MIT has had the good fortune to have had Chuck Vest as president for a long time. When he steps down later this year, he will have had the second longest tenure of any of the modern presidents, so he’s had the opportunity to really put his mark on MIT. Because of this longevity, one of his most significant contributions to the Institute is that he has not only sustained the momentum of MIT — which has always had great leadership — but he has accelerated it to the point where MIT has risen in the world to a position of even greater pre-eminence in higher education and research. Fifty years from now, when people look back on his presidency, I believe they will remember it as truly one of the golden periods of MIT. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.
A lot of leaders have vision and can anticipate the future, but not everyone knows what to do about it. But that’s one of Chuck’s unique strengths. He has the ability to create a vision, the prescience to anticipate future challenges and opportunities, the know-how to devise a plan to execute it, and the innate ability to get people to accept the vision and work to help him achieve it.
Chuck’s tenure has been one success after another. I think a big reason he has been such a success is because people trust his integrity. Whenever he makes a decision, he has a set of rock-hard values that he falls back on to invariably do what is right.
A great leader is true to his convictions, even when others disagree. For example, Chuck pushed like a bulldog to raise the architectural sights of this campus when not everyone thought it was a great idea. And in 1999, he admitted that women faculty members in the School of Science had suffered from discrimination, then took steps to correct it, even though some thought that it might have just been easier to push the women’s claims under the table. Yet, when people asked Chuck why he made that admission, his comment was, “Well, I didn’t see any reason why my public reaction had to be any different from my private reaction.”
Chuck’s values aren’t just known, they’re demonstrated. It’s one of the big reasons why he has been such an effective leader.
You can’t talk about Chuck Vest’s leadership without also talking about his wife, Becky. As anyone knows, when you’re in a job that is so absorbing and demanding, if your spouse isn’t a thousand percent there, supporting you, it makes your ability to do a great job a lot rougher. We’ve been blessed by having both Chuck and Becky there for MIT, and we’ve been reminded as we continue with the search for a new president, that this job is very much a partnership.
I’m going to tremendously miss working with Chuck. If you collaborate with him on any issue, you always feel that he’s on your side. You never feel he has his own agenda. He’s easy to work with, and you hear that from all kinds of people. He’s also a great listener. He always listens to the ideas and viewpoints of others. Part of it comes from his humility, a belief that he doesn’t know all the answers. And despite what you read in all the business magazines, the best leaders are not the guys who know all the answers. They’re the people who listen.
Chuck Vest has been a great leader, a great colleague, and a great friend. We’ve learned a lot from him, and we’re going to miss him.