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Senior Admins From Vest...s Tenure Moving To Leadership Roles

By Marcella Bombardieri
THE BOSTON GLOBE


One leads an exalted research giant, the University of California at Berkeley. Two of them head two local heavy hitters, Tufts University and Boston University. And two hold the reins at up-and-coming institutions elsewhere, Lehigh University and Washington University in St. Louis.

These five presidents and chancellors share a common denominator: They were groomed by Charles M. Vest, who was president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1990 to 2004. All have credited him with helping them to get where they are today.

Cultivating the next generation of leaders is an often overlooked aspect of good university governance, and few leaders in recent years have a track record that rivals Vest’s, higher education experts say.

Vest’s first provost, Mark S. Wrighton, became chancellor (the highest post) at Washington University in 1995.

Vest’s dean of science, Robert J. Birgeneau, became president of the University of Toronto in 2000, and then went on to be the chancellor at Berkeley in 2004.

Another senior MIT administrator, Lawrence S. Bacow ’72, became president of Tufts in 2001. (Bacow’s title at MIT was chancellor, but it’s not the top job there, as it is at Berkeley or Washington University.)

Since Vest stepped down, his third provost, Robert A. Brown, has been named president of BU, and this month, his vice president for research, Alice P. Gast, became president of Lehigh, in Bethlehem, Pa. All but Gast were at MIT before Vest arrived.

In an interview last week, Vest attributed his track record to the talents of the individuals, not to his own team-building skills.

“I’d just sit there and look around the table and say to myself, ‘I dare any university to say they’ve got a more talented group of people,”’ he said.

He said he had no formula for identifying administrators, just “observation and sixth sense.” When making key appointments, he paid attention to the candidate’s accomplishments and the way he or she was viewed by colleagues, he said.

All five of the leaders who served under Vest called him a superb mentor. He made sure all of those on his team were responsible for major projects of their own. He did not micromanage.

In addition, Vest always made time to talk.

And he readily shared his thinking process on tough issues.

Brown said Vest was “an incredibly humble human being,” not someone who wanted to be seen as “the heroic leader.” He always shared credit for accomplishments, the five said.

“It was never about Chuck,” Bacow said, using Vest’s nickname.

Vest’s quiet, self-effacing style may have led him to cultivate a like-minded group, Brown said.

“I don’t want to say we don’t have personalities, but we’re not the types you usually associate with presidents or CEOs,” he said.

Perhaps most importantly, several said, they viewed Vest as deeply ethical in all his actions, and that inspired them. As president, Vest took several startling, even maverick, positions. For example, under his leadership, MIT acknowledged that women had been systematically discriminated against, even though some people had voiced worries that to make the admission would expose the university to lawsuits.

“What I really learned from Chuck was to always do the right thing,” Bacow said.

The five former MIT administrators also said the university’s unusual structure provided good training. Most important decisions are discussed in one big, weekly meeting of the administration.

The meetings cover a range of topics, from the budget to intellectual property to student affairs. That gives each official an understanding of how the whole university works, not just a perception of his or her slice.

Brown and Birgeneau said they have tried to bring that kind of openness to their current universities.

In addition, Vest never tried to push his underlings out of the nest. Each year, he said, he would ask each about their goals for the future, and how he could help them achieve those goals. But when they told him they were entertaining outside offers, several said, he tried to persuade them not to leave.

“To his credit, he spent most of his time trying to get me to stay at MIT,” Birgeneau said. “But when it was clear to him I was going to go, he said, ‘Great.”’

Vest’s successor, Susan Hockfield, is part of another academic dynasty, that of Yale’s president, Richard C. Levin. Hockfield was Levin’s provost, as was Alison Richard, now head of the University of Cambridge. Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead was dean of Yale College under Levin.

Williams College and the University of Michigan have also reared an usual number of university presidents.

“Successful presidencies are built upon the successful identification of people to key leadership roles,” said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, formerly chancellor at Berkeley and president of the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s one of the major things you do.”