Image from National Academy of Engineering
This past week, the USA Science and Engineering Festival lost a dear friend and advisor —and America lost one of its true visionaries in education, engineering and technology. Dr. Charles M. Vest was a tireless advocate for research and science in roles as President of the National Academy of Engineering and President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He passed at home of pancreatic cancer at the age of 72.
Dr. Vest was best known as the 15th president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, serving from 1990 to 2004. He led MIT through a period of incredible growth and change in both its mission and make-up. As president of MIT, he was active in building bridges between academia, the corporate world and government; leading education, science, technology, and innovation policy; and tirelessly diversifying the student body and faculty, swelling the ranks of underserved minority populations and women at the Institute.
Under Dr. Vest’s leadership, MIT established such far ranging bodies and programs as the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the Broad Institute, as well as expanding efforts in the arts, biological engineering, and new media among others. One of his biggest legacies will be the opening of educational opportunities throughout the world from his championing the OpenCourseWare program which opened up more than 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines free of charge to anyone with an Internet connection.
Vest was born Sept. 9, 1941, in Morgantown, W.Va. He earned a BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University in 1963, and MS and PhD degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan as an assistant professor in 1968 where he taught in the areas of heat transfer, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics. Vest conducted leading research in heat transfer and engineering applications of laser optics and holography. Over time, he turned his attention to academic administration serving as associate dean of engineering, dean of engineering, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan before heading to MIT.
After retiring as President of the Institute, he served as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years, authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He also worked in government circles as a defender of STEM policy on a national level. Dr. Vest was a long-time member of President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); chaired the Task Force on the Future of Science Programs at the Department of Energy; Chaired the Committee on the Redesign of the International Space Station; as well as being a leader of numerous other federal boards and special committees. He served both Republicans and Democrats, driven by the goal to ensure America’s commitment to STEM and work in partnership with all those who could advance these goals. To this end, he also served as vice chair of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, the body tasked with ensuring America’s ability to remain a global leader in industry and technology. For these many efforts, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology.
From the beginning, Dr. Vest was a strong supporter and advisor to the USA Science & Engineering Festival. As the Festival’s founder Larry Bock noted, “Chuck Vest literally put the ‘engineering’ in the USA Science and Engineering Festival. It was his suggestion that made us change the name from the USA Science Festival to be more inclusive and expansive in our mission.” Bock added, “the STEM field lost one of it’s true heroes and the USA Science & Engineering Festival lost one of its greatest supporters. He will be dearly missed.”