massachusetts institute of technology

MIT 1990-2004: The Vest Years
seizing the bully pulpit for innovation seizing the bully pulpit for innovation

When I was asked to serve as MIT’s president, I knew I was accepting the reins of an institution with a long and profoundly fruitful relationship with the federal government. During World War II, MIT’s first Dean of Engineering, Vannevar Bush helped President Franklin Roosevelt see how supporting the nation’s research universities would spur innovations that would help win the war and ultimately drive the economy in peace time. Washington sustained this support for MIT and for research universities across the country through 50 remarkable years.

Then in the summer of 1990, just before I took office, MIT lost an important national laboratory —one it had operated for decades —to a state university with no track record in this field. Opinion on campus was that the competing institution had won through raw power politics in Congress. This assumption was not correct, but it made many of us wonder how MIT might strengthen its voice in Washington.

The Institute had done a great deal collectively to foster trust and understanding between the federal government and the world of research since the early post-war years. Our faculty served on key advisory panels throughout the executive branch, and our administrative leaders had established a strong and highly respected reputation in Washington.

But by 1990, the climate in our nation’s capital had changed. Congress had increased responsibility for setting the research agenda, while intense turnover had obscured its institutional memory of the value of investing in scientific research and advanced education. At the same time, with the Cold War mercifully over, many in Congress had lost their enthusiasm for supporting science, which they had seen as a more or less direct investment in military security. Economic and social factors were at play, too. There was anger that MIT continued to interact with Japanese companies, some of which were then trouncing US manufacturers, and skeptics pointed to serious allegations (ultimately proved false) that Stanford and other institutions had misused certain indirect costs associated with federal grants and contracts.

On the other side of the coin, the voice of research universities in Washington had devolved into a cacophony of special-interest pleading and promotion of pet projects by individual institutions. Increasingly, projects and facilities were awarded through “academic pork barrel” earmarks in federal budgets rather than any semblance of peer review.

I decided then and there that MIT’s president had a natural bully pulpit —and that I would use it by visiting Washington one day a month to talk with Congressmen, high-level staff members, and executive branch officials and staff. The topic would not be MIT or our projects, but rather the profound importance of federally funded research in providing for the nation’s future health, economy, security, and quality of life. It was also a chance to promote the long-held MIT principle of making research awards on the basis of merit, established through fair, objective peer review.

Shortly thereafter, we were fortunate to hire the most knowledgeable and respected federal relations person in the university community, Jack Crowley, who immediately opened a permanent Washington office for MIT.

One of the first fruits of our labors came when the new Clinton administration developed its first budget. We learned that they were planning to set a flat indirect cost rate that would apply to every institution. I drafted a letter to President Clinton explaining why this policy would do great if unintended harm to the nation’s research universities. But how to get this message under the nose of a brand-new president? My assistant, Laura Mersky, started phoning around the White House to find a fax number that might possibly reach the president. Somehow a secretary in the press office, undoubtedly new on the job, answered the phone and said, in effect, “Well, here’s the fax number (senior advisor) George Stephanopoulos uses; it goes straight to the President’s desk.” Bingo!

The letter was faxed, and a week or two later I received a reply from President Clinton saying that a uniform indirect cost rate would not be adopted. Was there a direct cause and effect? I’ll never know. But it surely illustrates the maxim that the greatest victories in Washington are the things that don’t happen.

Essays by Charles M. Vest