Reflections on the Legacy of Charles M. Vest

Thursday, March 6, 2014
Gathering to Honor and Celebrate Charles M. Vest

As we remember those who have left us, their faces emerge from our memory, recalling event after event and evoking wave after wave of emotion.  For me, two faces of Chuck Vest bound into view:  The first, his twinkling eyes over his boyish grin as he reports yet another amazing observation, “Did you know that more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children?”  And then, the second face of Chuck:  his brow furrowed, his whole body tilting forward, almost conspiratorially, with an urgent concern, “We need to find the support to get immigration legislation through Congress” -- a kind of one-person good cop/bad cop routine that carried incredible persuasive power.    

Chuck Vest understood MIT’s mission and responsibilities here in Cambridge, but he also understood MIT’s unique force in Washington.  He took up with a deep passion the role established by MIT presidents before him as a national spokesperson for higher education and research policy. MIT affords an especially clear view of the dependence of the American innovation economy on federal investments in education and research, and Chuck expanded the Institute’s engagement in federal policymaking, becoming a consistent, trusted voice of the research university in Washington.  He earned the respect of elected officials from both parties and the gratitude of college and university presidents across the nation. Later, as president of the National Academy of Engineering, he continued his role as advocate-in-chief for sound federal policies for education and research.

A university president has to see, if only indistinctly, the rough outlines of the future and then guide the actions of the day in anticipation of meeting the demands of that future.  Like laying individual pieces of a mosaic, knowing only the relation of each piece to its nearest neighbors, but aiming toward an elaborate and beautifully complete picture, a leader guides the individual acts of the present to contribute to an evolving larger story.  In fulfilling his responsibility to MIT’s future, Chuck took many difficult decisions, and I admire his courage in taking them.  He enriched MIT’s living and learning communities by requiring freshmen to live on campus; he leveled the playing field for women; and he underscored the essential role of faculty in the education of our students by completing the process of supporting faculty salaries with Institute funding, rather than from research grants.

During Chuck’s presidency MIT leveraged its leadership established in the late 1950s in modern molecular biology into a major pillar of the Institute’s research and education mission.  Some may have found the advocacy of a mechanical engineer surprising, but Chuck’s clear-sighted view of MIT’s future strength included an increased presence of the life sciences.  In 1993 biology became a General Institute Requirement, so that every MIT graduate, no matter her or his chosen field of study, has sufficient knowledge of biology to understand and guide the currents that shape the future of medicine, agriculture, sustainable energy and more.  Research funding from the Department of Health and Human Services almost doubled, growing from less than $60M in 1990 to nearly $113M in 2004.  The capital projects of the Vest presidency included the David H. Koch building for Biology, and the magnificent new home for MIT’s expanded efforts in neuroscience that includes the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.  He also oversaw the establishment of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, an innovative approach to apply newly gained insights from the genomics revolution to intractable problems in medicine by drawing on the synergistic power of MIT, Harvard and the region’s academic medical centers.  And, together with the Ray and Maria Stata Center, the home he created for the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Linguistics and Philosophy Departments, a new center of gravity arose at the northern apex of our campus.

It takes many skills, including much fortitude, to lead a university.  Chuck advanced MIT’s mission, for the good of the Institute and of the nation, persistently practicing the art of persuasion with his boyish grin and his furrowed brow.