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Vest Discusses Future Role of Institute

By Jeremy Hylton
Technology Director

The first four-and-a-half years of Charles M. Vest's tenure as president of MIT has been a period of tremendous change for the Institute.

The growth of MIT as an institution of international reputation was supported largely by federal funding, in particular funding motivated by the Cold War. The end of the Cold War, a Congress increasingly skeptical of the value and integrity of the nation's research universities, and now a drive to balance the federal budget have created an environment far different from the one inhabited by his predecessors.

Two weeks ago, I spent a little over an hour with Vest discussing the problems the Institute faces and his thoughts on the future. Though Vest was obviously concerned by the House budget that had been passed a few days before and more generally about a weakening of the government's commitment to funding research and education, Vest came across as optimistic about the future.

The Institute will be well-served, Vest said, by continuing to do what it has always done - performing top-notch research, exploring new and emerging research areas, and providing a rigorous education in science and engineering.

Vest described new research programs, like the newly-created Center for Learning and Memory, with enthusiasm and expressed hope that re-engineering will help to eliminate the Institute's budget deficits. He talked about the challenges ahead in defining the future of graduate education and bringing more women and minorities to the faculty.

But it is Vest's work with the federal government that is the most important accomplishment to date. Whether he wants to or not, he seems unable to avoid it: Our interview was interrupted briefly when he received a phone call from a fellow university president with whom he discussed the latest developments in Washington.

The Tech: The House of Representatives just passed a budget resolution yesterday that contains very significant cuts in support for science and university research. The cuts made headlines in the New York Times - and they seem particularly threatening for MIT, because so much of our research is government funded. What can the Institute do to cope with the changes that are coming?

Vest: I think we ought not only to look at the immediate actions but the flow of things over a decade or so. There is no question that research universities are in for a very difficult period. First the Congress and now the administration are both talking about balancing the budget over seven years, and that implies about a 35 percent cut in domestic discretionary spending. And while domestic discretionary spending is in fact a very small part of the federal budget, it contains virtually everything that supports research and education. So these are very scary times.

Part of this seems to stem from historical trends. We are at a watershed that is largely driven by the end of the Cold War. The change in America's competitive position in the world and the relatively slow economy we've had, and a rather major infusion of a kind of populist philosophy that doesn't value the things we do as much as it should - we've lost sight of federal funding in education and research as investments. People are looking at them simply as costs and costs to be cut down. Until we get back to recognizing them as essential investments in the future, we're going to have trouble, whether it's the Republicans or the Democrats.

The image of the universities was rather unfairly tarnished during the period of time in which all the investigations over indirect cost reimbursement and so forth were going on. That certainly set a tone in Washington that has been very difficult in general to deal with.

We are seeing the mission agencies, like defense, energy, and NASA being cut back. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are likely to continue to be treated relatively well, but I don't think even they will be spared some reductions. We're hearing 5 to 10 percent cuts.

How do we deal with it? Strategically, some of the answers to that are very clear. This problem is one of the major driving forces for our re-engineering effort. One of the things we need to do is simply get the Institute's costs down. We have been working very hard to get all of faculty salaries moved onto the endowment. That will dramatically reduce the dependence of faculty salaries on research grants and contracts, so that as funding declines, it can at least be focused on student support and infrastructure-building and things like that. It's slightly painful at the moment, but in the long run it is an important piece of our strategy.

We have just adopted a fairly complicated but very comprehensive and I think fair and thoughtful plan for the funding of graduate student research and teaching assistance tuition reimbursement. That includes, by the way, putting some money in the bank over the next few years to build a reserve, so that after fiscal year 1998, when the new rules kick in, we'll be in a position to pick up about 45 percent of the cost of tuition to our RAs and TAs. If current levels of funding continue during this period, that will leave us in fairly good shape.

We may see other attacks in the meantime. As I look ahead, I think the biggest danger we face in this regard is the possibility of very severe and quite highly targeted budget cuts. What I mean by that is if the Department of Energy or Department of Defense or NASA decide to cut out entire areas of support or entire major programs, then that might come down and hit a particular laboratory or discipline very hard here. I think that's more likely than just a continual degradation of support we get broadly.

The other area I'm very concerned about is that as the federal agencies' budgets get tight they are beginning to back away from paying significant portions graduate student tuition. That's a very dangerous trend not just for MIT but nationally, because it begins to force a separation of the education and research functions, and create incentives for hiring full-time researchers or certain kinds of post-doctoral fellows as opposed to graduate students. In the long run that's not a wise thing for the country to do.

It's a very tough time and we're doing our best to see our way through it. We obviously are interested in increasing the amount of support we get from industry and other private sources. We've come along slowly; more than 23 percent of our research income is now from non-federal sources. I also think it is totally unrealistic that MIT or America's research universities could replace government funding with industrial funding. It just will not happen. It is a function that the government must support.

The Tech: What do you think is at the root of the change in the government's priorities. Is it really a popular notion that the government shouldn't be supporting this research or is it a by-product of the drive to reduce the deficit? And how do you work to change people's attitudes?

Vest: There are several things that are happening all at once. The most immediate problem is that the Congress appears to be deciding to balance the budget and cut the deficit over a fairly short period of time. And the general approach is very single-minded: Let's just get the budgets cut and worry about putting the pieces together again later. That's what's creating these very immediate dangers.

But beyond that there are a lot of things going on. The end of the cold war removed the primary rationale the Congress had for supporting graduate education and research - and that was concerns about military security and a belief that the technology base needed to be very sophisticated and very strong. The other pillar of support was of course medical science and health care, and I think that continues to be a strong and important goal of the government.

Also whenever the economy is slow, people tend to turn somewhat against institutions, things that have at least the appearance of privilege and elitism. But we've both studied and in some cases been involved in sponsoring some scientifically-based public polling, to understand attitudes towards research and universities and the first thing that jumps out at you is that there actually is tremendous goodwill among the broad public for universities and colleges, and even for research.

But there is a very negative view among the so-called opinion leaders, namely politicians and journalists. That is very troubling to me because I think they are tending to represent things in ways that really aren't the will of the population. The broad public seems to still understand that investment in science is very important. They understand it most in terms of medical science, which I think is to be expected, but they are still excited about space and in general they think that what goes on particularly at high quality institutions is important and worth funding. So we've got to build on that.

We've got to be sure that other people are telling the story of the importance of our nation's universities, both to Congress and to the public at large. And that is beginning to happen. There was both an op-ed piece and a letter circulated around Congress that was signed by the CEOs of 16 big corporations of all different kinds - chemical, computer, automobile - country-wide. If you will notice, the last few days the New York Times has been writing both editorially and journalistically about the dangers of cutting back investment in science.

So the battle is far from over, and there is more good will to be won. But we also need to be careful that we are in fact trying to work efficiently and keep our costs down at the same time we try to keep support up.

The Tech: When I reflect on what it is a university president must be doing, the hardest thing - and I think it must be harder with these changes going on - is trying to set intellectual vision for where the university is going. Could you talk a little about what your vision for the future is and where the Institute is headed?

Vest: Well first of all I appreciate your question. It's been a bit frustrating during these last four years that of necessity things in my office have been much more dominated than I would like by concerns of the federal government and public attitude and cost reduction and so forth. These aren't the things you get excited about; the frustrating part is that we've won a lot of battles, particularly in Washington, and largely winning a battle means what didn't happen rather than taking on something exciting and new.

And it has left me feeling very uneasy that both MIT and our universities more broadly have sort of been in a siege mentality. We have been operating very reactively and defensively, and we've had to in order to keep the whole system together. But it really is necessary not to get mired down in that and to keep moving ahead.

In reality, despite all these concerns and fears, the faculty are doing what they've always done: Defining the cutting edge, moving ahead with exciting new ideas. Some of the larger trends are already very clear.

One is continued movement towards and strengthening of all kinds of things associated with the life sciences. Biology has gotten stronger and better, and has certainly retained its place as perhaps the preeminent department in the country. We are beginning to see very significant enrollment shifts into biology and into areas of chemical engineering, brain and cognitive science, and environmental areas within civil engineering that build on biology. That's a clear mega-trend, if you will, that's going to continue and is very exciting.

That's enabled us to do things like initiate the new Center for Learning and Memory which is a very key thrust of the School of Science in the neurosciences that will be decades long in trying to understand the brain in fundamental ways - and ultimately have some kind of positive influence on the solution to problems of mental diseases that we now have in physical diseases.

I'm very excited about the progress that is really snowballing in building strong, innovative, and quite interdisciplinary programs in the environment. We're building international alliances and really have succeeded in getting faculty and students to work together very substantively across traditional disciplinary boundaries of science and economics and management and political science and engineering.

I'm quite convinced that if we look back a decade or more from now, we will see that MIT has led some very substantial changes in the nature of engineering education, particularly at the undergraduate and masters level. The first manifestation of this was the electrical engineering and computer science five-year combined bachelor's and master's degree program, but things are going on much deeper than that. We have to retain the great strength of analytical tools from mathematics, science and computing, but at the same time move much more strongly into practice-oriented activities - more synthesis, design, teamwork, understanding the social, economic, and business contexts better. I think that's beginning a very exciting new direction that will bring change almost as fundamental as the engineering science revolution we led back in the 50s through mid-60s.

The School of Architecture and Planning is undergoing a renaissance. They've made some wonderful hires of new young faculty. They are forging ahead with what the dean likes to call the architecture design studio of the future. Design has become an Institute-wide theme. We're getting lots of team-teaching across schools as well as across specific disciplines.

The Sloan School of course has completely redesigned its masters curriculum. It has reorganized itself in a new matrix fashion, to work a little more effectively. It is getting deeply involved in international matters, including distance learning largely though not exclusively concentrated on Asia.

The humanities and social sciences have just become better and better and more exciting every year - for example, what we're doing in music and theater arts. The economics department remains one of the very best in the world. Political science has really come up and is getting to be a very stimulating environment. There is broad interest in matters having to do with language throughout that school and spilling over into brain and cognitive science of course. Starting with the strength in linguistics that's been built around what Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle have developed here, but going into new ways for people to acquire new languages with multimedia interaction that has an underlying base of linguistic theory.

So I'm not at all pessimistic about what's going on. Our students keep getting better. Our applications and acceptance rates went up this year quite dramatically. Despite the slowdown of the economy and the cost-cutting, we've hired well over 100 faculty in the last four-and-one-half years. If we can just define our goals and make some shifts and changes that are more relevant to the role of the future, I think we'll do just fine. But there will be some pain and anxiety at the same time.

The Tech: The hardest part of setting the university's intellectual course seems to be deciding when things need to be closed - when something that we have done for a long time is no longer a field for cutting edge research.

Vest: Yes. Universities are not good at that. We'll probably have to get better.

The Tech: Where do think MIT may be doing work that is no longer as fruitful as it once was?

Vest: I don't think our problems in that regard are terribly serious because the MIT faculty is very entrepreneurial intellectually. I ran into a professor I'm very fond of in the hallway; he's an emeritus professor who has been retired for several years now, and I asked, "What are you up to?" He said, "I'm working on a hypermedia version of my textbook." That's MIT.

People change. They move ahead. They're looking for exciting new ideas, developing mechanisms like the world industry congress we'll hold next spring to get some dialogue with the external world about what's needed. I think on the whole people tend to not only to shift and adapt, but lead as well. But it may be that we will have to be a little bit more introspective, particularly in educational programs, and decide whether there are things that need to be cut out in order to foster others.

We'll probably have to do more of that, but those aren't decisions that should be made unilaterally from the central administration. But we may have to put in processes to think about that more consciously.

But it is a great challenge and universities aren't very good at it.

The Tech: I wanted to ask about some very immediate concerns. When do you expect to name the next deans of the graduate school and of undergraduate education and student affairs are going to be? And what is the status the searchers for a new library director and a new associate provost for the arts?

Vest: I have received the oral reports and written reports from both the search committee for the Dean of Undergraduate Education and Students Affairs and the Dean of the Graduate School. I know the slate of candidates each of them has proposed and I tried to keep those moving along quickly.

I expect that the two deans will be announced in the next few weeks. For the sake of students, I wish I could make the announcements before graduation, but these matters do take time.

The other two positions are coming more slowly. The Director of Libraries is a very important position in 1995 because of all places in the world, MIT really ought to be leading the way in library and library-like functions in the future. That committee is working very hard. They've identified a number of people, several of whom have been here for sort of a first pass interview.

The search committee for the associate provost for the arts is also moving at a determined pace. They are about to the point where they will begin inviting candidates to campus. Those two appointments should come later in the summer.

It's been difficult having so many offices open, but it's really a terrific opportunity to think of how the whole team fits together.

The Tech: You had a similar opportunity a year ago when you really re-organized the administrative side of the Institute. Now that a year has gone by, how successful do you think this re-engineering of the upper administration has been?

Vest: It was stimulated by the death of Constantine B. Simonides '57 [who had served as senior vice president]. That made it necessary to make some changes and I ended up making really quite radical changes in terms of people's positions. At that time, I appointed Barbara Stowe as vice president for development. Glenn P. Strehle '58 became chief financial officer for the institute as vice president for finance, and continued as treasurer. James J. Culliton became vice president for administration. And Joan Rice took a newly defined role as vice president for human resources.

It was a very major reorganization and I must say I'm extraordinarily happy with the way it is working out. We've brought some major new talent into the team and gave virtually everybody on that side of the house some new duties and challenges, and I am very pleased with the way that is working. If we can do as well with the academic appointments, I'll be very happy.

The Tech: That's the side of the administration that students really don't see directly for the most part. How can we recognize the success of the changes?

Vest: There are two or three things that come clearly to mind because virtually all of these positions have to do with resources and services. The questions are: How strong is our income of financial resources? How well do we handle it both in terms of investing it and utilizing it inside the Institution? And then how well do we provide services to students and to faculty?

Part of the answer to that will ultimately be tied up with the success of re-engineering in terms of improving the quality of service and increasing their cost-effectiveness. And that's the way in which I've been calling on most of these people for leadership.

But in the meantime, I'm pleased to say we're having a banner year in fund-raising. It's one of the strongest years we've had in a long time, and I think that part of the Institute is beginning to come together very nicely.

The Tech: Lets talk a little more about the resources coming. At the town meeting last month, you mentioned that this was a banner year for alumni giving. What does that suggest about alumni attitudes towards MIT? And related to that, it is occasionally mentioned that the endowment is actually a bit small relative to the amount of research it supports. How strong is the endowment?

Vest: Let's in fact start with that. Our endowment in round numbers is $2 billion. That is a very substantial endowment, on the order of number 7 or 8 in size in the country. On the other hand, if one normalizes that to the number of students or number of faculty then we drop down to around number 35. So MIT certainly could use some substantial strengthening of its endowment.

MIT grew in the modern age largely on the back of federally sponsored research; because we are so heavily invested in science and technology, that's been the way we have grown. We are unlike many other private universities that have very large liberal arts components and other professional schools. So when you look at that endowment figure, it's not too surprising. We don't have a law school or a medical school.

The other thing is that there has not been the same level of tradition and expectation of giving back that's become inculcated in people from the Ivy League universities. We've traditionally had more first generation college students and people from the middle and lower-middle class who see engineering and science as a way up. So the whole dynamic is different.

But during Paul Gray's presidency, when we initiated and carried out most of the Campaign for the Future, we really began getting much more sophisticated and began building the networks of people across the country among our alumni and friends that really will pay off over the next few decades. It doesn't happen over night. We continue to work very, very hard on that.

The endowment is one of the really important things, particularly to keep the place affordable. We believe that before we get very far into the next century we're going to have to raise about $100 million in endowment for scholarships. That's essential to maintain our philosophy of need blind admission. So we're working hard at that. I hope we get there.

The Tech: Looking at undergraduate education, there have been some changes over the last few years - the new biology requirement and the review of the humanities requirements - but few really big changes. There is also a shift in enrollment towards programs like biology. What kind of changes do you expect in the future?

Vest: I think we'll see evolution rather than revolution, and I think that the seeds that the kind of changes we'll see in undergraduate education have probably already been planted. Over the next few years we'll begin to see those bear fruit in a variety of ways, and at the same time we'll start planting the seeds for change in graduate programs, which is what I see as our next major issue - from even the national perspective.

At the undergraduate level, we will tend to evolve according to what is perceived by young people as being exciting and having a great future. I think the real issue is how we retain the intensity and great excellence of analytical education that MIT has always provided, yet build a better understanding and skill base in our students for a world in which they clearly are going to have multiple careers and operate in international and much broader contexts than they did 20 or 30 years ago. We somehow have got to recognize that and it is very important that we do so without throwing away the rigor that really gives us our uniqueness and I think gives our students a great advantage.

As I think about undergraduate education, I remain concerned personally about what we learned from the senior survey this year - in particular the perception on the part of very significant numbers of our students that both their self esteem and their creativity have not been expanded by their MIT experience. That's very troubling, because if you go anywhere outside of MIT, talk to employers, talk to graduates who have been out a few years, what you find is that we tend to be the most creative and self-confident bunch out there. But even if it's a perception rather than a reality, it's really troubling. So that's something I hope we can keep out there, and sort out what that means and sort out corresponding improvements.

But general trends - you've already mentioned the movement towards life sciences - and I think we'll see increasingly towards neurosciences and so forth as those fields heat up and become even more exciting. I don't think it's time to announce the decline of engineering at MIT - I think it will remain the largest component of our undergraduate education.

But we do need to understand how to prepare people better for the kind of industry they're going into. I'm repeating myself slightly, but we do have to recognize that people will be using these tools and processes that they learn in very different ways than they did in the past. We need to give students some understanding of the highly globalized and internationalized businesses they will work in. We have to be sure we build more consideration of environmental matters into the way we think about processes and design, and understand more about manufacturing and producing products as well as designing and analyzing components, which is our traditional strength.

We have got to find ways of at least exposing students to more interdisciplinary activities. I think the sort of experiential learning that goes on in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program or the VI-A Internship Program is something we should build on because it is very important for preparing students for the kind of world they're going into.

We also have a set of issues that continue to be addressed about the broader nature of student life and living here; once we get the new dean on board, we'll begin to worry about that a bit.

There are issues that are always with us: How do you extend the learning environment in a more substantial ways into the living groups? How do we increase our sense of community? How do we deal better and more effectively with the changing diversity of our colleagues? Those things will always be with us. They are very important, and I hope they get some quite specific attention. The primary issue I believe for the new dean is to ask these fundamental questions on an Institute-wide basis.

In terms of graduate school, I think you'll find a lot of activity beginning. On a national basis, the nature of doctoral education is beginning to be questioned very fundamentally. I believe that in engineering you'll see a continued movement towards the five-year master of engineering programs. Probably we will see a cutback in the overall number of PhD students here, both because of what's viewed as the appropriate preparation for practice and also the influence of declining research budgets.

In science, I think it is very important that our doctoral students gain a deeper understanding of the breadth of opportunities before them. There are worthwhile careers other than being a professor or working in a cutting edge research laboratory. While it is almost heresy, I hope that here and elsewhere, at least as a thought experiment, people will give some consideration to what a really well-respected professional masters program might look like in some of the sciences.

In both undergraduate and graduate education, I firmly believe that we will see some quite fundamental influences of new information technologies. It's not a panacea. We're not going to replace bright and interactive faculty with bright and interactive computers. But when you think about the significance of literally having the information of the whole word at your fingertips - and increasingly sophisticated and easy to use tools to gather it, to reformat it, and to present it - it's got to have profound influence on education.

Many of the faculty I've talked to about this are coming to the very interesting conclusion that used properly, these technologies may end up providing for increased rather than decreased contact with faculty and good strong interaction, with some faculty becoming more of a mentor and a guide and a pathfinder through information that can be gathered and displayed by computers. Things will happen faster than we can plan for them and we'll do lots of interesting experiments.

Graduate programs - particularly in management, perhaps in engineering or architecture and planning - will be formatted specifically for companies or sectors; probably there will be increased non-degree education. What the Institute will have to do is decide which of these things it wants to do. My hope is to try to make those as conscious decisions and not just fall into them.

The Tech: You have now been at the Institute for a little over four and a half years, just longer than the graduating seniors. How would you rate your performance so far?

Vest: Well, I really hesitate to give myself a grade for two reasons. One, I think that's really a judgment that other people and academic history will have to make, and second, it's pretty early to see what the results of this time have been. But it's easy to see things that have gone well and things that haven't.

I think that despite the great difficulties of the time, I've succeeded together with my colleagues, in giving us a greatly strengthened and different kind of presence in Washington, in the debates that are going on, and with the federal government and the public. I'm quite proud of the progress we've made there, although unfortunately it's been a bit more defensive and less positive than I would like. I think I played an important role on behalf of the nation's research universities.

I think that the seeds for quite fundamental change particularly in engineering and management education have been sown. We'll see the fruits of that come out very quickly. I hope retrospectively that will be an important accomplishment.

I believe starting the work on re-engineering, which by definition is incomplete right now, has been a big risk that we had to take. It's one we've taken on in a bigger, more comprehensive way than any other major university I know of, and I'm hoping that it will turn out to have been sound leadership and that it will pay off for future students and faculty.

In the area of diversity, which has been very high on my priority list, the record is distinctly mixed. We've actually increased the percentages of women and minorities in every category - undergraduate, graduate, faculty. Starting with Paul Gray and John Deutch , we've made enormous progress in the nature of our undergraduate student body, and I think we should be institutionally very proud of that. We're beginning to make inroads into the graduate program; I'm disappointed that it hasn't been more rapid, but it is coming along. And the faculty, of course, has been the biggest disappointment of all. We have gone up in terms of percentages for both women and minorities, but the absolute numbers are far too low, and I consider that close to a failure at this point. We've got to double and redouble our efforts in that area.

I think we have made substantial progress on the area of environment. Bring the sound, rational MIT approach to both the science and technology and ultimately the policy of major environmental issues-we've made good progress there.

We certainly have retained a very leading position in information technology broadly, which has been very high on my agenda. We've done very strong work together with Lincoln Laboratory and private industry in developing all-optical, very high speed communications technology. Work at the Lab for Computer Science and Media Lab and AI Lab, continues to be very strong, and our new role in the World-Wide Web is important, and I think we will continue to see strong technical work, and Increasingly more innovative work in terms of use of these new technologies and what they ultimately mean for society. So we're coming along in that area.

We have not been able to accomplish as much as I had hoped in working on primary and secondary education. But we have a good strong council moving ahead in that area, we've put together some outstanding summer programs, the how a city works theme and so forth, but we've not been able to develop the funding to do that on as massive a scale as I had hoped. So we've got a lot more work to do in that area.

The biggest disappointment is that I had to spend so much time fighting with the federal government. I have probably come to be viewed a little bit more as an external president than I would like. It's really my hope over these next several years to be able to focus more of my energy inward to educational matters. I'm very hopeful that will be possible, but I've had to shape the job according to what the times demand. Much about the American research university, and MIT specifically, needs to be reinvented.