Four blocks north of the White House, MIT president Charles M. Vest walks through the lobby of the University Club-a Washington, DC, establishment where, for almost a century, members of Congress, journalists, and the so-called Washington power elite have gathered to exchange ideas. Vest is in town for the inaugural meeting of the Department of Energy’s Task Force on the Future of Science Programs, which he chairs. He has just enough time to grab a bowl of oatmeal before heading out to the department’s headquarters. As he makes his way toward the dining room, Bill Reilly, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the administration of the first President Bush, stops to greet him. The two men smile, shake hands, exchange a few words, and carry on.President Vest’s visit to Washington is not unusual, nor is Reilly’s greeting. For more than a decade, Vest has spent on average one day each month in the nation’s capital, where he has cultivated strong connections with members of Congress, White House staff, and federal agency officials. In Washington’s political circles, Vest’s name has become somewhat of a household word. He has chaired numerous government panels and task forces, including NASA’s review panel of the International Space Station and the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s task force. “Chuck is the first university president the government turns to, to chair important task forces,” says Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Washington, DC-based Council on Competitiveness. Vest has served as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. And he has been instrumental in establishing educational forums in which congressional staff can learn more about science and technology. But Vest’s reputation in the city stems not from his desire to promote all that is MIT or to lobby for earmarked research funds. His mission has been much broader: to promote federal investment nationwide in university research in science and technology.
Fulfilling that mission has involved a range of efforts and strategies: meeting one-on-one with members of Congress and White House staff, tracking legislation, and forming coalitions that focus on the role universities play in fostering innovation and improving the nation’s economy. Through his leadership and influence-much of which he exerts behind the scenes-among policymakers, over the years Vest has helped thwart several proposed major cutbacks to federal funding for university research. “He has a tremendously keen grasp of the issues,” says Bill Richardson, CEO of the Kellogg Foundation and former president of Johns Hopkins University. “He is able to communicate extremely well and people trust him. That becomes a potent combination.”
“No other president has played as strong a role as Chuck Vest has,” says Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities. Many university chancellors and presidents today are following Vest’s example. Fifteen years ago, universities relied on such organizations as the Association of American Universities to represent their interests in Washington, says Jack Crowley, MIT’s vice president for federal relations and director of the Washington office. Now, a considerable number of presidents and chancellors realize the value of establishing a presence in Washington. And while many universities maintain offices in the capital simply to lobby for their own institutions, increasing numbers of university leaders are pursuing a vision similar to Vest’s.