Nancy Hopkins

Looking back its hard to remember how different things were before 1999 when Chuck Vest publicly endorsed the MIT Report on the Status of Women Faculty in Science.  And how difficult they were.  And that it was just 15 years ago. 

For example:  Women faculty in that era were afraid to take family leave to have a baby because it could negatively impact their careers.  To do them a favor, the Dean kept the fact of their having a baby a secret from those who were going to vote on a woman’s tenure case.   Back then, for a woman scientist to mention gender discrimination publicly threatened her career.  For an institution to do so opened that institution to bad press, and possibly to lawsuits.   

If you can’t discuss a problem, how can you possibly solve it? Chuck’s public endorsement of the MIT Report made it possible to bring all of the problems that women faculty encountered in that era to light so that institutions could begin to devise solutions and make institutional changes.

What made this possible at MIT at that time?  Many things had to come together.  Critically important was the Dean of Science at the time, Bob Birgeneau. Then the fact that Professor Lotte Bailyn was the Chair of the MIT faculty. Then the remarkable men who served on the women faculty’s committee -particularly Professors Bob Silbey and Jerry Friedman who had both chaired MIT science departments.  But most essential I believe were Chuck Vest and these particular women faculty in Science. These women were superb, highly successful scientists. Of the 16 women who signed a letter to MIT stating that there was unconscious discrimination again women faculty, 4 have won the US National Medal of Science and more than two thirds of them are members of the National Academies. It was the collaboration of this extraordinary group that made it possible to identify the unexpected patterns of discriminatory treatment. But there had to be the right person in a position of power to hear them, and then to work with them to make permanent institutional changes.  That person of course was Chuck.

Why this particular man?  At the recent MIT memorial service for Chuck, and in the equally magnificent memorial service at the NAE that I watched on line, people struggled to find words to explain why Chuck accomplished so much that was so important for the world: His upbringing, his personal experiences of life in the South, his knowledge of academia, his long-standing commitment to diversity and fairness, an academic’s belief in data, his perceptiveness, his unbendable integrity, his courage, even his modest nature which made it possible for him to listen so well and to learn from others - even from women.  But you know, when all is said and done, and when this one great contribution he made to the advancement of women is viewed in the context of all that he accomplished, you realize that quite simply, Chuck Vest was a great man. We see this so seldom that it can be hard even to recognize. I believe it was Senator Rockefeller who called Chuck a “Great American.”  I think that is the best explanation of all. Chuck Vest was a great man, and a great American.

So the big impact at first was in Chuck having the courage to “put gender on the table”, as Lotte has said.  But then Chuck had to “fix” the problems that he had acknowledged!

If you go back and read the 1999 MIT report on Women in Science, you will see that every single concrete recommendation the women made to the administration has been carried out. When the women faculty wrote those recommendations, they were so radical you could not imagine them ever happening. But they happened at MIT.  Everything that can be fixed by administrative action was fixed.  So are we done? 

No.  Why?  Well, last time I looked, less than 20% of the STEM faculty at MIT were women. And the faculty numbers in fields like philosophy and economics aren’t much better.  This problem is not limited to Science and Engineering fields. Another example: the last time I looked, women Biologists were less than 10% of the SAB members of the biotech companies their own male colleagues found.  And finally, over the past two weeks I reread e-mail exchanges I had with Chuck over the past year and half and its clear that he knew this work was not yet done.

In 2001 when Chuck set about fixing the problems identified in the 1999 report, he used to drop by and sit in on meetings of the Diversity Council that I co-chaired with Provost Bob Brown.  I can still see him sitting there, seeming to look right through and beyond us, to something he was puzzling over.  “Inequities – that’s easy,” he said several times.  “We know how to fix that.  But how do you fix “marginalization”?  I don’t know how to do that.”   Of course he did make a huge dent in it “just” by fixing inequities, by recruiting women to the academic administration, by increasing the numbers of women faculty, by making babies on campus so normal that we no longer think it’s odd that they are here.   But still, he was already seeing into the future what the hardest underlying problem would be.  And of course he was right.

We know that we’re not done yet. So what should we do to honor Chuck’s memory?  What would Chuck do?

Women faculty at MIT need to carry on. They need to be an innovative Think Tank for women in academia.  They need to continue to discuss the issues, come up with solutions, and work with the administration to test them until we get to a point where we can truly say, “Done”. 

Mercifully it’s no longer taboo to talk about these things.  More than that, women faculty are no longer knocking on the door asking to be fully admitted to a man’s world.  We have been admitted. Thanks to Chuck, we have been admitted to the highest levels of the university.  Women have been the President, the Deans, Department Heads. We are where we need to be to reshape the work world, to lead with the institution on these issues.  

We should do so as a tribute to Chuck. That’s what he would do. That’s what we must do.


Nancy Hopkins
Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology, MIT