Autograph seekers often want to be the person whose signature they’re after. But the 12-year-old Chuck Vest (1941-2013) who held out a pen to Louis Armstrong in 1953 didn’t want to be Satchmo – he couldn’t play a lick of music and had no plans to learn. He had his own reasons for meeting Armstrong and, looking back, they explain a lot about the person he would become.
“Armstrong had accomplished so much, the work he did was so great, he affected so many people – I admired him for all of that,” Vest said of that day so long ago. It turns out that the qualities he valued then in Armstrong became the hallmarks of his own career in education and administration.
The story of Vest (MSE ME ’64, PhD ’67, LLD Hon ’10) as an educator started unexpectedly at West Virginia University (WVU).
“During my junior and senior years in engineering at WVU, I led a lot of study groups and began to realize that when I helped others to learn, I was learning too – and learning better. When I was going through my graduate studies at Michigan Engineering, there was a point where I had to choose either going into research or becoming a teaching fellow. I chose teaching and fell in love with it.”
“I am proud to have played a small role in these events that have had profound impact across higher education.”
The speed of Vest’s rise illustrates the confidence that he inspired in people. In 1968 he became a Michigan Engineering assistant professor. After 13 years in the classroom, he took the position of associate dean for academic affairs. “I had no ambitions to go into administration, but then-dean Jim Duderstadt talked me into it.” In 1990, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made its own show of confidence, hiring him to be its fifteenth president. “I was only 48, so they took a big leap of faith. My life was never the same after that.”
He proved to be a natural at the top level of university administration, too. During his 14-year tenure at MIT, he built partnerships among academia, government and industry; and he championed open, global scientific communication and the sharing of intellectual resources. MIT put teaching materials for 2,000 courses on the web free of charge through its OpenCourseWare, established major new institutes in neuroscience and genomic medicine, and redeveloped much of its campus. And with Vest’s guidance, the university addressed major issues of racial, gender and cultural diversity among its students and faculty.
One case stands out. A detailed study carried out by the tenured women professors in the MIT School of Science demonstrated broad and deep gender inequity. Under Vest’s leadership, MIT responded unlike other schools that had faced similar complaints: It looked at the facts and admitted it was wrong. MIT raised women’s salaries to equal men’s; increased research money and space for women; awarded them key committee seats; and increased the pensions of many retired women to what they would have been paid if the salary inequities had not existed.
“I am proud to have played a small role in these events that have had profound impact across higher education,” Vest said.
“Whatever I’ve accomplished in my life is because of West Virginia University, the University of Michigan and MIT,” Vest said. “I worked hard wherever I was, and Becky worked hard alongside me – we were married a week before we got to Ann Arbor; it has been a partnership. We shared those grad-school days with limited resources, but we occasionally got to the Pretzel Bell, Metzger’s and The Old German – I remember you could get dinner and a stein of beer for five bucks.”
Like Louis Armstrong, Vest had an astonishing record of accomplishment, his work will get a star on the educational walk of fame, he made a difference in people’s lives and he had admirers around the world.