Nancy Hopkins, Remarks at March 6 Memorial Service

I’m Nancy Hopkins, a professor of Biology, and a person whose life Chuck Vest changed. Chuck Vest changed the lives of women scientists and engineers worldwide. He made it possible for us to aspire to higher goals, to pursue loftier ambitions, and to succeed.

What is astonishing is that Chuck achieved this feat with two sentences. 

In 1999, tenured women faculty in MIT’s School of Science wrote an article that explained to a large degree why so few women rise to the top of our profession. Its conclusions were based on analysis of data and personal experiences collected over several years.  To even do such a study in the mid 1990s was controversial! So the Dean of Science, Bob Birgeneau, had asked President Vest whether to proceed. Chuck said, “Just do it.” Then, in 1999, Professor Lotte Bailyn, Chair of the Faculty, asked Chuck if he would care to write a comment to accompany the report of the women’s findings, which were about to be published in the MIT Faculty News Letter.

Chuck wrote:  “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.” 

I don’t know if any of us could have imagined the speed and the scope of the impact his words would have. Within days the story was on the front pages of the Boston Globe and the NYTimes; and soon thereafter, on editorial pages from the NYTimes to the San Francisco Chronicle.  

We now realize that the findings in the 1999 MIT Report on Women in Science were not new.  Women in other universities had observed the same problems, and psychologists had already identified and documented the underlying causes.  The story might have been written at least a decade sooner.  What made it happen in 1999 was that a person in a position of power – so it almost certainly had to be a man - understood what the women were saying, realized it was true, and was willing to say so. 

That something noteworthy had happened became even clearer a few weeks later, when I was called to Chuck’s office.   He asked if I would attend an event at the White House at which the MIT report would be discussed by President and Mrs. Clinton.  I was apprehensive at the prospect because I had never talked publicly about civil rights, only about molecular biology. When I balked and tried to come up with a credible excuse not to go, Chuck said, in that very thoughtful way of his, “I won’t make you go, of course. But if I were in your position, I would go.”  I went. 

In front of a wall of cameras, President and Mrs. Clinton each spoke about what MIT had done and why all universities should do likewise: collect and examine relevant data and make appropriate adjustments.  With his two sentences, Chuck had reached from MIT into the White House and obtained a national mandate from the President of the United States

But Chuck didn’t just concern himself with the powerful.  When I arrived home from Washington I was startled to find ane-mail from Chuck with the subject heading: White House Star! What could he mean? Chuck had already read a transcript of the White House proceedings and had written me to say,  ‘thank you for going to Washington’.  There is no mystery why people who worked with Chuck loved him.

After that, MIT set about addressing the issues women faculty had identified, and appointed women faculty to work with them: Professors Lorna Gibson, Lotte Bailyn, Evelynn Hammonds, and me.  Watching Chuck Vest and Provost Bob Brown marshal the university’s resources to engineer institutional change was breathtaking. 

The White House proved to be the first of many hundreds of invitations that came to MIT faculty and administrators to speak about unconscious gender bias and the under-representation of women in STEM fields. Early requests came from women faculty around the country who wanted someone to explain these issues to their administrations. The requests that came later, and that persist, came from University Presidents and Provosts who want to know how Chuck Vest – an engineer - made institutional changes to address what is really a societal issue. Fifteen years after he wrote them, Chuck’s sentences still reverberate.

When Chuck became ill, I wrote to thank him again for so profoundly improving the lives of so many women all over the world.  After noting that there is still work to be done, he replied so characteristically:  “All I did was hold it up for people to see.  In any event,” he added, “it was an honor, and to know that it is still echoing is great.”

I’ve met people who said they would not have believed the findings in the women’s Report if Chuck Vest had not endorsed them.  Women had waited for a very long time for a person with Chuck’s experience, wisdom, and integrity, combined with the power of his position and his courage to act

Our gratitude and our love for this man are as immense and unending as our loss.