws.

`Confidence must be restored'

All three events eroded the public's confidence in MIT and other research universities. "The American public is calling into question the value of the research universities, and no longer tends to view science and technology as the foundations of progress," Vest said.

"Public confidence in our research universities must be fully restored," Vest said during his inaugural address.

"Our response, as an academic community, [however] must not be one knee-jerk defensiveness against our critics," he cautioned.

Vest's concerns were echoed by Frank H. T. Rhodes, president of Cornell University, in his remarks at the inauguration. "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," said the British geologist, who served as an administrator at the University of Michigan while Vest was a professor there.

Vest felt his most important accomplishment during 1991 was engaging "the MIT community in discussions -- and ultimately actions -- regarding the major issues in higher education today."

One of the most visible discussions involved the importance of teaching: the "Teaching Within A Research University" colloquium. Vest felt the colloquium began "to engage people in trying to understand how we can better interweave teaching and research to make a strong learning community."

During his inaugural address, Vest made several such promises for change within the Institute. In setting his agenda for his tenure as president, Vest looked to "give shape to the future -- the future of MIT, our nation and our world."

A global village

Conjuring the image of Marshall McLuhan's global village, Vest identified areas where advances in science and technology have affected the human condition. Vest focused on environmental protection, electronic communications and MIT's role as an international institution.

"It is no longer possible, if it ever was, for individuals or nations to think that the way in which they treat their land, air or water has no bearing on their neighbors," Vest said. The Center for Global Change Science will help to lead the way in protecting the environment. "I believe we must marshal our interests and capabilities to understand these issues and develop solutions," Vest continued.

Vest also announced the creation of the MIT Information Infrastructure Initiative, which will work to develop a high bandwidth optical communications network and create a working model on campus.

Competition between national and international interests was another theme of Vest's address. "Clearly, we must be concerned with this nation's economic well-being. We must not, however, endanger the very essence of our institution by retreating into simplistic forms of techno-nationalism," he said.

A committee headed by Eugene B. Skolnikoff, professor of political science, "helped us examine relationships in the international context, our relationships with corporations and issues on the number of international students on campus," according to Vest. He described the committee's work as one of the most important accomplishments of his first year.

`Declining interest and ability'

On a national level, Vest expressed concern at the "declining interest and ability among our young people to pursue rigorous advanced studies, particularly in science and engineering."

"The time has come again for us to place our expertise and stature in the service of a major national effort to rebuild the strength of science and mathematics in American schools," Vest explained.

He said, "the education we most directly influence, however, is the education of our own students." He discussed some of the challenges in an engineering curriculum, and stressed the need to infuse engineering students with "an increased respect for and enjoyment of effective, efficient and socially responsive design and production."

The five-year master's program debated by the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Aeronautics and Astronautics over the course of the year addressed this concern. "I think we are about to take a leadership role in some fairly significant evolution of the engineering curriculum," Vest said of the departments' debates.

The Institute also began broadening its scientific focus with the addition of biology to the General Institute Requirements. Vest endorsed the biology proposal, saying, "I personally believe it would be a strong leadership move to do this."