MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVI No. 3
December / January 2004
Financing MIT
Vest to the Faculty
Our New Look
The Search for a New President
Assigning a Final Grade When Some of the Work Has Not Been Completed
Identifying My Father
A Child's Chore
The Laboratory for Nuclear Science
Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology
LBGT Issues
Trans at the Institute
Making the Most of E-Mail: Popular Services, Recent Changes
OCW as Knight Errant
Individuals Appointed to the Faculty
1985 to Present
Printable Version

Vest to the Faculty

Charles M. Vest

The following are comments made by President Vest at the December 17 th faculty meeting, in reference to the announcement of his plans to retire.

When I first spoke here in 10-250, it was July 1990, as I was being introduced to the MIT community as your new president. I knew that virtually not a soul in the room had the foggiest idea who I was, or what was about to happen. I went to the blackboard and - quoting from Pogo Possum - wrote what I imagined everyone in the room was wondering: "What hath got wrought?" Today, 13 1/2 years later, I think we have some sense of that. I'd like to talk a bit about what hath got wrought in these intervening years, and make some personal comments on what the presidency of MIT has meant to me.

First of all, why have I decided to step down from this wonderful position? Shortly after I came here, I asked Paul Gray, "How is it you know when it's time to step down as president?" He said, "That's easy. You know it's time to leave when they come around and suggest that you get your portrait painted."

But the fact of the matter is that I've been here over 13 years, and nobody's come around offering to paint my portrait. About a year-and-a-half ago, though, I began to hear that little, internal voice that we all have to pay attention to. That voice was saying things not so much about me, but about MIT. It began to tell me that the time was coming for the institution to go through the experience of renewal, reinvigoration, and reflection that comes through the process of finding, selecting, and bringing a new president to office. That is the answer to the question "Why now?"

What about the "What next?" I don't know exactly what I intend to do next; I haven't really had time to think about it. The Executive Committee has been kind enough to assure me that I will have the option of having a sabbatical year, and right now, I intend to do that. It will be the first sabbatical I've had since 1974. It's time to sit back and think a little bit about what I've observed and have been privileged to do. I have some writing I want to do, and I want to think about what things I might do next. Those of you who know me well know that the Academy is in my genes. It's in my blood. I can't imagine being anywhere than in a university. And after having given heart and soul to this great university for so long, I don't intend in any way, shape or form to move to another institution. I hope to find a way to carve out a role here at MIT while also devoting perhaps even more time to various forms of national service and doing some work with non-profit institutions as well.

But first, we have a lot of work to do. Together we have a campaign to finish. We have to do the hard work of getting through this next couple of years of difficult financial times. And we have to continue to sustain the excellence of this institution and all of the things that have come about over this last 13 1/2 years.

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But the reason I wanted to spend a few minutes with you today is to make some very personal observations about the presidency of this university as I have experienced it, or more to the point, as Becky and I and our family have experienced it. I want to share some aspects of a university presidency for you to think about as you consider the matter of my successor.

At my inauguration in Killian Court, I began my remarks by saying that my path through life and the path of this institution had converged. I cannot tell you how deeply that convergence actually occurs. The presidency of a university, unlike virtually any other occupation I can think about, is not a job - it is a life. Unlike some university presidents who refer to themselves as CEOs, I have always believed that the presidency is about being among, living with, and serving this extraordinary community. It truly is a life. It is not a job.

When I had the opportunity to come here, I felt it was a call to national service. And today, I feel even more strongly that being asked to serve in this position is a call not only to national service but, indeed, to world service, because we are one of the great and important institutions in this nation and in our world.

Now what Becky and I have experienced is very difficult to summarize in a few minutes. The merging of our private and public and professional lives into one thing is quite hard to describe. During the period that we have lived here, we have lost three parents, two dogs and a cat. As you know, we have been through the direst of medical emergencies, and Becky is alive today only because of the extraordinarily expedient and highly professional work of our Campus Police force.

But good things have happened in our personal life as well. When our family gathers here for what we expect to be our last Christmas in Gray House, we will be joined by two wonderful children who, since we came to MIT, have graduated from college and received graduate degrees (one in medicine, one in political science). We will have with us a wonderful son-in-law, a wonderful new daughter-in-law, and two extraordinary grandchildren - none of whom were in our lives before we came here.

The time that we have shared with you has been quite remarkable. In the conduct of our duties, we have met kings and queens and princes and princesses and presidents and heads of state all over the world. Becky and I have had experiences that, as young children growing up in West Virginia, we could never have imagined. But I have to tell you that the real honor in this time has not been those parts of the experience. It has been working with and knowing and supporting the faculty, students, staff and alumni of this extraordinary institution.

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What have I learned in all this time? I thought about that last week as I was preparing to announce my decision to our Corporation. What I've learned above all else is the real meaning of the word excellence. One of the problems when you live and work day-in and day-out in a place like MIT is that you see all the warts, and you know all the stresses and strains. Every now and then, it is easy to forget what an extraordinary group of people are gathered here. But the level of excellence with which they perform their work in research and teaching, and in supporting those functions, is truly remarkable.

We have accomplished a lot together during this time - we in the faculty and the staff and the administration. Despite the immediate problems that we have to grapple with over this couple of years, the finances of the Institute are strong. Our endowment has grown from $1.5 billion to over $5 billion. We have brought in 18 of the 25 largest gifts in the history of MIT. And we are coming very, very close to a successful completion of a $2 billion capital campaign - a number that we probably couldn't have envisioned back in 1990.

We have a lot to be proud of in our diversity agenda, and in our agenda for gender equity in our professions. But the one place that I feel that I have really failed you is that we have not accelerated the racial diversity of our faculty or, for that matter, of our graduate students and staff. We have much more to do in that domain. I urge you to consider that as an important factor as you seek your new president, and as we work together to continue that quest in the coming months.

Amazingly, when the new Brain and Cognitive Sciences project is completed, we will have constructed 25 percent of the MIT campus since 1990. And also during this time - with the leadership of our provost, Bob Brown, his predecessor provosts, Joel Moses and Mark Wrighton, our deans and department heads and the faculty - we have hired 50 percent of the current MIT faculty.

And, as you know, I've placed a lot of personal emphasis on MIT's characteristic engagement with the larger world - not only through our traditional means of first-rate teaching and research but through initiatives such as OpenCourseWare, the Cambridge-MIT Institute, the Singapore-MIT Alliance, and the Alliance for Global Sustainability. In these and so many other ways, we have tried to reach out and work with others in industry and government world-wide to attack some of the really daunting problems that face humankind.

We have worked to try to influence national policy in productive ways. For my own part, I go with some frequency to Washington, simply to try to maintain a steady drumbeat for the importance of Federal funding of higher education and research in science, engineering and mathematics. We've done the tallies. In the pursuit of that quest, I have made 109 trips to Washington for 450 different individual appointments with over 250 different people. In addition, there were another 80 trips associated with service on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and other committees and councils having to do with national policy in higher education, competitiveness and research.

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But, perhaps more than anything else, we have worked together to bring about a real re-commitment to the quality of student life and learning on our campus. This has been a rocky path, and one that is not yet complete. But I think we have come a long way toward making this an even better institution for our future students than it has been for us, and for those who preceded us.

Dalai Lama, President Vest, and Prof. Phil Sharp
The Dalai Lama, President Vest, and Professor Phil Sharp (click on image to enlarge). Photo by Donna Coveney/MIT.

Much more is to be done, and I don't intend to slow down my efforts over the next nine or ten months or whatever it takes to find my successor. And I look forward to continuing to do these things together with you. But, as you seek a new president, I want to state the obvious: never underestimate the importance of this institution. What MIT means to our nation and our world is not approached by any other university or college on the face of the planet. I hope that this is foremost in your mind as you undertake this new search.

I have often been asked by friends outside the university, "What's it like getting to know all these big CEOs and government leaders and so forth? Isn't that a daunting thing?" The fact is, it isn't. For me, the most remarkable opportunity has been getting to know members of this faculty - to look in the mirror when I'm shaving in the morning and say, "You know, Mario Molina's a good friend of mine. Phil Sharp's a good friend of mine." These are things that cannot be duplicated in any other sector or, literally, in any other institution.

I also hope that, as you seek a new president, you think about our students first and foremost. The students - the young men and women who come here to study as undergraduates or graduate students or post-docs - are among the most incredibly talented, brilliant people on the face of the earth. These are the real jewels of MIT. They are the reason we are here. And we have a very, very deep responsibility to help them to learn and to grow and to give their talent to the world in the same way that you, the members of our faculty, and our staff, already do.

As I said in my letter to you, one of the most beautiful things about a university is that it is never finished. As our illustrious Vannevar Bush famously said, we're about an "endless frontier." We're about seeking something that we never, ever reach. It's a great ongoing adventure, and a very important one.

Now I'll close with the same thought with which I ended my announcement to our Corporation. Most of you know Glenn Strehle, who was our vice president for Resource Development and, for many years, the treasurer of MIT. Glenn spent a little time with our family last summer. When I saw him in early September, he said, "Chuck, I want to say something to you. I used to carry around a little list of things that I thought were wrong with MIT." Then he said, "You know what? You've fixed every one of them. But I know how you're going to be remembered. You're going to be remembered as Mary Gay's grandfather."

And that's just fine with me.

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