Prof. Nancy Hopkins says she was floored when President Charles Vest acknowledged that MIT had discriminated against women faculty members in the School of Science — and then took steps to correct it.

“I was completely stunned,” she says. “He totally changed my life and the lives of all women in science for generations to come.” In 1996, Hopkins chaired a committee of tenured women faculty who wrote a report documenting ways they had faced discrimination, including smaller salaries and lab spaces; and fewer teaching assignments, awards, and service on top committees.

Some women were nervous about being called complainers. But not only did Vest allow the report to be published in 1999 on the MIT Web site, but he wrote an introduction to endorse it: “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

“I can still remember that exact moment,” Hopkins says. “I was sitting alone in this room, sitting at this computer, and his comment came up on the screen, and I just cried. I did not think it could happen in my lifetime that the president of one of these great institutions had come to understand this problem. It was one of the amazing moments of my life.”

Vest’s stand made headlines and spurred university presidents around the world to reexamine their own treatment of women and to take steps to improve it. Since the report, MIT has increased salary, space, and resources for women.

“It would have been so much easier for him to just say it wasn’t true,” Hopkins says. “But greatness is having the courage to do the right thing. And Chuck Vest did that. A great leader is rare but has the power to solve problems and really change the world.”