Evelynn Hammonds

It is really an honor to be able to share my feelings about Chuck Vest today.  Since I left MIT I have worked with many leaders in higher education and when I reflect upon the time I worked with Chuck – I have come to realize how extraordinary he was. He was one of the wisest, kindest, and most brilliant university presidents I have ever seen. He had such an unwavering core of integrity that affected everybody around him. I learned so much from him about what it means to be a visionary leader.

I thought I wasn’t going to cry at the memorial service last week but I found I couldn’t keep the tears from falling. As people talked about what Chuck meant to them personally and what he meant to the Institute, a flood of memories came over me that I just couldn’t contain.  So I am glad to be able to speak about him today.  Especially since we are here to celebrate his support of gender equity.

I want to recount just one story.  Many of you might remember that in January, 1994 MIT hosted a conference titled, “Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name 1894-1994.”  The story about the conference appeared on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Gathering of Black Women from Academe: More than 2,000 gather for what one says could be ‘the event of the century.’[1]  The reporter went on to note that “MIT had never seen so many black female scholars on its campus”  – that was the wry comment going around the 3 day conference.”  Two prominent scholars noted that MIT was not alone because no institution of higher education had seen this kind of conference before.

During his opening remarks, President Vest stated, “Events like this are affairs of the mind and affairs of the heart.” The distinguished literary scholar Nellie McKay said she was ‘amused’ that the first conference of this kind was held at MIT, “…a place not seen as particularly inviting to any women, white or black” she quipped.

"President Vest acknowledged this amusement and surprise when he spoke at the start of the conference. But he assured the participants that the site was appropriate." Mr. Vest said that MIT had been founded on the belief that scholars should “look at things in entirely new ways and lay aside the old assumptions and ask ourselves, What if?”

“What if the experiences of black women were more visible in our history, in our present?” He asked. “What if their contributions had been more properly valued? What if their voices had been more truly heard?”

He added: “I can’t help but think that this conference is a major step in making the invisible visible.”

I remember how the room exploded with applause in response to Chuck’s remarks.  The conference put MIT on the map as a place where Black women were welcomed – yet another instance of Chuck’s inspired leadership. And I, a young, untenured assistant professor never felt so supported by the leader of this institution. Indeed, Chuck supported us all the way from the planning of the conference through its aftermath. He was man who just stood tall for what he believed was right. His support for the conference and for me – simply changed my life and I feel blessed to have known him.  MIT and the world are better for his having been among us. And I agree with Nancy – the best legacy we can give him is to keep working on the issue of gender equity until it is achieved.


Evelynn M. Hammonds, PhD

Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science

Professor of African and African American Studies

Assoc. Faculty MIT/Broad Institute

Director, Program in Race& Gender in Science & Medicine

Hutchins Center for African and African American Research

Harvard University


[1] Courtney Leatherman, “A Gathering of Black Women From Academe: More than 2,000 gather for what one says could be ‘the event of the century.’ Chronicle of Higher Education, January 26, 1994.