MIT community celebrates the life of Charles M. Vest
Actions of MIT’s 15th president have ‘grown to inspire generations,’ Reif says.

David L. Chandler, MIT News Office
March 7, 2014

The life of Charles Marstiller Vest — who insisted that everyone call him “Chuck” — was celebrated on Thursday by a throng of colleagues, friends, and family who packed Kresge Auditorium for a two-hour tribute to the highly respected and beloved former president. Vest died Dec. 12 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Vest, who served as MIT’s 15th president from 1990 to 2004, was the Institute’s third-longest-serving president, leading it through a time of great changes. Many of those who spoke at the gathering praised Vest for his exceptional combination of self-effacing modesty, good humor, and firm, steadfast principles.

“As you walk around the campus, his legacy is very much with us,” John Reed, chairman of the MIT Corporation, said in opening the gathering. Reed described Vest as “a person who was quiet but had firm beliefs, and they were grand beliefs” that “represented the values of MIT.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif said, “I see Chuck now as a teacher, and I have become one of his most committed students.” He said that Vest was “so humble, modest, and unassuming that you did not notice his great intellect — at first.”

Eloquent actions

But upon reading a book of Vest’s essays, Reif said, “you see the full force and depth of his intellect. He was profoundly thoughtful, articulate, passionate, and clear — an impressive and formidable thinker. His words, wisdom, and vision stay with you. Yet what really takes your breath away, looking back over the distance of time, is the eloquence of his actions.” Those actions included Vest’s swift and decisive response to a 1999 report describing a pattern of unequal treatment of women on MIT’s faculty.

Nancy Hopkins, a professor emerita of biology who compiled that report, described herself as “someone whose life Chuck Vest changed. What’s astonishing is that Chuck achieved this feat with two sentences.”

Hopkins recalled that when Vest received the report, he quickly concluded — and declared publicly: “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.” He moved quickly to implement measures to address the problem — moves that were soon emulated by other universities.

Another decisive action by Vest was the implementation of MIT OpenCourseWare in 2002, making virtually all of the Institute’s curricular materials freely available to anyone in the world. Vest’s predecessor as president, Paul Gray, said yesterday, “Chuck believed that educational materials developed by universities should be shared,” adding that the impact of Vest’s decision has been “unmeasurable.” Read more.