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Vest Emphasizes Maintaining Excellence in Face of Unknowns

By Carina Fung
Staff Reporter

In his annual report, President Charles M. Vest focused on maintaining MIT's commitment to research and education in the face of looming budget uncertainties.

"This is a period in American higher education when it is essential that research universities articulate their value to the nation and world," Vest said in his Nov. 15 report. The report cited the "knowns and unknowns" of many different areas of study.

Vest's main message was to stress "the most important reasons for society to support research and education lie in what we do not know - in the unpredictable advances that will positively affect humankind's future."

"This year, in preparing this report, I asked several members of the faculty to give me their reasons - in the form of questions and puzzles they are seeking to solve," Vest said. "Even with their contributions, this report can offer only a tiny sampling of the countless gateways to the unknown."

Need to merge theory and practice

"We must teach our students to relate analysis and theory to the practical and the concrete," Vest wrote in the report's preface. He also said that it is the "romance of discovery that draws young people to study and to pursue careers in science."

Vest stressed the importance of inquisitiveness. "Artists remind us continually that in much of human experience, answers cannot be found just once, for all times and all places, but rather must be asked and answered by each generation, each culture, each individual. In a society and a world where rigidity of thought and inability to see another point of view constitute a deadly epidemic, that message is more crucial that ever," he said.

Some other topics which Vest analyzed the knowns and unknowns of were cancer and health, energy and the efficient use of resources, and the earth and its climate.

Vest said his goal for this academic year is to "continue to work toward maintaining MIT's excellence in this time of change and financial constraint."

"There is a strong flow of students into the life sciences and environmental programs," Vest said. The Sloan School of Management's masters of business administration curriculum has been greatly revised. The Engineering School continues its "rapid revolution toward increased importance of professional masters degree programs and toward increased emphasis on design, synthesis, and process as well as analysis," Vest said. He added that the various minors that have been recently instituted, such as the biomedical engineering minor, are generally flourishing.

MIT to "squeak by" financially

Vest said that budget bills that affect MIT still have not been put in place. "Most signs indicate that key science and education budgets will survive at more or less constant levels." Certain areas, such as environmental research and some technology programs seem to be damaged, he said.

Financial aid has had some reductions, but they are not "nearly as draconian" as what had been anticipated earlier in the budget cycle. Overall, this is a year in which most budgets that are important to research universities will "squeak by, but there are treacherous shoals to be crossed by next year," Vest said.

Vest's opinion on the changes in faculty and staff this year was very positive. The new faculty members are "uniformly exciting and offer great promise for MIT's future," Vest said. Vest is also very pleased with recent administrative appointments, such as Joel Moses as provost and Rosalind Williams as dean for undergraduate education and student affairs.

Diversity remains important

MIT's prestige, recognition, and respect are continuously increasing around the world, Vest said. At the same time, however, MIT is not as unique as it was several decades ago because of the increasing number of excellent programs in many other institutions around the world.

The increasing number of women at MIT "is to be celebrated," Vest said, but growth in the number of minority students, especially at the graduate level, remains too slow. Vest would also still like to see more women and minorities in the faculty, he said.

"We are moving well with respect to other universities, because few are striving for the level of change to which we aspire, or are not facing up to the extent of change in their environments. On an absolute scale, we are not moving fast enough, but this is the price of matters like inclusiveness and discussion that are crucial in an academic institution."

Questions raised in his report "cause us to look to the future rather than the past, a particularly appropriate focus for the MIT community and those who would share our adventure," Vest said.