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Vest to Announce Retirement

By Keith J. Winstein


President Charles M. Vest, whose 13 years at MIT were marked by a dot-com era building boom and a sequence of high-profile deaths that brought dramatic changes to student life, is expected to announce today that he is stepping down, Institute sources and a student leader said. The news was first reported by The New York Times.

Vest, whose tenure as MIT’s 15th president is the third longest, presided over a period of successful fundraising and investing that almost quadrupled MIT’s endowment, despite a recent decline of more than a billion dollars.

Buoyed by the dot-com boom, the Institute started work on several ambitious and signature construction projects, including the Stata Center, the Zesiger Center, Simmons Hall, the Sidney-Pacific dormitory, the McGovern and Picower Centers, and the Media Lab Extension. (Only Zesiger and Sidney-Pacific have been completed.)

In an event that appears to have permanently subdued student life, the Institute was rocked at the midpoint of Vest’s tenure by the 1997 drinking death of freshman Scott S. Krueger ’01 at a fraternity event gone awry. Vest responded by ordering all students to live in dormitories for their freshman year and announcing a crackdown on alcohol, moves that were wildly unpopular among students and brought him student enmity that still persists.

A student died here every year from 1995 through 2001, including several high-profile suicides that brought renewed attention to mental health services and much unwanted press attention on the Institute, as well as three multimillion-dollar lawsuits against MIT, each still pending.

Diversity signature issue for Vest

Vest’s focus on diversity, equality, and affirmative action became a signature issue of his presidency.

“Our educational system must better serve an increasingly pluralistic society,” he said in 1990 upon assuming the presidency. “Efforts to attract women and students of color and to provide an environment in which they can successfully complete their education must continue and grow increasingly effective.”

In 1996, the faculty, charged by Vest, condemned the military’s policy of forbidding open homosexuals from participating in MIT’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program and attempted, in an effort since suspended, to develop a modified ROTC that would include open homosexuals.

In 1994, Vest encouraged an internal study on discrimination against women faculty in the School of Science (“Just do it,” Vest reportedly said).

When, in 1999, the study found evidence of discrimination, Vest won praise for publishing the study and pledging to make MIT a beacon among universities for improving the treatment of minority faculty.

In 2003, MIT led a group of schools as a “friend of the court” in the Supreme Court’s examination of affirmative action in university admissions with a forceful, and ultimately successful, defense of the practice.

“Is race a flash point with Chuck Vest? Yes, it is,” he said earlier this fall, in condemning a student party he said was racially insensitive. “I grew up in a border state, in West Virginia. I went to segregated schools until ninth grade.”

Vest future plans unclear

It was not clear last night exactly what Vest planned to announce today, and whether he would return to teaching. (He is a professor of mechanical engineering.)

Kathryn A. Willmore, the secretary of the corporation, declined to comment or confirm the reports as she left Vest’s house late last night. Through his wife, Vest cancelled an interview with The Tech set up last night.

Vest is expected to stay through the summer or until a successor is chosen, the Times reported.