Skip to Content

The Long Farewell

A humble man from West Virginia known for his honesty and integrity, Charles M. Vest has led MIT for the last 14 years. On the brink of his departure, he reflects on his presidency and some of the pivotal decisions that have altered the course of the Institute.
September 1, 2005

Killian Court is abuzz in mid-May. Workers and groundskeepers mill about, perfecting the lawn, trimming limbs from trees, and assembling a long, white stage that soon will catapult thousands of MIT graduates into a life beyond college.

Its a scene Charles M. Vest HM has savored many times. Commencement is among his favorite events of the academic year: the smiling pride of parents and the ready-for-the-world eagerness of students are contagions that have bound him to a career in higher education for nearly four decades. But this year is different. His anticipation of the days activities is bittersweet, tempered by the knowledge that this will be the last time he will greet graduates and guests as president of MIT.

In early December, Vest made public a decision hed made privately some time before: after 14 years at the helmthe third-longest presidential run in MIT historyhe would step down in the fall. The news made national headlines; indeed, many on campus first learned of Vests pending departure from the New York Times, the first newspaper to cover the story.

Reflections on Vests presidency and what would become his legacy began almost immediately. Some have described his tenure with numbers: between 1990 and 2003, the Institutes endowment grew from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion. In the same period, government and private support for research increased from about $305 million to $472 million. Research funding from industry nearly doubled; support from nonprofit organizations nearly tripled. Between 1994 and 2003, MIT received 1,337 patents, signed 745 new licensing agreements, and saw its revenue from royalties and fees jump from $6.7 million to $26.8 million.

But the story of Vests presidency can scarcely be told by numbers alone. His legacy most likely will be fashioned from an amalgamation of such figuresamong other indices of campus growthand a series of highly publicized decisions and incidents that shaped campus policies on housing, gender equity, and need-based financial aid, among other subjects.

On this bright spring day, as workers ready the court for the 2004 graduating class, Vest reclines comfortably in his office, ruminating on all the attention sparked by his announcement. During interviews, receptions, building dedications, and chance meetings in the hallways, hes been asked about his best day, his worst day, what he did, what he didnt do, what hell miss most, and what he wont miss at all.

Its been an incredible adventure, Vest says. He looks down, smiles, and shakes his head, as if in disbelief. Even now, it seems to him a wonder that he ended up here at all. Fourteen years ago, this grand office, with its heavy draperies, imposing portraits of former university leaders, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the courtyard at the heart of one of the worlds leading institutes of science and technology, was the last place he thought hed find himself. The University of Michigan had been his home since he began graduate school there in 1963. He had been named provost in 1989 and assumed, as did most of his family and friends, that he would remain in Ann Arbor until he retired. Then, one day in 1990, the phone rang. It was Carl Mueller 41, who was leading the search for the next president of MIT, and did he have a moment to chat?

The Road to MIT

Charles Vest prefers to be called Chuck. He is informal, personable, curious, introspective, self-effacing, and a bit on the shy side. He speaks carefully and slowly, his words still bearing the gentle accent of his native West Virginia. He is tall and thin: he runs two miles along the Charles River at 6:30 a.m. every day. Humility and honesty are among the personal values he most prizes, and hes an admitted sucker for big musical productions. Jazz is one of his favorite musical styles, and he enjoys hiking with his wife, Becky, near their vacation home in New Hampshire.

His fascination with science dates from his youth, when football and space travel filled most of his waking thoughts. When he began his undergraduate studies at West Virginia University, where his father was a mathematics professor, mechanical engineering seemed a good fit for his interests, which by then had expanded to general science and technology. He graduated in 1963 and moved to Ann Arbor to pursue masters and doctoral degrees in engineering. He joined the faculty in 1968 and was promoted to full professor in 1977. In 1981, he was named associate dean for academic affairs for the College of Engineering, and in 1986, he was appointed dean of the college. Three years later, he moved into the provosts office.

MIT first approached Vest in the spring of 1990, after biology professor Phillip Sharp, who had initially accepted the post of president, chose instead to continue his research and teaching. At the end of May, the university extended an offer, and Vest accepted in early June. It was a whirlwind courtship that caught everyone off guard. MIT was nowhere on our radar, recalls Rebecca M. Vest HM, who had met and fallen in love with her future husband when they were both students at West Virginia University. Still, she says, no one doubted he was up to the job. Chuck was as prepared as anyone could be to take on something of this magnitude, she says.

He was even prepared for the question he knew he would be asked at the press conference announcing his appointment: how did it feel to be the universitys second choice?

To this day, Vest has never thought of himself as runner-up. Had he been a candidate when Sharp was chosen, he says, he might have felt differently. I just really believed and believe to this day that Phils action in having the courage to say, I woke up and realized that Im not ready to give up my sciencewhat more could you ask of a faculty member? Ive often said to him and others that if I had been a truly world-class scientist, Im not sure I would have thought this was the job for me. So Phil went on to win the Nobel Prize, and I went on to become president of MIT, and everybody lived happily ever after.

Compelled by Conscience

The campus knew little about Vest beyond the picture painted by his curriculum vitae and media reports. Although the welcome he received was genuinely warm, many regarded the West Virginian with an optimism tempered by caution. The MIT community has always been close, intimate. To understand it fully, it is said, you must experience it. That is, in part, why the search committee that selected Vest looked first for an internal candidate.

When Vest arrived on campus, he knew that some looked on him as an outsider. So he spent the first three months of his presidency meeting with faculty, staff, and students in almost every department, asking them what issues they felt needed attention. The move earned him immediate respect from the majority of the faculty and staff, says Kathryn Willmore HM, vice president and secretary of the Corporation, and went a long way toward initiating him into MIT traditions and philosophy.

Vest found that the philosophies that guide MIT arent so different from his own. Those close to him call Vest a man of integrity, compelled by conscience, someone who makes clear distinctions between right and wrong. Injustice weighs heavy on his shoulders, as he revealed to MIT only months after his arrival. When the U.S. Department of Justice, in what became known as the overlap case, accused MIT and the eight Ivy universities of violating federal antitrust laws in the way they determined financial aid, Vest chose to go to court instead of agreeing to the settlement that the other schools had accepted.

The decision to fight was an enormous risk, Vest says, probably one of the biggest in his presidency. Vest suggests that he sometimes makes decisions more slowly than he should. I like to ponder things, he says, and he likes to listen. Its a management style that many whove worked for him admire. Still, he says, there are times when a leader must stand alone. When a real dilemma arises, when I know that my job is to say what the institution is going to do, and I cant take the time to consult 100 different people, I find an inner strength to draw on, and I just do it.

The decision to pursue the overlap case was such a dilemma. The real decision came one evening when I was in my study at home, Vest recalls. He was on a conference call with the universitys attorney and then vice president Constantine Simonides 57. They called to say, You have to decide. I paused for a long time and finally said we were going to court, and we did. I believed Id done the right thing and moved on.

The allegations leveled against MIT and the eight Ivy League schools centered on the groups practice of sharing financial information about students who had received offers of admission from more than one of the schools. The schools formulated a financial-aid package for each overlap student. Each university offered the same package, eliminating the possibility of bidding wars that would quickly deplete financial-aid budgets. Under their system, the institutions claimed, those dollars were stretched farther, and more students were awarded financial support.

In the spring of 1991, just after Vest arrived at MIT, the Ivy schools decided to suspend this practice for 10 years and settle the case. For Vest that was not an option. He was accustomed to the challenge of balancing students needs with shrinking government subsidies. Of his time at Michigan, Vest says, I had always wished that wed been able to afford to have the kind of financial aid that would make it possible for anyone who wanted to come to the university to go. Now he was at a university with the wherewithal to offer substantial private financial assistance to deserving students. The possibilities thrilled him. MIT refused to settle and got ready for court.

One ended up with the distinct impression that the Justice Department had never dealt with anyone who was fighting something based on principle, Vest observes. I dont think they really believed we were going to court until we walked into the courtroom. When the federal judge ruled against MIT, the Institute filed an appeal. Vest says it caught those representing the Justice Department by surprise. The government and MIT eventually reached a settlement that would allow nonprofit universities to negotiate financial-aid packages in much the same way they did prior to the lawsuit. Vest was elated.

Champion of Diversity

Four years ago, the Boston Globe Magazine ran a cover story on Vests 10th anniversary as president. When asked to name the issue on which hed made the least progress, he answered, Diversity in the faculty. Following his announcement to step down, he was asked that question again. His answer was the same.

Vest attended all-white schools until junior high school, when West Virginia desegregated the public school system. His chosen profession, engineering, has been historically male-dominated. Yet when he was growing up, many of those who greatly influenced him were women and people of color. The first teacher to inspire him in science was black. His high-school physics teacher was a woman. His best friend in graduate school was from India. His thesis advisor was Turkish.

I just know that those experiences enriched my life and improved my world-view and understanding of things, Vest says. In that sense, I do believe that having broad diversity improves education.

Perhaps that is why, when he was shown a study in 1999 that pointed to widespread gender discrimination in the School of Science, he chose to publicly acknowledge the problem. He told the women who conducted the study, which examined everything from discrepancies in startup packages to the amount of lab space allocated to men and women faculty, to put the results on the Web. Within days, his in-box filled with hundreds of e-mails from women around the country who felt validated by MITs admission. Several universities, including the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Arizona, followed MITs lead with gender equity studies of their own. MIT also developed a number of initiatives designed to bring parity to women faculty. Vest invited the presidents of eight other leading research universities to Cambridge to discuss ways they could work together to address gender discrimination throughout academia.

I want to believe there is an end goal out there, Vest says of efforts to improve diversity. I think when I see our graduate student body and our faculty looking roughly like our undergraduate student body, well be there.

Meanwhile, Vest is one of many senior academic leaders to support affirmative-action practices in student and faculty recruitment. I still hope that we will get to the point where we dont have to think explicitly about these things, Vest says. But what we cannot do is to kid ourselves and act like were there already, because were not. Were just not.

Healing a Tragedy

The Vests live in Gray House, a stately mansion on Memorial Drive overlooking the Charles River. The first floor is, in some ways, very presidential, hung with portraits of former MIT leaders. But resting on the tables and chests along the walls are dozens of family photographs, mostly images of the Vests daughter, Kemper Gay, and son, John. The newer photos show the Vests two grandchildren, five-year-old Mary Louis Gay and two-year-old Robert Gay.

Vest plays the role of doting grandfather with verve and delight. Those closest to him say his family is his touchstone: his sense of himself as a father and husband guides him in all aspects of his life. Four years ago, it led him to a meeting with Robert and Darlene Krueger in Orchard Park, NY. The Kruegers son, Scott, joined the MIT freshman class in August 1997. By the end of September, the 18-year-old pledge of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity was dead of alcohol poisoning. The campus was stunnedno one more so than MITs president.

I was just terribly affected by that death. It just simply should not have happened, Vest says. Seven years have passed, and Vest still wears the anguish on his face. He looks out the window of his office, pauses and shakes his head slowly. I dont think I woke up a morning for two years without thinking about that. Were we at fault? Could we have done something? Should we have done something?

Vest carried the pain deeply. Its the only time I can think that I wondered how many more years he would stay in his job, says Gay. He takes things so personally. Could he have prevented that? No. Was he blamed for it? Yes. Did that hurt him? Yes. Did he feel like he should step up and take responsibility? Absolutely.

When Vest did step up, it was with a controversial overhaul of the housing system, a new plan that would require all freshmen to live in dormitories their first year. Fall fraternity rush would be moved back to the spring. Freshmen pledges would no longer live in the houses. Alumni and students were outraged, but Vest stood firm. He believed the move would help strengthen the MIT community. He also launched a number of programs designed to engage students and reduce binge drinking. There is no doubt that Scotts death prompted the plans initiation. However, Vest notes, discussion of the proposalsincluding the changes to the housing systembegan years before Scott died.

Perhaps this is a good time to end the urban myth that all of this was part of a settlement with the Kruegers, says Vest, who notes the plan was announced in 1998two years before the university came to terms with the Kruegers. That settlement, announced in September 2000, was one of the largest over a hazing death in history and included $1.25 million to endow a scholarship fund in Scotts name and $4.75 million to the family. The exact details took months to negotiate, but it was the meeting between the Kruegers and Vest that convinced the family to accept the settlement. At a press conference, the Kruegers attorney called the encounter a powerful, honest, emotional, and healing face-to-face meeting.

When Vest returned to Cambridge, he sat down at the desk in his office and drafted a letter to the family. Later the Kruegers asked if they could make the letter public. Without hesitation, Vest agreed.

Despite your trust in MIT, Vest wrote, things went terribly awry. At a very personal level, I feel that we at MIT failed you and Scott. I am a parent and have devoted my entire career to teaching and academic administration because I believe in young people and in the importance of their education. The death of your son has profoundly affected me. My MIT colleagues and I will continue to apply the lessons of this tragedy and make MIT the better for it.

The public apology to the Kruegers was his decision, says Willmore. People cautioned him about the legal consequences. He weighed that heavily, but when it came down to it, he just felt it was something he should do.

Leaving a Legacy

It is difficult for Vest to think of himself as someone with a legacy. He has dined with leaders of nations and Fortune 500 companies, served on U.S. presidential task forces, and testified before the U.S. Congress on matters related to academic research. Yet in many ways, he is still a boy from West Virginia whose feet are planted firmly on the ground. When he came to MIT in 1990, he was in awe of the place. He still is. For the moment, he plans to take a year off, which for him means he will serve only on the boards of IBM and DuPont and travel to Washington, DC, for his work with the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Although he is leaving the presidents office, he is not leaving the university. He has offered to stay on until the university can replace him, which the search committee hopes to do by September.

He began saying good-bye in December, a long farewell that has taken him on an emotional journey of reminiscence. A few weeks before the June commencement ceremonies, Vest settled into his vacation home in New Hampshire to write his last address as president. He hadnt decided on a topic but knew that he didnt want it to focus on his leaving. This is a day for the students and their parents, he said.

As he looks out over the crowd on June 4, his thoughts undoubtedly turn to his first address in Killian Court: his own inauguration in May 1991. Since then, some 40,000 people have crossed the stage to accept their diplomas and shake his hand. Did they know, he wonders, that he was as honored by that handshake as they were?

The members of the Class of 2004 look on as Vest speaks. It is a major life passage for you, and it is a major life passage for me, he says. Together we end an important phase of our lives and education and commence a new chapter. With the new chapter comes a charge, he continues. Its the same charge issued to every MIT graduate since Vest took office.

Ponder the unthinkable. Question the status quo. Live in the world as well as in your own nation. Dream of a better future, but contribute to the present. Share your talents. Commune with all people. Be steady friends and bold companions. Address the truly important issues of your time. Be honest in all that you do.

A short time later, the graduates file off the grounds, diplomas in hand and the presidents charge still ringing in their ears. Of all the good-byes Vest has offered over the last 10 months, this, perhaps, was the most poignant. When he is asked what he will miss most about his job, occasions such as this top the list.

Even though a job like this is sometimes extremely hard and tiring, and you cant do it forever, the excitement, the continual engagementits been my life for 14 years, he says. I just know Ill miss being here at the center of this vortex.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI

The tool, called Nightshade, messes up training data in ways that could cause serious damage to image-generating AI models. 

Rogue superintelligence and merging with machines: Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist

An exclusive conversation with Ilya Sutskever on his fears for the future of AI and why they’ve made him change the focus of his life’s work.

The Biggest Questions: What is death?

New neuroscience is challenging our understanding of the dying process—bringing opportunities for the living.

Driving companywide efficiencies with AI

Advanced AI and ML capabilities revolutionize how administrative and operations tasks are done.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.