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MIT President Vest to Step Down

A prominent national voice on issues of R&D and education says he’ll retire from MIT’s top post.

Charles M. Vest, who as president of MIT has established himself as an influential voice on scientific research and higher education, has announced his intention to retire. He will end his tenure at the beginning of the 2004-2005 academic year or when a replacement is appointed. Vest, 62, has served as MIT president since 1990.

In a letter to MIT’s faculty and staff Friday, Vest wrote that the opportunity to take on the top job at MIT was “a call to national service, and I have approached it in that manner to the best of my abilities. After almost 14 years of working with you, I am ready to spend a little time reflecting, writing, and considering what I can most productively do next.”

As MIT president, Vest has been a strong advocate for governmental support of scientific research and has become a familiar face in Congressional hearing rooms. Barely a year after Vest’s arrival, MIT opened a Washington office to provide a full-time presence in the nation’s capital. Vest chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on the Redesign of the Space Station and has served as a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the National Research Council Board on Engineering Education.

“Chuck has been the most important academic leader in national science policy over the past 13 years,” Phillip A. Sharp, Institute Professor at MIT and director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, told Technology Review. “There is little doubt that the strength of science education and research in this country has benefited from his leadership.” According to Sharp, a Nobel laureate, Vest worked to “establish trust between the executive branch, Congress, and the academic research communities.”

Vest, a mechanical engineer by training who came to MIT after serving as provost at the University of Michigan, was also praised for seeking to broaden MIT’s role beyond that of an engineering powerhouse. He pushed MIT to increase its support for research in the life sciences and expanded the role of the humanities. “Chuck Vest has always taken a capacious view of MIT’s core mission by helping to advance the integration of the humanities, arts, and social sciences into that mission,” says Philip S. Khoury, Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “I may be accused of bias,” Khoury added, “but I honestly cannot think of another university president in the past decade who has done more for his institution or for higher education and research in this country.”

During Vest’s tenure, which included the economic slowdowns of 1990-91 and the past few years, as well as the roaring bull market of the late 1990s, MIT’s endowment swelled from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion. “The time to begin this transition is right, now that the strategy and planning are in place to see MIT safely through the near-term financial pressures that we, along with the rest of higher education, face in the coming year,” Vest wrote.

Technology Review is a wholly owned, not-for-profit subsidiary of MIT.

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