massachusetts institute of technology

MIT 1990-2004: The Vest Years
Building a Flourishing Campus Community Building a Flourishing Campus Community

During my tenure, the subject of student life has stirred profound debate. Change here has come not as an abrupt fork, but as an arcing curve up a steep hill. We have felt the centrifugal pull, and the tug of gravity, sometimes almost painfully —but we are arriving at a good destination. This curving path was shaped by a broad array of factors: the rapidly changing demographics of our student body, deferred campus maintenance, long underinvestment in many aspects of student life and housing, breakthroughs in information technology, innovations in teaching and pedagogy, the Potter Report on Housing in 1989, our students’evolving educational and career goals, a desire to better address personal problems or tragedies and increasing competition to attract the best students.

Above all, this path of change has been motivated by our desire to provide a superb education and experience for our extraordinary students.

MIT enrolls some of the absolute brightest, most interesting, and engaging people on earth. I am proud to work on their behalf. Many of MIT’s systems, cultural norms, and traditions are wonderful and help our students grow to the fullest. Our housing system, with all its options, has always given incoming students the chance to form relationships within a supportive network of older peers. We are a meritocracy —informal, flexible, constructively irreverent —all factors that promote MIT’s exceptional intellectual creativity. Virtually all of our faculty teach undergraduates, doing so with deep dedication and energy.

Other elements of MIT’s culture can be less than constructive. We are fixated on our uniqueness, often enough with good reason, but being unique does not mean one never has to change. For example, over time, student life came to mean maximum separation between living and formal learning. There was one’s living group, and then there was MIT. Like the worn-out student mantra, “IHTFP,” this was not a healthy view of a great university.

Many of us came to see that MIT could be even stronger if it became more of an “academical village,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s phrase. A key step was improving the quality of student life —making the most of the rapidly accelerating cultural, economic, racial, geographic, and intellectual diversity of our students and faculty, but without diluting the rigor and intensity of an MIT education.

In 1996, then Dean for Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind Williams and I decided we should create a presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning. We charged a group of distinguished faculty from across the Institute with imagining a new framework for student life and learning that would make sense for many years to come. With tremendous care and effort, the committee engaged students, faculty, alumni, and many other stakeholders in this visionary process.

In 1998, they delivered their final report, and with it a very striking conclusion. They said, in effect, that MIT had been built on the twin pillars of Research and Teaching, and that it needed to construct its future on three pillars: academics, research, and community.

The word “community” initially sounded soft and foreign to MIT ears, including my own. We were a hard-charging institution centered on science and engineering. But soon we began to grasp the essence of this message and its critical importance to our future.

Determined that this report would not gather dust on a shelf, we committed ourselves and the Institute to pursuing this great cultural shift: We would make student life and learning inseparable. We would emphasize learning inside and outside the classroom. We would become a community unified by its commitment to learning and to the central values of research, academics and community.

Since the report was issued, it has shaped the structure of MIT’s administration, influenced our budgets, inspired major campus construction, changed our housing system, shaped our fund raising, inspired a new commitment to UROP and spurred us to experiment with new pedagogies. It also inspired important decisions about the design of social spaces in our new buildings. And it has surely changed the way we think about one another.

MIT, though still traversing the curve, is an even brighter, more inspirational, creative, and effective place today. We continue to debate the relative merits and role of MIT as a grand community and of the many microcommunities within it. After six years, we are still filing down some rough edges, and we are still building a more enjoyable and multi dimensional student experience. We are determined that MIT preserve, without compromise, its commitment to intense, rigorous learning, its passion for discovery and problem-solving, and its belief in the value of hard, important work. I am convinced that Institute is well on its way to creating an even more welcoming, enjoyable, and academically creative community of intrepid minds and hearts.

Essays by Charles M. Vest