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Vest Discusses Budget Cuts, Retirement at Town Meeting

Jiri Schindler--The Tech
President Charles M. Vest speaks at a town meeting in La Sala de Puerto Rico last month.

By Timothy K Layman

Institute President Charles M. Vest held the third in a series of annual MIT town meetings in La Sala de Puerto Rico last month. The meeting, which was open to all members of the MIT community, attracted 250 participants.

Unlike previous town meetings, this year's meeting had no preordained theme. Vest said he preferred having no set topic "because the range of questions was broad and the tone remained informal. The purpose was to address what was on people's minds - what they wanted to ask," he said.

One topic of current interest was the retirement incentive program, which offered eligible faculty and staff incentives to retire early. Vest called the program "very successful," and said that 640 employees had accepted the offer.

There is "a goal of reducing the total level of employment on campus," Vest said. The plan is to fill only half of the positions vacated by retiring personnel..

"The goal is not to reduce the number of faculty at MIT," Vest said. Professors who accept the retirement incentive will have the option of coming back at slightly less than half-time.

Vest also said that the Institute would try to combat short staffing that may arise as a result of the program. There will be an oversight committee "to realign work where necessary," he said.

That committee will include Vice President for Human Resources Joan F. Rice, Senior Vice President William R. Dickson '56, and Jonathan Allen '68, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

Linked to the issue of staffing is MIT's ongoing reengineering effort and, as with the previous town meetings, that proved to be a topic of interest.

While cautioning that he does "not think the issue of re-engineering will be resolved in one year, two years, [or even] three years," Vest said "we have come a long way toward what we think the goals ought to be."

There are a lot of things to be criticized about re-engineering, Vest said. But it is also "time to pay attention to the inspirational aspects."

"I want to see the Institute setting new paradigms," Vest said. "I think that is an extremely important thing for us to do."

Funding problems loom

President Vest said he expects to see a modest increase this year in federal research support, most of that gain coming from funds supplied by the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation. He predicted that the long term prospects are more bleak, saying that that there will be a 12 percent decrease in those funds by 2002.

"I feel that [this is] unwise, not just for us at MIT, but unwise for the nation," Vest said.

As a result, new facilities will probably have to be funded privately through gifts, Vest said. "We are going to look very much to the private sector in new and different ways as we go forward," he said. "Where they see real value in working together, it will work."

Despite the dour outlook, Vest also said that MIT has raised more money within the past 10 months than in any previous 12-month period.

Academic departments are safe

One audience member asked about the future of people going into science and research.

"This country, in my opinion, is investing too little and planning to invest too little" in science, Vest replied. While universities are going to be better supported in the future, Vest added, right now is "a time of reduced opportunity for all but the very best."

Dean of Science Robert J. Birgeneau noted that the number of science majors - especially the life sciences - has increased significantly in the past few years.

Another person asked if MIT might consider trimming either the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences or the School of Architecture and Planning as part of the re-engineering process.

"It has been understood that we will not solve our problems by cutting them," Vest replied. "It has not been an approach that we are going to take."

Students are important

One student attending the meeting asked President Vest how he felt about student involvement in MIT's decision-making processes.

"I have a lot of respect for student opinion," Vest said. "It is incredibly important to listen to students because they have important things to say."

"But we have not done as good a job as we should," Vest added. "I am very open to getting more student involvement."

Vest also too the opportunity to comment on the Institute's changing relations with its alumni. "Our alumni are a great group, increasingly finding itself in a new kind of leadership in America," he said.

"Alumni relations at MIT are somewhat unusual," Vest said. "Unlike Ivy League schools, we do not have a 200 year tradition. They have a sense of presence, continuity, and fellowship that doesn't exist here."

"Alumni tend to be critical of the institution," Vest said. But that criticism is usually positive, he added.

When asked about Lori H. Berenson, a former student sentenced, many say unjustly, to life in a Peruvian prison for aiding anti-government guerrillas, Vest said that her treatment by the Peruvian government was "shocking and improper. The level of punishment is absolutely inappropriate," he said.

Vest added that he has contacted Secretary of State Warren Christopher, both senators from Massachusetts, and other key congressmen on her behalf.