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Is There a Vest in Your Future?

Matthew L. McGann

The next year will be a relatively chaotic year in American university leadership.

A week and a half ago, Howard Shapiro announced he would step down as President of Princeton at the conclusion of the academic year. Last May, Harvard’s Neil L. Rudenstine announced that he would step down this June. Combine that with E. Gordon Gee’s sudden departure from Brown last winter, and three top universities are looking for new leaders.

What does this mean for MIT? Well, aside from rival schools having a bit of a power vacuum, it doesn't have a direct impact, really. The indirect impacts could prove interesting, though. MIT faculty will certainly be up for these jobs. It makes it more difficult for President Vest to step down anytime soon. The fact that many high-level presidential searches have been taking place lately is interesting by itself. In addition to Harvard, Princeton’s and Brown’s searches, Stanford and the University of Chicago named new leadership earlier this year, and the search for a chancellor of the University of Texas system (with the nation’s second largest endowment, to Harvard) is still ongoing.

With these prestigious jobs up for grabs in an increasingly technological society, MIT faculty are sure to be in the running. Notable faculty and administrators interview for top jobs all the time; it’s just that students don't hear about many of them. For every former Dean of Science Bob Birgeneau (now President of the University of Toronto), there are several more that get to the final-round interview stage of other major universities and state university systems, only to turn down the offer, or lose out on the job.

These Ivies won’t necessarily be competing for the same nationwide pool of talent. While the era of only internal appointments is over, selections aren’t completely found in national searches either. Alumni will usually have a advantage, while external candidates can bring “perspective.” In the two most recent examples, Chicago went external to grab Cornell’s Provost, while Stanford stayed internal and chose its own Provost. At Harvard, the names most frequently bandied about are the Provost and Dean of the Business School (those crazy Hillary Clinton rumors should be ignored).

There is one pool that may be hotly contested: non-white guys. None of the Ivies in question have ever had anything but a white guy president. In the early 1990s, the last time this many high-profile searches coincided, Wellesley President Nan Keohane was a highly coveted candidate. She accepted the presidency at Duke.

Once the pool is narrowed, the search committee must choose a candidate. But who is on these committees? They are always stocked with trustees. Sometimes administration and faculty members are invited onto these committees. But what about students? MIT’s search which resulted in Charles Vest (after the Phillip Sharp debacle) did not include students. Harvard’s search for a Rudenstine replacement will not include students. However, Princeton’s committee will include two undergrads and a grad student; Stanford has included two students.

With many high-profile vacancies, I suspect President Vest would find it difficult to leave, even if he wanted to. Vest was Provost at Michigan (the former home of Princeton’s Shapiro) before coming to MIT, and he’s been here 10 years now. Despite what you may hear, there is no “gentleman’s rule” of a ten-year presidency, though that does tend to be the median for high-profile presidencies. Even so, would we really want Chuck to leave?

I know all about the “Chuck Vest” campaign, and many students’ desire for a president who was an MIT undergraduate, someone who might have more first-hand experience of our unique culture. Last term, one Corporation member who sat on the Vest search committee told me that if he had his preference, MIT’s next President would be an alumnus.

Nevertheless, I think Chuck has been a great president of this Institute. His keen understanding of our student culture is underrated. His compassion for our community is true, though not always understood. He has served as a great ambassador for science and technology in America, and his fundraising skills (very highly valued in this day) are great.

Furthermore, an internal candidate would not necessarily be best for MIT going into the new millennium. By limiting ourselves to our own faculty and alumni, our hubris could cause us to miss many of America’s preeminent leaders in science and technology education.

People at the Institute love to idly speculate about how and when our esteemed President will leave us. For amusement value, I’ll list some of the best rumored Vest exit scenarios I’ve heard around the hallways.

1) Vest stays until the Capital Campaign ends in 2004, then leaves.

2) Al Gore wins the 2000 Election, and Vest takes an appointed post in Washington.

3) Vest stays until (fill in the blank administrator) is “ready” for the presidency.

4) Chairman of the Corporation Alex d’Arbeloff and Vest work out a deal; d’Arbeloff and Vest step down from their respective offices; Vest ascends to the Corporation Chairmanship.

5) The Boston Licensing Board, Cambridge License Commission, Inspectional Services Division, Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Darlene Krueger, the Boston Globe, Central Intelligence Agency, and Napster strongarm Vest into stepping down.

I, for one, would like to see Chuck stay around, perhaps for nearly two decades like legends Karl Taylor Compton did or Derek Bok did at Harvard. However, when the time does come, I do sincerely hope that the Corporation will follow the lead of Princeton and Stanford and have not only trustees but also faculty and students on the search committee. I further hope that the search committee not take a provincial view, and consider a wide number of candidates from across the country. In that way, we can continue to be the greatest science and technology educational institution in the land.