When Chuck Vest first came to MIT I really didn’t pay much attention. I first became aware of him at the time of the overlap suit. That was when the US brought an anti-trust suit against the Ivy League and MIT for sharing financial information with each other, which they had been doing for some time. All the Ivy League universities eventually signed a consent decree, agreeing no longer to share this information. But Chuck said “no.” He knew why sharing was a good idea. It allowed applicants who got admitted to more than one of these universities to choose on the basis of important criteria about the school, and not on the amount of financial aid. That was an important value to him – that all who come to MIT (or the other institutions) come because they see it as the best fit for them. So he fought against the decree and eventually, he won. And then he made a deal with the government permitting this for all the schools involved. I was interested that there was only one mention of this at the MIT memorial service – there was much more at the National Academy of Engineering. But that was a true sign of leadership and also of having a set of principles and values that are worth fighting for.
I only got to know Chuck when I was Chair of the Faculty. That’s a position that has no power and no authority. But it does allow one to talk to the President, something I enjoyed very much and which meant a lot to me. And through these conversations I discovered how much Chuck cared about equality and equity, and wanted to promote and elevate women. This was all before the MIT Report was released (though the women faculty in the School of Science had already collected their data and Chuck of course knew about it). I remember a couple of incidents. When he wanted to appoint Kathryn Willmore VP and Secretary of the MIT Corporation he was also considering a promotion for another high level administrator. But to give the Willmore appointment more prominence, he actually held off the other appointment. It is such thoughtful considerations that made him the person he was. In another case of a high level appointment, his desire to elevate more women almost led him astray. He debated at length whether to appoint a particular woman to this post, though there clearly were more qualified men for the position. I find it ironic, that in that case I actually suggested the men over the woman.
And when the MIT Report became public, his leadership on these issues became public as well. Of course his famous statement about discrimination being more reality than perception – in the preface to the report – made a huge difference. It was picked up by all the media and contributed greatly to the impact of that report. But it was his less visible efforts that also were important. After the report became public two foundations gave us half a million dollars apiece in order to spread this effort to other universities. Now it needs to be said that when the report first became public, representatives from both Harvard and Yale bemoaned MIT’s situation and praised its response, but noted that “it didn’t happen here.” Chuck, of course knew better, and invited the presidents and other high officials as well as science faculty from 8 top universities (including Harvard and Yale) to a conference at MIT. In preparation for the conference some of us had written a draft of a communique that the presidents might sign and release. It included the acknowledgement that the problem was universal and the pledge that each institution would collect data and try to alleviate it. It also included a statement saying that no faculty member, male or female, should be disadvantaged because of family concerns. So at the end of the conference Chuck invited the other 8 presidents into a room to discuss the communique, while we were all waiting outside. I don’t know what happened in that room – all I know is that it took a very long time. But in the end, all the presidents signed the resolution in more or less the way we had written it, including that part about family. It was a great feat of leadership. And in subsequent meetings of what later came to be called the MIT9, progress was evident at all the institutions involved.
And so, again Chuck made history and had a significant impact well beyond MIT itself. He was a remarkable man. I admired him tremendously. I hope we will see more like him.
T Wilson Professor of Management, Emerita at the MIT Sloan School of Management