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The Hard Work of Progress

Many of you have already heard the news that President Charles M. Vest is planning to step down next fall after what will be 14 years of distinguished service. If you have followed the course of the Institute during President Vest’s tenure, you no doubt are familiar with the remarkable record of growth and leadership that he amassed at MIT. The strength of any organization as complex and dynamic as MIT is, indeed, the vision and performance of its leadership. As alumnus Maurice Hedaya ‘51 wrote to the Alumni Association upon hearing the news, “We will certainly miss him. Clarity of purpose and actions are rare.” I heartily agree.

These qualities have been quite apparent to me over the years through my informal conversations with President Vest. And as president of the Alumni Association, I’m also fortunate to meet officially with President Vest from time to time, enabling me to garner valuable insights about the health and direction of the Institute. During the coming months, there will be much talk about the future direction of MIT, so I think it is important for all alumni to understand what is currently happening at the Institute.

You may have heard, for instance, about belt-tightening going on at MIT. News of layoffs made both regional and national newspapers, which is not surprising given MIT’s outstanding reputation for success.

However, it is readily apparent that MIT remains a dynamic institution. The faculty has never been stronger. During the past two years, MIT faculty have won every major award in science and engineering, including the Nobel Prize, the National Medal of Science, the Draper Prize, and quite a few more. The student body continues to be among the very best in the world, with nearly half of this year’s entering class once again valedictorians of their high schools. Major investments have been made in undergraduate and graduate student housing. New community spaces to connect faculty and students outside of the classroom have been created. State-of-the-art athletic facilities to strengthen the body and exercise the mind have been built. The Institute has created more undergraduate scholarships, more graduate fellowships, and more funding for faculty to create innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Equally important, our research funding is growing as a result of new partnerships with government and industry. Numerous new academic programs have been launched to give students more hands-on exposure to the world of business, government, research, and international collaboration. The MIT faculty launched the pioneering OpenCourseWare program that promises to have global implications. Overall, the Institute is nothing short of world-class. 

In addition to these recent accomplishments, the Institute has implemented a plan of financial belt-tightening forced upon it by economic realities. The impetus behind the plan is very specific and related to the endowment’s weak performance during this economic downturn. (The Institute uses gifts and income earned from its endowment to cover nearly one-third of its operating expenses.) Given the poor economy of the past few years, it was estimated that a serious shortfall would occur in the general operating budget if a correction strategy were not employed.

President Vest and his administration proactively put together a course correction to be implemented over the next two years. It was estimated that a shortfall of $35 million could occur in the current fiscal year, which began last July 1. However, the administration, faculty, and staff, through hard work and good planning, devised ways to reduce operating expenses by $34 million this year. But their work is far from done. Depending on the economy’s performance in the short term, the Institute could be facing reductions of twice that amount next fiscal year.

In conversations with President Vest, I’ve learned that this fiscal challenge is being met with great resilience by staff and faculty alike, with ideas both large and small being valued and shared across the campus. (The Institute created a special Web site at to facilitate information sharing.)

In addition, executive vice president John Curry has appointed an FY ‘05 Budget Task Force that is working collaboratively to develop a budget proposal that will leverage technology, reduce redundancies, and simplify processes-all aimed at lowering operational costs while increasing administrative efficiency.

In short, the Institute is rolling up its sleeves to tackle this issue with all the ingenuity and hard work for which MIT is world renowned. And with the “clarity of purpose and action” that President Vest has brought to his administration, the faculty and staff of MIT are working together to correct the shortfall and strengthen the Institute’s position. After all, when it comes to problem solving, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a fine track record. -Paula J. Olsiewski, PhD ‘79


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