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Vest: The Folksy Outsider Who Won Over MIT

By Kate Zernike


Dec. 7, 2003

Dr. Charles M. Vest was not the first choice when the trustees of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology went looking for a new president in 1989.

But when the first choice, Phillip A. Sharp, a professor of biology at MIT, backed out after his selection had been publicly announced, the search committee telephoned Vest, who was provost and former dean of engineering at the University of Michigan.

In Cambridge, Mass., people raised an eyebrow at the notion of choosing an outsider. Vest himself doubted that he would get the job.

“Here was a young guy who went to West Virginia University and spent some 20 years at a major state institution in the Midwest,” he said on Friday, after announcing that he would retire as soon as his successor has been appointed. “I felt I would be surprised if a great elite institution on the East Coast like MIT would be interested in me.”

In his 13 years as president, Vest, 62, has been credited with tremendous shifts at MIT, long considered one of the most prestigious universities, in aspects like the footprint of the campus, the quality of student life and how research is financed.

His fans said it was the outsider’s perspective and the West Virginia folksiness that made Vest, widely known as Chuck, so effective, whether advocating for more federal money, fighting against changes in financial aid, dealing with student drinking on campus or in publicizing the admission, in a highly unusual report in 1999, that the university had discriminated against women on the faculty.

“He was visionary on the fundamental changes that were happening in academia, he was tactical in terms of what MIT needed, and yet he was extremely sensitive in dealing with many of the issues of student life,” said Denis A. Bovin ’69, vice chairman of Bear, Stearns and an MIT trustee. “It’s not hard to find someone who’s good in one of those areas. To find someone who excelled in all three is quite rare and precious.”

One of the earliest problems Vest tackled was a suit by the Justice Department against a group of elite universities that met each spring to agree on how much financial aid they would offer individual students. While the other universities settled, Dr. Vest chose to fight, arguing that not being allowed to share information would lead to a bidding war for students. MIT lost. But the government settled before an appeal went to trial; the settlement was widely seen as an admission that it could not win the case.

He also recognized that federal financing for research and development was drying up and that the university had to seek more money from private sources. When he arrived in 1990, most of the operating budget was from federal research funds, with 21 percent from gifts or endowment. Now, research makes up 36 percent of the budget, gifts and endowment 39 percent. He has secured 18 of the 25 largest gifts to the university and overseen an increase in the endowment, to $5.1 billion this year from $1.4 billion in 1990.

At the same time, he has been a persistent presence in Washington, arguing for the need to continue federal financing for science and serving on a number of committees to advance scientific research. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, he urged that the national security move to limit the topics foreign students could study be balanced by the continuing need for academic freedom.

“Chuck’s success is that he is very much of the world of the newest of ideas and high technology, and yet his nature is very low-key and like somebody you’d meet on a street corner and get engaged in an interesting conversation with,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., said. “He made senators and others feel very comfortable because he didn’t seem surprised when they knew technical terms. That’s very important.”

Shirley M. Tilghman, the president of Princeton, said, “There is no issue in science where people don’t look to him for very wise counsel.”

In 1999, a group of women who were professors at MIT compiled statistics showing that they had been discriminated against in many ways, including smaller salaries and laboratory spaces. When they presented the report to Vest, the women presumed that he would disagree with their hopes of making it public. He not only allowed it to be published on the MIT Web site, but he also wrote an introduction that endorsed its findings.

“I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination is part reality and part perception,” he wrote. “True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

Nancy Hopkins, who led the effort, said last week: “The convenient thing would have been to say it wasn’t true. That’s what people expected. Seeing that letter come across my screen was one of the amazing moments of my life. It took a person of real courage, a real conviction and a conscience.”

Similar reports on gender imbalance and efforts to address it have been copied on many other campuses.

Vest “opened an opportunity for a national discussion that never would have happened if it weren’t for him,” Tilghman said. “He has been so important, not just for MIT but for the whole country.”

Vest also led the response in 1997 when a freshman, Scott S. Krueger ’01, died after hazing at a fraternity party. Vest wrote Krueger’s parents a letter when the university settled with them for $6 million, saying that MIT had “failed you and Scott” and that its approach to housing and alcohol policy was “inadequate.”

Largely as a result of that case, the university invested heavily in building dormitories and required all freshmen to live on campus, rather than in houses and fraternities scattered around Boston and Cambridge. It added administrators to oversee student life, and it recently completed a new athletic center to increase the sense of community.