Under MIT’s great dome, President Charles Vest is sitting in his wood-paneled office that overlooks the Charles River, and “no,” he says, laughing, “it is not lonely at the top.” More often, he says, you have more company up there than you know what do to with.
Being president of MIT is a life, not a job. It occupies your mind seven days a week, 24 hours a day. One minute, you’re visiting the head of a corporation or the director of a foundation, or you’re visiting students, faculty, or greeting parents of freshmen, the next minute, you’re fundraising with an alumnus or conferring with a congressman. He loves meeting new people and figuring out what makes them tick, so all this company, he says, has been great.
Being president of MIT has been amazing. It has enriched his life in ways he cannot measure. And those who know Vest well say that he has enriched the life of this institution in ways that also are immeasurable. During his 14 years in office, he changed MIT in profound ways and won the respect of people around the world. When he steps down this fall, many say it will be hard to fill his shoes.
When you wish him good luck these days, he laughs and says, “I’m going to need it.” Although he has quietly been planning this move for two years, he says, “it’s been very difficult for me to get my mind wrapped around what I do next.” The past 14 years has been a wonderful journey, but he feels that now is the time for MIT to experience the new life that comes from new leadership. Most likely he’ll take a sabbatical. Maybe he’ll do some work in public service. He might do some writing.
“My hope is to stay at MIT and continue work on a national level. I don’t want to go to another university. I’m just too invested in this place to leave.”
The most challenging part of the job, he says, has been to think about so many different things, ideas, and constituencies. “As a faculty member, you’re used to working on things in great depth and detail, and in this job, it’s been hard to get into the habit of skimming the surface,” he says. You read executive summaries instead of full reports. One day you’re in Cambridge, the next day, you’re in a city around the world. You talk to kings and taxi drivers and university presidents, and you just have to keep shifting gears. “It gives new meaning to parallel processing and multi-tasking,” Vest says, adding that although it has been the challenge of the job, it has also been what keeps it exciting, that each day is different.
What he’ll miss most and also miss least, he says, is the pace. “I’ll miss being in the center of the vortex. It’s exciting to be in such an all-consuming, fast-paced, totally dynamic environment.” But being at the center of the vortex, he says, you have no time to ponder the extraordinary things that happen to you. “And I won’t miss that. Wonderful things happen, and 10 minutes later, you have to be off doing something else. You never have time to sit back and think, what did that mean, or how extraordinary this is.”
For example, he says, it was indeed extraordinary to be invited to Buckingham Palace to visit Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. And he adds, “as a kid, I grew up dreaming about going into space. And now as president, I’ve had several opportunities to work with former astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was the first man ever to set foot anywhere off the earth, and it is just extraordinary.”
Reflecting on his presidency, the one thing that stands out in his mind is excellence. Everybody at MIT uses that word, to the point that it’s trite. And yet, as president he has grown to understand in a profound way what it means to do work that is surpassing. “To know the quality of people on this faculty and what they have accomplished, and the way they drive the world forward, whether the world understands it or not, is done at such a level of quality, that just observing, learning, and thinking about that,” he says, “has been remarkable.”
MIT is truly remarkable. And you never notice it more than when you travel the world. It has impressed him, he says, to learn the level of respect, and even awe, with which MIT is viewed at great distances from Cambridge. “People around the world understand how MIT has influenced the world sometimes better than we do closer to home.”
During his tenure, Vest says, he has grown to deeply value people who believe that we have the power to actually advance humankind and make the world a better place. “I believe that you can make the human spirit soar. There are so many reasons for us to be pessimistic, and to know why we can’t accomplish this or that. But what moves us forward is people who believe that anything is possible. And I really value that.” It has been a privilege, he says, to know faculty members who have gained insights into nature from which we all will benefit, who have launched new fields of study and who pursue their fields with passion, and it has been a privilege and a joy, he says, to know students who are the most brilliant people on the face of the earth.
“I have loved this job. It is just a wonderful, exhilarating, satisfying experience to represent an institution of this quality. I know no other way to say it.”
Vest says that he never dreamed he’d be president of MIT growing up in Morgantown, W. Virginia, the son of a math professor and a homemaker. He was close to his father, Lewis, from whom he once took two courses at W. Virginia University and earned two As. “He was arguably the best teacher I ever had. He was extremely strict and demanding, always impeccably prepared, and a very eloquent, straightforward lecturer.”
On the exterior, he says, he is like his father, from whom he inherited a love of science, teaching, precision, and discipline, but deep down, he says, he’s more like his mother, Louise, who was well-read and a genealogist, and from whom he inherited “a sense of history, family, and beauty.”
Vest says that for him and his wife, Becky, the light of their lives are their two grandchildren, Mary, 5, and Robert, 2. “Both kids are just bright and extraordinary, and we love being around them. They are the greatest joy in life,” he says, adding that now that he will have more time to himself, one thing he hopes to do is visit the children more often. When they are a bit older, he says, he’ll offer them this advice: “Don’t get all hung up planning your life and career. Prepare yourself well, but make your decisions based on what’s really meaningful to you, what you believe is really important, what you have passion for, and pay less attention to the economic and social consequences of that, because somehow, at the end of the day, things will work out.”
Vest just might take his own advice. He never mapped out his own life and career and did just great. He has professional success, financial success, a successful family. “I am a contented man.”
The only thing he lacks, he says, joking, is a good plan for the future. But he is not worried. Things have worked out before, he says. “We’ll just have to wait and see what emerges.”