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Vest Discusses Retirement and Future

By Keith J. Winstein


President Charles M. Vest announced Friday that he is stepping down after 13 years at MIT. The Tech sat down with him Monday morning in his office to talk about his presidency and the future of MIT.

The Tech: What do you see as your legacy at MIT?

Charles M. Vest: That’s such a hard question, but several things come to mind that I feel have been accomplished by MIT during this period. The one thing is really getting us on a vector to have real-world leadership in Brain and Cognitive Science: the establishment of the McGovern Institute and the Picower Center, and bringing the BCS department to the core of the School of Science.

I am extremely pleased that we were able to launch OpenCourseWare, because I believe this is going to prove to be an extremely important force and the beginning of a larger movement in higher education worldwide.

I feel that I have helped to reestablish a good sense of partnership between the federal government and our research universities by maintaining a steady drumbeat of trips to Washington. ... And I also believe that the opportunity to support Professor Nancy Hopkins and her colleagues when they came out with the report on the status of senior women faculty in the School of Science and the whole national -- and indeed international -- avalanche that that unleashed, I felt very good about being part of that.

TT: What are your personal future plans?

Vest: Well, when my father retired, he was a mathematics professor, I said, “Dad, what are you going to do next?” He said, “I’m going to paint the living room.” He hadn’t planned much beyond that. So I’m in about the same stage. Seriously, the Institute has made a sabbatical leave available. I haven’t taken a sabbatical since 1974, and I’m hoping that I can actually do that. I just think after this incredibly intense period of what will have been at that point 14 years, I would like a little time to reflect and read. I’m probably going to do some writing, and think about what I can productively do next.

I do not intend under any circumstance to go to another university.

My hope is that I’ll remain here in some way, but I’ll have to figure out a way to earn my keep. I certainly hope to keep involved in national affairs, policy affairs, maybe do a little bit more work for the non-profit center one way or another. So it’s all very fuzzy right now, but I am forward to a little time to reflect but I am certainly not ready to go out to pasture.

TT: No immediate plans to go back to teaching at MIT?

Vest: No. I’m pretty far out -- it’s been twenty-some years since I’ve been engaged as a scholar in research, but as you know I have a lot of interest and experience in policy matters and so forth. So I’ll give it some thought. I would hope that maybe some seminars or maybe some sort downstream. But right now I’m looking to another nine or ten months of hard work, and then I’ll stop to think about that.

TT: What advice would you have for the next MIT president?

Vest: Look, I believe this is the best presidency in the United States, and whoever the person that follows me is, I hope will have as rewarding a time personally and professionally as I have had. The number one thing that I hope they understand is that being president of a major institution like this is a life. It’s not a job, it’s a 24-hour-a-day activity: very intense, as everything else at MIT tends to be. I very much hope that the next president will stay the course and continue the path that the Task Force on Student Life and Learning set us on [in 1998]. ...

Each president has to decide what they want to do beyond the fundamental responsibilities they have, and I chose that largely in the sense of national service and the Washington domain. The next person may choose something entirely different, but I would advise that they pick something that they take particular ownership and try to exert a little national leadership as well as performing their duties here.

TT: Do you have any regrets about the last 13 years?

Vest: My biggest regret is that we haven’t been able to build more momentum and establishing greater diversity across our faculty and, as I said, across our graduate student body.

TT: Knowing what you do now about how the stock market was going to go, do you think MIT would have financially planned differently four years ago?

Vest: I hope not. And let me tell you that in 1997-98, that academic year, you may remember that I wrote my president’s report that year on the path to our future, which really was a condensation and an attempt to bring coherence to the general discussions of planning and aspirations of the faculty. ...

We had a set of things to accomplish, and to be honest, I was bound and determined to accomplish those no matter what the stock market was doing. And I used to kid the members of the executive committee that when we looked at the expenditure rates, the numerator never changed, only the denominator changed. So it’s a fact that, given the strong buildup over several years, and particularly the year where we ended up 57 percent, it enabled me to get the backing and support of the trustees to do what we planned to do. But I was kind of like a bulldog on getting those basic things done, and I think we would have done them even if we hadn’t had the really rapid ramp-up.

TT: With, for instance, Carpenter, Shin, and Krueger matters, MIT seems to have developed a skittish relationship with the press. How do you think MIT can heal its relationship on that front?

Vest: My hope is that having opened up some of these horrible things that every university and university president has to deal with, the tragedy of suicide among wonderful young people, my only hope is that that having been opened up a bit helps people to think, to realize the problem.

America has a suicide problem among young people. Every statistical base shows that. Every institution is wrestling with it. And as you know, the reason I have been so worried about how things like lawsuits may play out, is that at the end of the day, if society decides that institutions are liable for the results of such tragic deaths, what’s going to happen is that thousands of young men and women who may have emotional difficulties who are now able to go to college and benefit from it -- because of the onset of new medicines, because of the more open atmosphere and understanding on the parts of colleges and universities -- the bars are going to go down and a lot of opportunity is going to be lost. So, I feel very strongly about that.

To get to the core of your question, I think we’re a lightning rod. When things go wrong here ... we get put under a microscope, and I think we just have to live with that, but we do have, we should have the ability to insist that reporting be factual and not just be piling on, and I think really in the last couple of years, the major papers have pretty much moved beyond that. But I refuse to approach such serious matters as a public-relations matter. That’s not what’s it all about.

TT: Where do you see MIT twenty years from now?

Vest: It is amusing to look back and realize that I was in fact the first president of MIT to have a computer in the office. We actually had that credenza built so I would have a place to put a computer. Very soon after I came here, I made it known that if people wanted to get in touch with me, e-mail was the way to do it. ...

But seriously, the world has changed immensely and there are a couple of things that are on my mind at the moment looking ahead. One is that I hope that over the coming years that MIT will begin to play a leadership role in sorting out how we are going to generate energy for this planet in the future and to do so in an environmentally sustainable way. I think this is perhaps the largest challenge with a clear technology base that humankind follows.

And while we continue to play leadership in the things the faculty have developed in recent years -- in nanoscale science and technology, in brain and cognitive science, in the scientific underpinnings of genetically-based medicine and so forth -- I hope we will also pay attention to the macroscopic science of that scale. And to me, the combination of energy and environment is a huge challenge out there, that we’re doing a lot in, but I hope we’ll do more.