Charles M. Vest
INTERVIEWER: Thank you very much for participating in this. Obviously, your voice is one of the most crucial.
We're starting with just some broad questions, before we just go over your history and all that. Because you certainly presided over a very interesting time at the Institute. There are rules and rule breakers at MIT. What characterizes those groups as MIT rules, or MIT rule breakers?
VEST: That's a very insightful question. Because I think the fact that we have rules and rule breakers, and that we have very deep, very fundamental scholars and scientists, and we have very highly applied, even industrially-oriented people that manage to coexist side-by-side at an equal level of excellence and respect each other, is one of the real secrets of why MIT has been as successful as it has.
INTERVIEWER: Is that a management challenge? Or is that something that works on its own without a lot of tweaking from above?
VEST: To be honest, it works on its own. As most important things do. It's certainly not something you want to try, even, to, to tweak from above. The only time that you think about that a little bit is when you're making promotion and tenure decisions and so forth like this, at the level of the Academic Council and provost and the president. You want to be sure that somebody is not getting short shrift, or not getting the right level of, of consideration because he or she may be in one or the other of those camps. But it's a pretty rare instance that becomes a question. We revel in having both.
INTERVIEWER: So balancing the rules and the rule breakers is one of the challenges.
VEST: It's a challenge, but it's pretty much a natural system.
INTERVIEWER: From the look on your face, it seems like it's like part of the fun.
VEST: Absolutely. And in fact, you know, if you look back historically at MIT, the areas that became great here, that were beyond the sort of core of engineering and natural science and architecture, they were almost all started by people who were big time rule breakers. So you got the linguistics building around people like Noam Chomsky. And you've got the economics building around Paul Samuelson. And he really saw the value of deep analysis and relatively advanced mathematics before other people did. And even political science, if you go back, Max Millikan people like that, who believe that academic political science, scientists, should actually know something about the real world of government. And they brought people with that kind of experience in.
All those areas grew because they had, as you put it, rule breakers. They had radical thinkers. They were deep thinkers, and they turned out to, to be right. And one of the challenges over the years since that is, as departments like that begin to mature, then they come under the same pressures as every other university, and ranking systems and things like that, that begin to put a little bit of back pressure on the radical thought. And that is an area in which I think the deans and so forth have to think a little bit about the balance.
Because we have to keep that, what I think of as intellectual entrepreneurship. Not in the financial sense, but in the intellectual sense. Keeping that balanced, I think, has been important in those areas that were not sort of the original core of science and engineering.
INTERVIEWER: You became president of MIT in 1990. Looking back from now, what was ending at that time, and what was just beginning for the Institute?
VEST: Well, what was ending was the Cold War. And that had a lot of ramifications for our research universities, public and private, and especially, in some sense, for MIT. Because since the end of World War II, federal support for research and advanced education in science and engineering in particular were largely driven by two things: advancing medicine and healthcare, and our national defense. And in fact, even if you look back, the National Defense Education Act, literally there in the title. And the primary reason people in Congress were interested in supporting things like physics and electrical engineering, and later on computer science, was because they wanted to be sure we had the technologies that would keep our national security strong through the more or less traditional defense department mechanisms.
So when that began to crumble, then all of a sudden there was not a lot of support inherent in the Congress. The Congress in that period turned over even more than usual. A sort of corporate memory was lost. More policy was set in Congress than it was in the administration.
And out of this mix, unfortunately, grew some real antagonism, real antipathy toward our research universities. And if I had to point to one thing that was very troubling for the nation, not just MIT, at that time, that was it. And that had a lot of ramifications for us. One, I personally committed myself to doing what I could as president of MIT, and use the inherent bully pulpit, to try to rebuild some of the trust and understanding in Washington and the importance of this partnership between our public and private research universities and the federal government.
And also, at the same time, things got even worse. Because you'll recall that we were getting whacked in our manufacturing sector, primarily by the Japanese. We suddenly had gotten fat and sassy, and were really not able to compete on the global stage. And MIT had, and I hope we always have, very strong relationships around the world, research and scholarly relations, including a lot with Japan. So Congress was also mad at us about that. Because they thought we were giving away the national treasures and so forth. So it was a real time of turmoil.
INTERVIEWER: Let's talk about the erosion. How does a research institution that, as you say, is so associated with preserving national security and maintaining a technological expertise that would appear to be vital to the health of the nation become surrounded by an era of suspicion? And what would you possibly have been doing that would be against those values from Congress's perspective in 1990?
VEST: Well, as most things that, that happened in Congress, this is not about logic or reality. It's about perception and underlying fear, and not enough mutual understanding and discussion, frankly. In my view, we were doing nothing that we should not have been doing. In fact, we continued to do work, not just sponsored by the defense department, but work that was very crucial to our national security.
And we had to get people to understand that national security meant more than just kind of military might. It was increasingly economic power, and the ability to innovate, and produce new products and services. And so a lot of the discussion was trying to get the government to understand that in the long- term, that was very, very important to the prosperity, and in a broader sense, the security of the nation.
So we were doing nothing wrong. The one thing that we really did get accused of was working with Japanese industries. And there's such a long history to that, and a very fascinating one. The first student to come from Japan to MIT came in 1869. Almost unheard of, during the Meiji Restoration period. And because of that, we had a sequence, over a long number of years, of Japanese students and scholars that came here.
But the big change came right after World War II. Because we had a professor here who had been captured by the Japanese during the war. Sam Goldblith was on the Battan Death March, is credited with using his understanding of chemistry and pharmacology to literally extract vitamins from grass and plants along the way that kept some of the, his fellow soldiers alive. And despite this horrible experience, when the war was over, Sam's attitude was, that is behind us. I do not believe these people are inherently bad. And he actually devoted much of the rest of his career to building bridges, bringing students over. And from that, we began to have some involvement with major corporations.
So this is a very long- term, healthy thing. And at the end of the day, I think we actually helped our nation by building those strong relationships, and by educating young men and women, particularly in engineering and management, who understood that part of the world, and what the coming wave of globalization was all about. So I think we had nothing to apologize for, but we had some things to explain, and to kind of rebuild trust.
INTERVIEWER: And so, in a sense, you opened an office -- actually you literally opened an office in Washington. But I suspect you would probably not call yourself a lobbyist, per se.
INTERVIEWER: No. So how did that work? I mean, suddenly, you know, here's our office in Washington; MIT's in Cambridge. Not necessarily in the political game, but there was clearly some damage control that needed to be done.
VEST: Well, we were certainly not alone among universities that had offices and staff in Washington. But I think our philosophy of operation was a little bit on the unique side at the time. Because as I began to talk to people down there -- and I just made it my business to go down once a month and talk to anybody who would listen, whether it's a Congressman or a staff member or someone in the agencies, the White House, or what have you -- I began to recognize that we in the university community were as much to blame for this, for this sort of lack of communication and trust as were the people in Washington. Because we'd all gotten into the habit of going down and pushing specific pet projects, and forgot that what's really important is the whole system.
So our message from MIT and the things that I personally delivered were that this partnership, between the government and our universities, is key to our future. That we must strengthen it and recommit ourselves to it. And that it is not just about what project goes to the University of Illinois, or what goes to Washington. It is; how does the innovation system in the nation work?
And I believe that a rising tide raises, raises all boats. So we tried with, with some success -- because I think everybody began to agree with this -- not just to do this as MIT, but we built a lot of coalitions. And sometimes several of us would go down together and so forth. Just trying to keep the message very simple: that investment in research and advanced education in the sciences and engineering had a very strong import for our national future. And that we wanted to be partners again, and, and not antagonists.
And I think we've come a long way. Believe me, it's far from perfect today. But that level of trust and understanding is quite a bit higher than it was in 1990.
INTERVIEWER: When you were just starting out and you looked around the campus of MIT, what institute, what institutions, what departments, what units on campus were doing this communication job particularly well, and which ones maybe needed some work?
VEST: I don't think it's so much a matter of what department. What really had happened, in my view, is, at that time, MIT was the most wired-in university in the country. And believe me, Paul Gray did his share of going down to, to Washington, and working. But what happened was, we were wired in the traditional sense of, our faculty leaders were very engaged with the sponsoring agencies, with the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy. And so we were always called on for our expertise and our input, and working as reviewers of big programs, and called on... that was going very well.
But what happened, and I think it was largely because of this post Cold War shift, much of the real decision making moved out of the agencies where there's expertise and understanding, kind of, into the nitty gritty of the Congressional appropriation process. And that's where we had to try to figure out how to deal with this.
So I don't think that I could tell you, this department did well, that department did, did poorly. They were all pretty well tied into the right agencies for the kind of work they did, viewed as experts. We believe very deeply in merit review around here, so we never engaged in academic pork barreling. And so we were doing just fine, and it was really the ground under us that shifted, rather than us.
INTERVIEWER: There were places here at MIT that were experimenting with different funding models and partnership arrangements to produce revenue and support, the Media Lab being one of them. How different was that model, and did it represent an alternative, or was it sort of a boutique kind of operation?
VEST: The Media Lab model was really quite radical in that, first of all, they had a philosophy in those days that they did not want to become dependent at all on federal support. They had a little bit, but just miniscule. So they wanted to serve and be funded by the private sector. They built a model of sort of a grand consortium, where a large number of companies paid relatively modest fees to be part of the Media Lab sponsoring consortium, and intellectual property was shared.
And this is a very complicated thing. Because companies believed that they were far enough out on the curve, that they were, that the Media Lab was providing them with ideas and concepts and technologies that likely were going to be commercialized, and were going to benefit somebody. But it was yeasty enough that they were willing to sort of support the whole enterprise. And any remember of the consortium had use of, of that intellectual property.
And this served the Media Lab, and therefore MIT very well for a long time. After a while, the ground rules out there began to change a little bit. And there were a lot of tensions in the Lab, because, ironically, as the entrepreneurial era really became strong, that isn't exactly consistent with this open access to intellectual property. So a lot of interesting challenges occurred there, and Media Lab went through a certain maturation process. And now it's moving today I think very well, but in a somewhat, somewhat different format.
If you set the Media Lab aside, the only other part of the Institute that comes to my mind as having a rather different model in terms of their support was the Laboratory for Nuclear Science. This for many years was our largest single laboratory, in terms of its scope and funding and so forth. It funds a lot of very basic physics research, supported by the Department of Energy. And that has been an ongoing grant for literally decades now. So the people that worked in that laboratory did not have the same normal pressures of having to write 100 proposals every year. One might think of it a bit as a sweetheart deal, but it was really recognition on the part of the government of a very long- term investment in a very high quality operation.
If you set that aside, then I think everybody else was pretty much into more or less standard government funding, with a bit of private sector entrepreneurship and industry around the edges.
INTERVIEWER: In your experience in Washington, how far did you have to step into the fray to get the things accomplished you wanted to get accomplished? Were there periods where are you actually had to go toe to toe with legislators or committee staff, or White House science advisers to make things happen? Or was it pretty much social, you know, message communication?
VEST: I always referred to it as a steady drumbeat over several years. The answer is; we did not get into any fights or arm wrestling. And the reason is that our messages are very fundamental. We were not fighting over a specific appropriation, but rather just trying to rebuild the sense of trust, of important standing for, for peer-reviewed, merit-based decision making.
So things were really at that very fundamental level. And so I can't think of a time when we were literally in a fight or a big argument. Now, not everybody always agreed with us, and certainly I had many interesting conversations with people in the Congress who actually don't buy into the whole peer-reviewed, merit-based thing. In fact, I remember visiting the then-junior senator from South Carolina for the first time. And he looked at me, and the first thing he said was, "I used to work with one of your predecessors." And I thought he was going to say Paul Gray, and it turned out he said Karl Compton. You know, this really went back decades. And then he said, "Now I'm interested in what you have to say, but I can tell you right up front there's one thing you and I are going to disagree on, and that's peer review." He says, "Let me tell you how we think about peer review in South Carolina. We think you guys in Massachusetts get all the peers, and we get all the reviews."
So you did have that kind of conversation. But it was on a friend, a very friendly basis. And indeed, he ended up being a very prominent supporter of a kind of science and engineering agenda in the country.
INTERVIEWER: There were a few high stakes issues for you: need-based grants, research grants during the Clinton administration that were either being cut, or the rules were changing on them. Can you describe specifically how you and partners with the same stakes attempted to change policy, or change legislation that was, in your view, damaging to the Institute?
VEST: Well, let me suggest two things we might discuss. The first one was actually my first foray into a big issue in Washington. The first year of the Clinton administration, which was of course very early in my presidency, we learned that the administration was putting its first budget together. So imagine they're all in their offices for the first, literally, few weeks. And they have to do the budget for the next year.
And we learned that they were planning to put a uniform indirect cost rate for all institutions, whether public, whether private, big, small, whether focused on science or not. This is a complicated issue we don't need to go into, but the point is that one size does not fit all. And that kind of a formulaic approach to indirect cost accounting would have done great damage to our private universities, especially those like MIT, who have very large portions of their budget and student population and faculty in expensive areas like science and engineering.
INTERVIEWER: Basically just, without going into detail, we're talking about overhead kinds of expenses. That's another way of looking at it.
VEST: Overhead. So we wanted to get the message across this is a bad idea. Not just a bad idea for MIT, a bad idea for the country. And I had no idea how to reach the president of the United States and actually get him to look at this. So my assistant, Laura Mersky, got on the phone. I said, "See if you can find a fax number that might get somewhere close to the president."
So she called around and she got a secretary to answer the phone in the Press Office, in George Stephanopoulis's office. And Laura said she was calling on behalf of the president of MIT, and we were wondering if they could give us a fax number, he had a letter he'd like to fax to the president. And this young woman, who I'm guessing was 18 years old and probably second day on the job, said, oh, here's the number Mr. Stephanopoulis uses to get to the president, and gave us the fax number. So this goes right to his desk.
So sure enough, we put the letter on, faxed it to that number. And a couple of weeks later, I actually got it back from the president with his marginalia scratched on it. And he said, "We've decided not to do this." Now, whether there's cause and effect there, I don't know, but I'd like to think there was. So that was, that was an easy one, and, and a very important and fun one.
The difficult one was the financial aid issue that you have referred to. MIT, for a long time, had, literally all of its modern history had been very dedicated to the fact that if students were smart enough and aggressive enough and eager enough to come to MIT and benefit from an MIT education, and MIT would benefit from their presence, we'd somehow see that we met their costs.
So the kind of vernacular for this is that we have need-blind admission, which means when we admit kids, we don't know whether they're rich, poor, or in-between. And second, that we gave our financial aid from our own resources only on the basis of family need. So if you were really smart and wealthy, you would pay the full ride. If you were really smart and came from a family of very modest means, we'd find enough financial aid to get you through. Deep in the culture of MIT.
Well, a few years before I came here, while Paul Gray was still president, the United States Justice Department began an investigation of the eight Ivies, MIT, and actually 30 or 40 other schools and colleges, initially. They wanted to know if we were doing price fixing. Were we conspiring to set tuition? And they investigated a while, they concluded no.
So then this got a little deeper. They began looking at financial aid, and realized that we had something called the Overlap Group. The Overlap Group was a group of 30 some schools that would meet once a year, about the time admissions had been done, financial aid applications were coming in. And they would get a computer printout.
And if a student was admitted, say, both to Princeton and MIT, then we would look at how we measured the family's ability to pay. How did we assess how much this family could reasonably afford to pay for a university education? And if there was a great difference between the way Princeton and MIT had evaluated this, then they'd sit down and say why. And usually they'd find, well, you didn't realize this factor. Or sometimes they would probably just compromise and come to the middle. But we would look at how we assessed a family's ability to pay. We did not agree on how much financial aid the person should get. We certainly didn't agree on what the tuition should be.
But the government, in I think a very bizarre application of thinking about the Sherman Antitrust Act, decided to come after, ultimately, the eight Ivy League schools and MIT. And put huge pressure on us to sign a consent decree. Now, a consent decree is a legal document that basically says we didn't do anything wrong, but we'll never do it again.
And somehow between the brashness of being a naive new young president who didn't know why he shouldn't do things, and the fact that I had a deep personal belief in this system, and also knew this was a very important part of MIT's culture and operation, I decided that we were going to fight this in court. And the other eight schools signed the consent decree, and we went to court.
And it was a very long and complicated thing. We had the original trial in Philadelphia in circuit court. There were three legal, basic legal points in question. And there, and at the lower court, we lost. And we actually did not think that the judge understood the rather detailed economic analyses that we had to go through to show that this really wasn't disadvantaging students in an unfair way. So we appealed.
Now, if the Justice Department was stunned when we went to court, they were really stunned when, in three hours after the judge's decision, I had a press conference and said we're going to appeal this. So now it went to the appellate court. And a couple of very interesting things happened.
To get ready for this, the young attorney, Thane Scott, who worked for Palmer and Dodge here in the city, who represented us and was going to represent us at the appellate court, decided to hold a moot court at Harvard. And one of the people that they brought in to serve as a surrogate judge in this moot court had actually been the chief judge of the panel that was going to hear this until about two months prior to this. And he became so convinced that our case was right that he asked us if he could present the amicus briefs to his former colleagues when we went to trial.
So we had a lot of very interesting things like this. But at the end of the day, there were these three key legal points, three judges. And we won everything, except one judge disagreed on one point. And this was enough to cause them to remand it back to the lower court. So for all practical purposes, we won the case.
Which was almost of historic import, because my understanding is, that it was the first time the government had ever used the anti-- used the Sherman Antitrust Law against a not-for-profit organization. So lots of people trying to make their legal careers and reputations on this. And what this then evolved into was a slight face saving agreement with the Justice Department, and then ultimately some changes in the Higher Education Authorization Act. We never really got back to, to where we were, to this sort of mechanism that really enforced among our peers staying true to the idea of need-blind admission and need-based only aid, but we got a close approximation to it.
INTERVIEWER: Did any of the other presidents of the Ivies say anything to you, when first of all you realized you were on your own on this, both in the lower court and the appeal? Did they scratch their heads and have any advice for you, or say more power to you? Any, any recollections there?
VEST: I certainly have very strong recollections. Because I actually had a couple of phone calls, in one case a conference call, with two or three of the Ivy presidents, all of whom were people I had enormous respect and admiration for. And they politely but firmly asked me not to go forward with this. That their assessment was the risk was too high.
And there was risk. And that risk was that if we had truly lost this case, then these schools, as well as ourselves, would have been open to treble damages from any student who decided to go to court and show that he or she should have had financial aid because they were so smart, and didn't get it. There was a real serious financial risk. And the question I kept asking our attorneys all the way through as we were deciding whether to fight this was, I want to fight this, because I think we're right. But I keep asking for a little assurance that I wasn't going too far in putting other institutions at risk. And I'll tell you, it was borderline.
But we stood up for principle, and we won. And I must say that none of these senior colleagues put anything that would approach being untoward pressure on me. They simply made their case, and I respectfully disagreed. And after it was over, I can assure you that all those people came by and congratulated us, and thanked us for, for standing tall. But it was a scary time.
INTERVIEWER: How is it that the one school without a law school is the one that goes it alone?
VEST: Well, I'm going to do a little one-upsmanship, because most of the other presidents were lawyers. And I actually think that that had a lot to do with the fact that they made the decision they did. I almost am certain that, had the next generation of presidents of those institutions been in place, I imagine half or maybe all of them would have been in the same place we were.
INTERVIEWER: Except, intuitively, I don't quite grasp how a mechanical engineer trusts a lawyer on an outcome that was so financially high stakes. Was that a little tough?
VEST: You mean our own attorney? Well, let me tell you about that. MIT at that point had no general counsel. Paul had believed very much in this; I agreed with the idea. Because general counsels all too often, after the office matures, tell you what to do, rather than doing what you think needs to be done.
So we always worked with a local firm, mostly Palmer and Dodge. And we were very pleased with the attorneys there. They knew us as well as a general counsel would, but it's a different kind of relationship. And the then quite young antitrust attorney I mentioned, Thane Scott, who ran our case, obviously was deeply invested in this. He believed we were right. He was passionate about it. He was very detail-oriented, and he'd obviously done a terrific job in the original case.
Well at this point, a number of our trustees began being very concerned. As they should be; that's what a trustee is supposed to do. Had some very detailed discussions with the executive committee of our Corporation. And at the end of the day, they basically said, "We're going to support you. We're not so sure, but you're our president, and we're going to support you. But you have to let us go and hire a really high profile New York or Washington attorney to run this case. This is big deal, high stakes, you need a big deal, high stakes lawyer."
And the mechanical engineer in me thought about this a while. And somehow I knew, or at least felt I knew, that if we went after a big star attorney, that this would be one of a hundred things they were doing. And they might know a whole lot and have a lot of people working for them, but it'd be one thing on their plate. And I knew that Thane, this was his career. This was his reputation, career-building case. He'd served us well, he understood us.
And so I told them no. I really want to go with Thane. And at this point, I'm sure they thought I was crazy. But at the end of the day, they went along with it. And I think Thane served us extremely well.
INTERVIEWER: So let me just get into the mind of a mechanical engineer here for a moment. The rule is, you trust the pilot who's not wearing a parachute?
VEST: I don't know that I would put it that way. But I trusted this man very deeply.
INTERVIEWER: Well, that's quite a story.
One of the other really amazing narratives of your tenure as president is the change in the student body at MIT. And to probably as significant a degree, the change in the makeup of the faculty here. First of all, what kind of a community did you find at MIT in 1990 when you arrived? And what did you set about to do to change or improve it?
VEST: Well, first of all, I discovered an amazing community. I mean, people here are really bright and driven and terrific. Somewhat ironically, it's not a place where there's a lot of cutthroat competition. People actually help each other. They want everybody to be good.
If you looked at the graduate students -- remember, I was coming now from the University of Michigan -- if you looked at the graduate students, they didn't look that much different than they did in Ann Arbor, or they would have at Berkeley or at Yale or what have you. There's sort of uniformity, a uniformly high quality. It was stronger than it was in large public institutions, but they sort of came from lots of different university backgrounds, and the feel was about the same.
The undergraduate culture, very different. And the undergraduate culture had evolved in very complicated ways that people have literally written psychological treatise, treatises about, and probably more to be written. We, you will recall, had started in Boston as an engineering and architecture school, and migrated across here, across the Charles River to Cambridge in the 1916 to '18 period. But it was a very engineering culture, filled with almost all male students, all having, through the '50s and '60s -- and I don't want to overstate this, but broadly speaking, rather similar outlooks about what was important.
They were deep technologists. They worked incredibly hard under enormous pressure. It's a tough place. We're kind of proud of that, because we think that the students gain a lot from this rather high pressure, tough, constant work, solve problems that are harder than you think you're capable of solving. It's part of what we actually give to students.
But, as the student body began to change -- and I'm going to be very quick to say that the student body changed remarkably under Paul Gray. What I did was really continue on with trends that, that started with Paul's commitment, to bringing more women here, to having a greater racial diversity, and so forth. So we began to do that. Economic backgrounds changed, racial makeup, obviously gender changed a whole lot. But the underlying culture, the fraternity system, all these things were sort of the same as it had been in a very different era.
So this set us up for some, some real tensions. And many of us -- and I think that includes the vast majority of the faculty; not all of it, but the vast majority -- felt that we were not kind of engaging the students in a broader academic community as undergraduates. That their loyalty was to small housing groups -- that might be an independent living group, it might be a floor in the dormitory, literally, it might be a fraternity or a sorority. But because of the pressure, they sought out these small groups. And historically, they had gotten very great support out of that. It had, and still has to this day, some sort of positive value.
But still there was just some underlying things, and some sort of social trends that had started back in the '70s and had never quite been given up, that just really didn't fit the nature of the people coming in. So there were a lot of pressures there. And it takes a while for culture to change. And that was an area where we had to do some things, sort of from on high, if you will. In particular the decision that all freshman, all first-year students, would spend their first year living together on campus, and after that could join an independent living group or a sorority or fraternity.
So there was a lot of that that had to be done. And a bit of what I just called sanding down around the edges. You know, you want this to be an intense, rigorous education. That's what we do at MIT. But you don't want it to become a parody of itself. So we did feel that we had to do some things to kind of brighten, lighten up the environment a little bit, in recognition of the new kind of students we had.
And that ran through things like the housing system. It ran through being more deeply dedicated, perhaps, than we had been before to the arts and the humanities. It ultimately, at least in my view, was a driver of some of the changes we made architecturally. It's a long shift, but it's a response to the changing nature of the students, as much as it is trying to impose change. It's trying to bring these things together and have a little bit more congruence to them. And I think we made some progress.
INTERVIEWER: So it's fair to say that the undergraduates following these changes were maybe having a little more fun, along the lines of what you saw at the University of Michigan, but it fell short of, maybe, the all-nighters at Flood's that you'd find at Ann Arbor?
VEST: Yes. I mean, kids are proud of how hard they work here. And the way I always learned about these things -- well, two or three things my wife Becky and I did for most of my presidency. We would spend several nights a month just going to a dorm, or going to a fraternity and just eating. And I really preferred that to meeting with sort of formal, organized student government. Just get out, eat, talk. So I kind of learned these cultures, learned to know the, the kids.
But then the second thing is that we continued a tradition that Paul and Priscilla Gray, I believe, had started, of inviting all the graduating seniors to the president's house for dinner. And they would come. Sometimes we had as many as 14 straight nights with about 80 students, get a fair percentage. And we'd just go around and ask everybody to stand up and say just one or two sentences, what they valued about MIT, or what they were going to remember, what they disliked. You learn a lot by, by doing that.
And that -- you know, they always talked about their all-nighters. They were, they were proud of that. But they also talked about community service, and helping in the Cambridge schools, and it was some of these things around the edges that were very, very meaningful to them. And so I think we were just kind of helping that to, to move forward a little bit, as we shifted from an all-male, virtually all-male, largely, almost exclusively engineering culture to something considerably broader.
And the art form in all of this was that we don't want to be a.. we don't want to be a substitute for Harvard, or be a second or third class Harvard or Princeton or Yale. We want to be the best MIT in the world. So it was, you don't want to go all the way this way, but you want to go a little bit.
And ironically, during this same period, let's talk about Harvard in particular, our next door neighbor here. They were actually coming a little bit closer us. Because they were beginning to understand that the kind of interdisciplinary work we do here so well, a little more emphasis on science and technology because of the way the modern world is working, was very important. So we're kind of coming a little bit toward each other this way. But you never want to go too far.
INTERVIEWER: One of your legacies, certainly, is how you saw the architecture piece as part of MIT's sort of core values, core identity. How did you come to add to that legacy, and what did you think was either -- needed to be built, built on, was lacking? Or what, what was the opportunity to explore the architectural identity of MIT when you came?
VEST: Well, when I first literally was interviewed, a little bit to my astonishment, as a possible candidate for the presidency here, I stayed in the Marriott Hotel here, just off campus, up on the top floor. And kind of look down and see campus. And for some reason, it always made me think of a Navy base. Well, you'd think a mechanical engineer would like all this symmetry, which in fact I do. But you sort of had this gray, massive set of buildings, very rectilinear, the flag flying in front of it, and so forth. Somehow, this was an image in my mind.
The second thing is, and because it's all changed now I can get by with saying it, but the first time I visited here and drove down Vassar Street, the backside of the campus, I was actually appalled. I could not believe it. This was the famous MIT. We had, still, buildings that had been built during World War II that were made out of asbestos shingles, and chain link fences, and it just looked miserable. The front door of the campus is, of course, the wonderful iconic view of Killian Court and the great dome, and the columns and so forth. Absolutely beautiful. And I could never, sort of, in my own mind, understand how these could both be part of the same great, great institution.
So there was a little something in me that said, you know, wouldn't it be nice to change this a little bit. And that began to be build upon by the things that needed to change a bit in the student and community culture. But in the early '90s, I was convinced -- in fact, I said publicly several times -- I'd probably never see a building built on the campus while I was president. Because the financial situation just was such, I didn't think it would happen.
But as time went on, and we had the desire to make some of these changes, we had the very important report issued by a task force on student life and learning that talked about the importance of building a better sense of community. We had almost no communal spaces. And so all these things were, were churning in my mind when the day arrived when the stars began to align, and the economy strengthened. And our, a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people to begin building the private funding base for MIT. Because we couldn't expect the federal government to continue to be 80 percent of our income forever. All these things began to come together.
And at that time, we had Bill Mitchell as the dean of the architecture school. And I involved Bill a lot in these discussions, and I learned a lot from Bill and from his colleagues. He began to educate me a little bit, and I began to get a little more adventurous in my architectural tastes. And finally concluded, in my own heart and mind, that at the beginning of the last century, the original complex was built over here on the Charles River, designed by William Welles Bosworth. This was an amazing, heroic architectural accomplishment in 1916. There was no university built on this scale, with this grandeur and this much forethought, and imagery about the new age of industry and so forth. And while I wasn't sure we could match that, I thought, Look; it's the turn of a new century. It's a century in which technology and the kinds of things we do here are going to be absolutely central. We should represent that somehow.
And it was in this sense that, working with Bill and others, I began to understand that there was a need for some brightness, some adventure. That we needed a few buildings, not all of them, that were as exciting on the outside as what was going on on the inside, and maybe signaled a little bit of the creativity. And in fact, some of the disparity that you mentioned earlier about rule -- those who follow the rules and those who break them. I wanted to sort of represent that, lighten, brighten a little bit, and make buildings that make people think a little bit.
And that's what we did. And it certainly wasn't a one-man show. We worked with a lot of people. All these things were designed with good client committees from the community and so forth. But I think they've made a huge difference. And it's not that you want every building on a campus to be a Frank Gehry, star architect kind of unusual building. But you need some.
And I think it really has changed the image and the feel of the campus. And I get comments all the time from people who will come up and say, "Gee, I hadn't been back for 20 years to MIT. What a different place! Wish it had been like this when I was there."
So it was a tough investment. And as we were completing the part of the construction that was done on my watch, the economy turned back down, and there was, of course, a lot of tension with the trustees about spending levels and so forth. But I think everybody hopefully will learn that these were wise investments, and that, you know, excellence begets excellence. And it's made a very positive change.
INTERVIEWER: What first told you that the Stata Center was going to be a success as a communal space for this MIT student body? What did you see happening there?
VEST: Well, first of all, let me say a little bit about the design of the, the Stata Center. We got Frank Gehry at just the right time. Yes, he had become famous, primarily because of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. But he had also done enough buildings that he and Jim Glymph and others in his office knew how to construct them. And you know, some of his early buildings were pretty tough to construct, and huge cost overruns and so forth.
Frank wanted to build a building on the MIT campus. Enormous respect for MIT. And when we were examining several different candidates to, to design the building, we sent teams of our faculty out. And they all came back saying, man, you know, you, you go into Frank's studios and talk to these guys and gals that work for him, and it's just like being here in the lab for computer science. There was a real simpatico at the kind of working level.
And Frank wanted to try some new materials. He was enthralled over the idea of building in Boston. You know, this building's largely brick, and that's his homage to the traditional Boston architecture. So he was quite invested in this building. Spent a lot of time understanding how the students and the faculty live and work, and what we'd need. He conceived this "student street" idea that would, would bring people together.
But what the world was seeing in the early days was the sort of helicopter view, of photographs of models and things. Believe me, a lot of people didn't like what they saw. And I'll never forget that one of the people who didn't like what he saw was, was Alex Dreyfoos, who was one of the primary donors to the building. And he called me up one day and said, "Chuck, listen." He said, "We, you know, we get along really well, and so forth. And I really want to support this building." But he said, "I don't like what I see." And he said, "I think you need to maybe think about restarting."
So I said, "Alex do me one favor. If I buy you a ticket, will you fly out to the West Coast, go to Santa Monica, go to Frank Gehry's actual studio and look at the models?" Because I knew that the experience of seeing these models, you know, that fill half a room, that look like the real building, is totally different than seeing these pictures we were all seeing.
Well, Alex went out. He's a great technologist. He built the business that processes color photography for Kodak. So he went out with a camera, and on the camera he put a little fiberoptic and a lens. And he ran the lens around through the building and all that stuff. So he could produce pictures that looked like it would really look at human scale. And he came back 100 percent total convert. He had religion. He said, "Boy, was I wrong. This is going to be the best building in the world." So I knew when that happened, that the experience of the building was going to be very different than people were, were concerned about.
Then, when the building went up, there was, oh, usual hassle. Any time you change things, some people don't like it. But from day one, the student street area, which mixes not just students, but the whole community. You go down there any day of the week -- in fact, I did today -- and you sit down and eat, and you'll see everybody. You know, you'll see the custodian, you'll see the provost, you'll see the graduate students, all mixing together in new ways. What people love more than anything else, there's a childcare center in the building. You know, and they just love walking by, seeing the little kids. The classrooms go off, the exercise space. It just worked, from day one.
And it surprised a lot of people. Because you sort of automatically think of these wild, crazy Gehry designs, that he builds monuments and funny stuff. But he designed this building from the inside out. And if you tear the skin off it, it's a very straightforward, highly functional structure. And he knew what, what we wanted it to do inside, and he made it do it. So I think it's been a, been really a grand success.
INTERVIEWER: How radical was the OpenCourseWare initiative?
VEST: Well, the OpenCourseWare initiative was radical on the following sense. We did this at the height of the dot-com bubble. And every university in the United States was trying to figure out, what is it we should do with information technology? And they all came up with essentially the same answer, which is, we can really expand the number of students we teach. We'll get our best teachers, and we'll tape them or what have you, and we'll put it on there and we'll charge. Everybody looked at this as an opportunity to make money.
And everybody was, at the same time, concerned that what was then, no pun intended, rising, but University of Phoenix and these for-profit digital things, really worried that they were going to take over our business. And all the educational critics in the country were saying, you know, teaching in classrooms is dead. And so everybody was going in this direction. And MIT, as it likes to do every now and then, went this direction.
And the way it came about is, is very interesting. In fact, there's been at least one book written about this. Our provost, Bob Brown, appointed a typical university committee. A large group of faculty, we had a few alumni, and, and so forth. And the question we put in front of them was, "Is there a big thing that MIT should be doing about using information technology and education?"
And I say a "big thing," because we were doing a lot of little things, very, you know, experimental, innovative, trying this, trying that. And the committee went into this absolutely with the expectation that the answer would be finding the right audience to which we could teach at large scale at a distance, and that it would at least pay for itself, and maybe make a profit.
There was a problem inherent in this, in the sense that MIT is blessed with the absolute best and brightest students. We teach intensely, we teach at a very fast pace. We have a very hands-on approach to education. It's not clear that there is a lot of other student community out there that could benefit from the kind of teaching that we're good at. I'm not saying we're better than others, we're just different than ours.
So they thought a lot about, well, there are some constituencies. Their own alumni. Their own alumni that want to be updated on things. Many of the Corporation that we have major, high level research partnerships with have very bright people that are tuned our way. So there's kind of a bias toward, we probably wouldn't be in the degree business, but we would probably be producing segments of maybe the latest in science and technology, to update people. And there'd probably be a market for this. This was kind of the mindset going in.
Along the way, Booz Allen Hamilton, pro bono, said, "Let us help you assess the scene out there." So they did a study and came back with a notebook that was literally that thick, with the business plans of new uNet and Fathom.com, University of Phoenix, and so forth. And they kind of summarized this on a single Power, PowerPoint slide that said something like, "Distance learning and the kind of high level education you do in a university, that kind of distance learning is going to be very complicated. It's going to be extremely competitive, and it's going to be unlikely to make a profit." That summarized the whole statement.
Well, not long after that, the provost, Bob Brown, came into my office one day. And he said, "Chuck, the committee's ready to report out. But they've sent me to find out if you're ready to receive their report." And I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, they've got a pretty radical idea. They're going to propose that we put all our courses on the web for free."
Now, it's my nature, when big decisions come along, I'm a muller. I have to think about things, for days, weeks, sometimes longer. I have to listen to the arguments and think about. But this one immediately resonated with me. And the reason is that, back in the '60s and early '70s, something we call the engineering science revolution was largely launched from MIT. This was a new approach that had come out of what was learned here in the Rad Lab during World War II, that engineering should be done with a science base. It should be a first principles kind of business, not handbooks and formulas. So we started teaching courses here, back in the '60s and '70s, in this new format, bringing scientific basis, do experiments, new kinds of problems sets, and so forth.
And at that point, there were not all that many engineering PhDs being produced in the country, and so MIT produced a large percentage of them. And what did they do? Almost all of them went into academia. So they took these sort of fresh course notes, new ideas, and they went out to other universities, including the two that I had attended, and started teaching. They brought this new approach, and it literally raised the educational level in engineering education all around the country. But it was sort of randomly dependent on hiring somebody that had come, studied here, and so forth.
So I immediately saw that if we did this, we could sort of use the Internet and the World Wide Web, and we could do this for anybody that wanted to tune in and pick up these materials. And they'd do the same thing they did in the '60s and '70s. They'd use part of it, they'd use all of it, they'd use it at half the pace, twice the pace, they'd add to it, tune it to their.. and so when you couple that with the fact that MIT faculty have always been very generous and giving, if you will, of their intellectual resources -- textbook writing, reports, they like people to see what we're doing here and use it, build on it, and so forth. So I just thought it was a terrific idea.
And, but we had to pay for it. And it wasn't going to be cheap.
INTERVIEWER: And did you have the infrastructure to actually make that sort of thing work, to visually put everybody, or in audio terms, put everybody on the web?
INTERVIEWER: So there was a fair investment.
VEST: Everything had to be built. And our back of the envelope estimate was, it would cost $10 million a year to do. And we're talking about putting about 2000 subjects up.
INTERVIEWER: And is this something that had to go to the trustees?
VEST: Well, that's an interesting question. I've been asked that several times. And --
INTERVIEWER: Because what's the one-liner?
VEST: I don't think we ever really did go to the trustees and ask for permission. We sort of told them what we were doing.
INTERVIEWER: Which was...? "Guess what Chuck wants to do now. He wants to spend $20 million to give it away."
VEST: Something like that.
Well, the reason we didn't have to worry about that was, it was clear if we didn't find the $20 million somewhere, we couldn't do it. So I went to New York. I had to be there for a board meeting. And I had put a call in to Bill Bowen, who was the president of the Mellon Foundation, former president of Princeton, and a person whose views and understanding of higher education I have deep respect for. So I went to, called to see if I could stop by and see him while I was in the city. And the word came back from his secretary that he was totally booked that day, but if I didn't mind coming to breakfast, we could have breakfast together.
So we had breakfast together at this little restaurant where he eats every morning. And I still remember, I had a Florentine omelet. So over my Florentine omelet, I said, "Bill, I want to tell you what we're thinking about doing at MIT, and I want to know -- which I really did -- whether you think this is a good idea. I really want to know what your opinion of it is. And secondly, if you think it's a good idea, then I'm going to ask you if you think foundations might be interested in supporting it. And obviously, if the answer to that's yes, I'm going to see if Mellon might be interested." So he said, "What's the idea?"
And in just three or four sentences, I explained that we wanted to take the basic materials for all 2000 of our courses and put them out on the web, and let anybody who wants use them for free.
And instead of the usual runaround that you get when you propose a big idea -- and he asked me how much, and I told him what I thought it was going to cost -- instead of the usual runaround of "Well, it's kind of interesting, send us a letter," and so forth, and so on, Bill paused a minute, and he looked at me, and he said, "Don't take this idea to anybody else." He said, "We're going to figure out how to do this." Then he thought a minute, and he said, "It's too big for Mellon." But he said, "I'm going to get our board to go along with this, and you and I can go and maybe we can talk to another foundation or two, and see what we can get."
So I just hit this incredible resonance. The idea had resonated with me when Bob came. Then when I went to Bill, it obviously had a resonance with him. Because it turns out he'd actually been thinking about things like this very deeply for awhile. And realized that here was an institution that, if it committed itself, would really do it.
So that's the way it, it kind of came together. But the most important thing, we did have to build infrastructure. And we got a lot of companies, because I really felt strongly that, you know, we shouldn't build all this ourselves. We should use industrial grade stuff. So a number of companies gave us deep discounts to, to help it along and so forth. We got a terrific director in Anne Margulies.
But the real key is, this is a voluntary activity. I mean, this is not General Motors. This is a university. You can ask faculty to do this, but you can't tell them to do it. So we, very carefully, the provost, the chancellor, Phil Clay, and frequently myself, we went every to department in the Institute, and explained the idea. And listened to their concerns, or whether they were positive, or negative, and so forth. And we tried to address those, and we tuned it. But at the end of the day, we committed the Institute, but we committed the Institute knowing it was a voluntary thing.
The fact is, the last time I checked, I believe 85 percent of the faculty have now participated in putting a subject on OpenCourseWare. So it's been a great success. It has had value internally, as well as externally. Faculty and students really use it on campus, as well as what we do outside. But it was a very, very radical undertaking.
And there's a guy at Berkeley who wrote quite a bit about this. And he really compared Fathom.com at Columbia, which was to be a big moneymaker, with MIT's OpenCourseWare. And the thing that astounded him is that most of the other initiatives around the country that, that failed economically were all top down deals. And here, MIT comes along and, you know, who's famous for entrepreneurship and wheeling and dealing with industry and says, "Let's give it away." But the idea came up out of a very standard faculty committee.
And so we talked earlier about top down, bottom up. Here again is an instance that the idea's gotta come up from below. From the top, you can make it happen.
INTERVIEWER: On your watch, the convergence of a variety of disciplines, eventually, made MIT a center for the studying of neuroscience in a fundamentally new way. Describe how you saw that convergence, and how you mobilized the resources to really put the investment in place to make that leadership a reality.
VEST: John, it has a very interesting history, and not many people know the whole story. But early in my time here, probably as early as '92 or '93, along there, I had a phone call one day from a man I know who was a trustee of a large foundation. And that foundation had just completed a very large scale scientific project on the West Coast.
And he said to me, "You know, the trustees, the family involved, everybody feels really good about what we've done. So good that I think we're probably going to want to do another major science-based project. And some of us, at least, would like to see us maybe do something on the East Coast to balance a little bit. But at least we'd like to, to give you a chance. So could you just tell me, if we came through with a very substantial financial commitment, what would MIT like to do?"
So I pulled a very eclectic group of faculty leaders together, that included people like Phil Sharp, a great biologist who subsequently won the Nobel Prize, Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the Media Lab, and Michael Dertouzos, who ran the laboratory for computer [science]-- a lot of what I call the fast molecules, you know, really just thinkers and doers. And kind of locked them in a room and said, "What should we do?" And the answer came out of this group, even though none of them was really involved in neuroscience. The answer came out: we should make a big move in neuroscience.
And so this was kind of in the background. It never came to fruition, because the foundation never did put out an RFP for another large project. But it started a lot of thinking here. And I began to learn from my colleagues that many, including Phil, felt that neuroscience was going to be the next frontier of basic biology. The reason was very simple; that the last 25, 30 years, we had really learned how cells work. We really know cells. And neurons are just cells. They may be very complicated cells, but they're cells. So we knew the basic way. We had all the new gene knockout technologies. We had the sequencing of the genome that was beginning to come close to fruition by the time we got around to this.
And then also on this campus, we had people in linguistics who were very interested in the way the mind works, including Noam Chomsky. We had electrical engineers who were among the world's experts at making very tiny kinds of sensors, and ways of instrumenting the brain. We were in the midst of a little revolution in things like functional magnetic resonance imaging, that lets you look in real time, at increasingly high resolution, into living bodies. We had a lot of people in physics, and computer science, and other fields who are among the experts in the world on analyzing really large, complex systems. All the things were here.
And we had a strong tradition. We were not among the top players, but we had a strong position in kind of basic brain and cognitive science. And a uniqueness, in that that department, since its inception, ran all the way from molecular scale, cellular and molecular scale neuroscience to systems neuroscience, all the way to cognitive science. So we thought we could build on the kind of interdisciplinarity that MIT's pretty darn good at pulling together. And that the stars are all con, converging, in terms of the biology, the instrumentation, the analysis of very complicated systems.
So this is about the only instance I can cite of, of kind of, top down is not quite but almost the right term, but an institutional analysis and commitment to doing something very big, something very different from our past.
So that's how things converged. It really was an intellectual decision about where the frontiers of science and engineering were likely to be for the next 30 years, and the fact that we felt we had a pretty high degree of uniqueness to maybe forge a somewhat new approach. And then we're very fortunate that this resonated with Pat and Lore McGovern, and they gave us a very substantial gift. In fact, at the time, it was billed as the largest university gift ever. To start the McGovern Institute. And the Picowers came in on the learning and memory side, with Susumu Tonegawa ago who, in typical MIT fashion, had won, and I think still in his 30s, the Nobel Prize as an immunologist, but who believed this was the new frontier and became a brain scientist.
Phil Sharp, being a great citizen of the Institute, agreed to become the founding director of the McGovern Institute, even though this wasn't really his field. His scientific greatness and his understanding of how to make things work at MIT made him the natural leader. And we're on our way. And I hope we will look back a few decades from now and see that we've had a real impact, not just on the basic science, but also on learning and mental health and so forth. So we did collectively decide, this is the new frontier. And we made a very concerted move, in terms of dollars and faculty slots and so forth, to go forward.
INTERVIEWER: It's the top down to the extent that you have a big enough picture that you can see a few steps ahead of what probably is already moving, and take advantage of it.
VEST: That's right. And bring it to a scale.
INTERVIEWER: Right. Is that, was that your approach with thinking about sustainability as a mission on the MIT campus?
VEST: Well, it's similar. When I came -- in fact, going back to my inaugural address -- one of the small number of things I mentioned that I felt the Institute needed to be very committed to, really was stewarding the environment. And very early on, we formed the Alliance for Global Sustainability, together with the ETH, a great technology-based university in Switzerland, and the University of Tokyo. The idea being that this is a global problem, we should have global technology leaders working together.
And I think we accomplished a lot. But it was a little bit ahead of the times. In that we never quite got the great sense of, of community engagement and passion and belief that we're seeing now, under President Hockfield's leadership and energy, for example. It didn't quite ignite. And in fact, you know, the early forms of the energy initiative all grew out of this.
So we got a lot of work done. There were some good green design courses and textbooks written. A lot of people moved into the field. It was all across the Institute, from [the] management school and economics, to physics and atmospheric chemistry and so forth. A lot got done, but it was not the same kind of focused, coherent hold that I believe we've gotten started in the neurosciences.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think you brought to the table when the president asked you to be a part of the investigation into weapons of mass destruction following the invasion of Iraq? And what do you think in the reputation of MIT was at stake in how you played out your role there?
VEST: Well, first of all, I've never asked anyone the question, "Why did you want me on that commission?" I got a call, it was within the last six months of my presidency, after I'd announced I was leaving, and so forth. I got a call one day from Andy Card, who was the president's chief of staff, at that point.
INTERVIEWER: Who probably worked near that fax machine.
VEST: Who I knew a bit. Well, this is a different president. This is President Bush now, of course.
And I knew Andy a bit. And I had served, and continue to serve, on the President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology. So I was a bit known around the White House. Not an insider by any means.
And I think it was pretty clear that there were two things. One is that they needed some people with some technological understanding. I'm sure, if you went back and said, why did you pick me, that would be the first thing that would be said. I also think they wanted the sort of objectivity and, if I may, stature of a couple of presidents of major universities. Rick Levin, great economist, president of Yale, was the other academic member. I'll come back to that in a minute.
But I have to tell you, this was an amazing experience. Obviously the commission was appointed in the aftermath of the intelligence debacle about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Its charge was actually much broader than that. We were asked to examine, in great depth, Iraq, but also other subjects. What did we do as we figured out that Muammar Gadhafi had nuclear weapons? What do we know about North Korea and Iran, and how do we know it?
And the main point was to learn the lessons from this. That's what we were asked to do. What went right? What went wrong? What has to change in the intelligence community to correct the problems? This was an independent commission, appointed by the president. It was a bipartisan commission. It had co-chairs, Chuck Robb, obviously a Democrat, and Larry Silverman, a Republican, who'd been judge and ran the Justice Department at one point. We had John McCain, we had people out of long experience retired from the intelligence community. We had a former federal judge who is a very major, major figure in the sort of human rights end of the law, and so forth. It was a really eclectic group of very smart, very hard-working people.
And this is the only experience I'd had like this. But it's really interesting. There comes a moment, after you've been appointed, where a lawyer from the White House walks over and hands you your personnel files, and all the documents that were used in putting the commission together, and basically says, these are now yours. You're now an independent commission. It's actually a kind of moving moment.
And we worked very hard. We had a budget of $10 million. We had a staff of around 300 people, two thirds of whom worked for us full-time for that period, the other who were contractors. Every study group that we broke things up, we made multiple agencies, you know, people with backgrounds from multiple agencies worked together, so they couldn't be biased.
At one point I read in the newspaper that the Senate Intelligence Committee had asked for a certain classified document, and that the White House had refused to give it to them. So in the back of my mind, I thought, here's a test of whether we really are independent, whether we really have the full access we believe we do. So I waited a discreet week or two and I requested the document. And I got it in a day. And I knew from that point, that people were really open with us.
We learned a lot. We wrote a report whose public version and classified version, with one exception I'll come back to, differ by at most 1 percent. We said we're not going to get in the business of writing two reports. We're writing one report. We'll red line a few things that have names and numbers that shouldn't be there. We made those decisions, rather than the CIA. Story behind that. And we of course had a couple of chapters, such as North Korea and Iran, that there was nothing you could say that wasn't classified, so we just put a hold there.
But I learned so much. The main thing I learned was that the intelligence community is very much like a university. It's a lot of very bright, scholarly-oriented people. Their accumulated knowledge is what's their coin of the realm. They don't take much top down direction, they're pretty independent-minded people. But, like all of us, they have foibles. And so we learned pretty quickly what the technical problems were.
And believe me, they had some big technical problems. The famous aluminum tubes, and the nonsense over the fake letter about the yellow cake uranium from Nigeria and so forth.
But frankly what we really learned was, they.. case of Iraq. People don't remember, but when the first Gulf War started, the intelligence community was blasted because they didn't think. Saddam Hussein had serious nuclear and biological weapons programs. When they went in there, the biological weapons were actually deployed. And they had a going nuclear program. So they don't want to see that happen again, and they had a mindset that this man -- which he was -- was an absolute master of deception. So they tried to think through that: we're being deceived, we're being deceived. And they made some bad technical errors.
They just used some bad, bad spycraft. They just did not subject a lot of the things they were learning to the right kind of rigor and analysis, and red teaming and so forth. But more deeply than the technical things, we had become too dependent on the technology of intelligence. We did not have a diverse enough workforce to infiltrate these places. We have these, you know, badly out of date security rules, so that a lot of the wonderful people who come from the countries we have to learn about, who are second-generation citizens here, couldn't get into the agencies. So we lost the human intelligence.
We didn't pay enough attention to the actual stuff you can read in the newspapers and hear on the street. And we didn't understand that that society had broken down so badly that they couldn't have built a nuclear bomb if they'd wanted to. And the fact is that Mr. Master of Deception had been telling the truth all along. And we now know, he destroyed these things exactly when he said he had destroyed them. And then he played all these games, we can only guess. Probably because he wanted to keep Israel on edge, and so forth and so on.
But it was a lot of the human side, the social side, the lack of sharing of intelligence across these agencies, all the things you read about.
On the other hand, when they tried to figure out what Kadafi was up to, they did everything right. And it's, that is kind of, that is still classified. But they did a masterful job of figuring out what he had and confronting him with it. And you know that his nuclear materials are now in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
And so it was a real learning experience for me. And I hope we did a good, serious, objective report. So far, it has held up to, to scrutiny. Most of the stories, you know, it's been long enough, they're out there now. Curveball and so forth and so on. I think we were pretty much right, and to this day, I'm absolutely convinced that the community did not buckle, that they were saying what they believed. And they were dead wrong. And that's the phrase the report used. Dead, dead wrong. It had very tough language.
And if I can come full circle to your question about my role and Rick Levin's role and so forth. When we had the press conference at which Judge Silverman and, and Governor Robb presented the results, and the president spoke, and so forth and so on, the first question from the press was, "We've read a lot of these commission reports, and we've never read one that has this kind of tough language. What's that all about?" And Judge Silverman said, "The reason is we had two university presidents, and they insisted that we accurately use the English language." So basically, we called it as we saw it.
Was the Institute's reputation or anything else at risk? I don't think so, really. Had this been, you know, a highly politicized sham or something, then the Institute's reputation would have been at risk. But I wouldn't have played. If I'd believed that was what it was, I wouldn't have done it, and if it had turned out to be that, I would have quit. And it's that simple.
INTERVIEWER: During your tenure, a report arrived on your desk, internally generated, which outlined some very serious gender discrimination problems on the faculty at MIT. And serious resistance in attempting internally, lower- level channels among the faculty, to rectify those disparities and, and inequalities. What was your reaction to that report, and how did you make the decision to do what you did?
VEST: Well, I have to back up a little bit. Because this wasn't a report that just arrived on my desk. I'd had a deeper involvement with it from the beginning. When I first came to the Institute, I made it my practice, which is the same thing I had done as provost at Michigan. Mark Wrighton, who was my provost, and I sort of designed a format, in which we wanted things like salary data every year reported to us by the HR people.
So going back to the early '90s, we had worked very hard to, to handle the, I won't say superficial, but the obvious things that one looks at in an institution like this. And we'd done a lot of changing of salaries and things, to bring a better sense of equity. It may be hard to believe, but every year the Academic Council, which is the deans and the provost and so forth, go through every line of faculty salaries, and ask for the justification. So some of these things that are the first place you look for any bias or discrimination, we'd worked pretty hard at fixing.
But one day I got a call from Bob Birgeneau who was the dean of science. And Bob said, "You know, a group of tenured women in our school -- of which I think there were only about a dozen at that point -- really are concerned that there are some inequities here. And probably in salary, but it may go beyond that. They'd like to take a school wide look." And he said, "Frankly, I think it's a pretty good idea." And he said, "I'm going to get some resistance, because they want to see salary data, and department heads aren't going to be happy about that. So what do you think?"
And I remember exactly what I said. I said, "Bob, just do it." And I said, "The reason is very simple. First of all, I want to know whether these things are true or not." But I said, "My experience is always, if you hide information from people, or keep people from getting information, they always imagine something even worse than the reality." So I said, "I will absolutely support you to get this going."
So a little complicated story. There were actually two committees. We'll get now to the second committee, that was put together and involved several of the tenured women in the School of Science from several different departments. Bob Birgeneau had made the very wise move to suggest to them, and they agreed, that it not be a committee only of women. But he wanted to get some former department heads on it. Because you can't pull the wool over the eye of somebody who's been a department head. They know how the system works, they've been there. So he put a couple of very experienced, administratively experienced males, as well as the women faculty.
And this report took a long time to generate. And so in that sense, it arrived on my desk one day, not knowing exactly when it was coming. And I took it home to study it. And it's a very unusual document. Because it had the things you expect to see: the curves of how many graduates we have who are women, and how many faculty, and how many got tenure and didn't, and so forth and so on. And probably every university in the country had a report done like that.
But being MIT, they tried to quantify some very interesting things. They literally went around and measured the lab space that women professors had. And they compared that to the lab space that males in the same rough disciplinary areas had. They accumulated a lot of statistics about who got appointed to committees, and what kind of what we call start up packages, resources that are given to a young faculty to build their labs, and all these things. It was really a very thorough job.
And I tell you this, because that report, that report was never made public. Because the guarantee we gave to people on the sharing of information and so forth was it wouldn't be made public. It was instantly identifiable. Even if you crossed the names out, anybody can look at it and figure out who's getting what salary, and who has what space.
So we talked a little bit about this. And I had a couple of groups of women come by to discuss this, and exactly what we were going to do with it. And one day, a group of four or five women faculty came, and we were just sitting around a round coffee table in my office, talking about the state of things. And the conversation started with, "Well, you know, the good news here is that the young women are feeling great. They're happy campers. Our assistant professors, and they have no question about their salaries and start up packages. They feel supported. So the good news is really, they're feeling great."
And at that point, an older woman who was possibly the most disaffected in the group said, "I felt that way when I was that age, too." That was an epiphany, for me.
INTERVIEWER: The good news was, the young women professors were feeling pretty good.
VEST: Yes. But then this one rather disaffected, more senior woman said to me, "I felt that way when I was that age, too." This was an epiphany to me. I had the quantitative data that I understood. I had the fact that every woman I had talked to shared roughly the same view, that they simply weren't experiencing MIT in the same fully positive way that most of their male colleagues did. And when this woman said to me, "I felt like that when I was young," and implicitly, "I feel this way now," really told me there is something deeply wrong here.
So we decided to do a public version of this report, that was kind of condensed. And that we would just put it in the Faculty Newsletter. Now the Faculty Newsletter is published on the web. So once this report is published in the Faculty Newsletter, it's on the web, everybody in the world has it. And I was in my study pretty late one night, and I got a request by email -- there were a few of us who were emailing around, Nancy Hopkins who had been the chair of the committee, and Lotte Bailyn, who was the chair of the MIT faculty at that point, an elected position. A few of us were emailing around, and a request came, would you be willing to write a little introductory paragraph or something to the report, kind of a preface. Of course.
And I sat down, and I just wrote out what was in my mind. And what I said was approximately this: I said I've always believed that gender bias in universities is part perception, part reality. And from this report, I've learned that it's mostly reality. And a day later I read that on the front page of The New York Times, and the front page of The Boston Globe, and then The San Francisco Chronicle.
And somehow, the reality of this report, the fact that it came out of MIT, this great icon of science in America, that the women who had produced it were just unequivocally first rate scientists, and members of the National Academy [of science], and very accomplished in their fields. And then the fact that I made this, to me pretty obvious, statement, that mix just caught the public.
And there were a couple of days in which Nancy and I were literally getting 1000 or so messages a day. I've never, ever experienced anything like this. They came from, first from all over the country, universities. Then they started coming from researchers in companies. Then they started coming from overseas. And they all said the same thing: this is my story. I mean, almost literally that way, every message said this is my story. And so it just struck this resonant chord. And I hope that, that it has made some difference.
And then very much in the same way we approached things in Washington, I got together again, working with people like Lotte and Nancy. I got, we sort of selected nine schools that we thought were among the real leaders in particular in science. And we convened a meeting here, and got their president and their provost, and a couple of women faculty from each institution. And spent a pretty good day studying what we'd learned and what it meant. And at the end the nine presidents signed a statement, kind of committing themselves to conducting similar studies on their campuses.
We'd made some progress. I'll tell you, nobody's satisfied with the amount of progress that we've made. But I do think it set a tone, and started us down a little different path. And I just really feel privileged to have been given that opportunity. Because that's the way I view it. It wasn't something that I did, I made happen. It was an opportunity that landed on the table in front of me, and I hope I used it effectively.
INTERVIEWER: You described that at the beginning of your job as president of MIT, you arrived at a moment of economic challenges and an aura of public suspicion of university research, and how it related to the national agenda. More than 10 years later, the economic bubble had burst from the internet prosperity of the late '90s, and it was in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Was there a danger of returning to a period of prolonged economic challenges and suspicion of the academy for political reasons? And if so, how did you argue against it?
VEST: Well, both of those things have been major factors. And above all, I am grateful that the university community and the federal government had, in the intervening decade, raised that level of trust and discourse and mutual understanding substantially. So that we had a reasonable base from which to start.
The primary concern is really the aftermath of 9/11. Because, put yourself back to your September 10th mindset. This was an unheard of thing, to have this kind of an attack within our own shores. And I'm sure at every level of the government, we really did not know what was happening to us, how big the forces behind it were, and so forth. Really, very scary time.
And as soon as the picture began to be clear, that, that terrorism was doable on our shores, and that it was being exported from other regions of the world, and particularly the Middle East, that it had been very carefully planned and thought through, that these were smart, by and large educated people that perpetrated these horrendous crimes, one of the first things that happened was, people began to say, "Well, you know, some of these guys came in on student visas." So immediately, we had this huge rush to revisit the way in which visas are granted students to come to study in this country. And we found that we couldn't even deal with it, because the transfer of information between the State Department and the universities was in piles of paper and cardboard boxes stored in warehouses. I mean, it was just unbelievable in 2001 we were doing things that way. So the first set of problems we had was just sort of shutting the door on the granting of visas to students.
Then we had, within the administration and within the Congress, a very rapid response that, well, we can't be giving all these foreigners technical information. Because they'll figure out how to make anthrax, weaponize anthrax. You can just imagine. So we had a huge pushback against the access of foreign students to courses in a wide variety of subject matters. There was a pushback against letting them have access to advanced instrumentation, and so forth, and so on. You can kind of understand this as a lay person, but it was really beyond the pale.
And fortunately, it was an argument within the government. It wasn't all one-sided. And there were people in the White House and there were people in the State Department who pushed back pretty hard, and the most draconian things didn't happen. But frankly, we are still living, nonetheless, we are still living with the legacy of all the visa delays, and the security checks on people we have no real reason to be suspicious of, of technology alert lists that are way too inclusive and long, and some complicated issues called deemed exports. We are still dealing with that.
And while bright young men and women from all over the world are still coming to the United States, still trying to get in, it's still a place that they really want to come to study and work, the uniqueness of our international stature is gone. And there are a lot of other people, and I do not blame them, in Europe and Australia and Canada, a lot of places who said, "If you're going to have this kind of trouble getting in the United States, they don't really welcome you the way they used to, why don't you come to our university?" And so that's, that's happening. So that was the deepest legacy and the biggest trouble. It is still going on. At one point, you ask how we approached this. This had to be done more rapidly. There was a real clear and present danger. And we were fortunate that, at this time, the president of Texas A&M University was Bob Gates, who was the former director of the CIA, among other things. An old hand, strong Republican credentials, but in my experience, a very wise and open-minded and thoughtful person.
And Bob and I got together, sort of using his access and background, and my somewhat longer experience in academia. And we managed to get an appointment with Vice President Cheney. And explained all this as we saw it, and what the problems were, and why it had to get solved. And I remember explaining to the vice president that State Department counselors use what's called a technology alert list. They're not scientists or engineers, but they listen for subtle words. So you know, if somebody says, "I'm going to go to study how to make fuses for nuclear bombs," well you shouldn't have a question.
Well this list got to the point that it included things like landscape architecture and civil engineering, and just things that were mind bogglingly broad. And when I, I remember when I got to landscape architecture, even Vice President Cheney had to laugh and ask me if I was serious. I said, "Yes, sir, I am." And he listened a while, and he said, "I want you guys to get to Tom Ridge right away." That was before DHS had been formed, but he was the czar of homeland security.
And so we managed to meet with people at that level, and the Association of American Universities and all the other sort of consortia of universities tried very hard to present our cases clearly. And it's been, been a long struggle. The worst that was threatened never happened, but it took years to get the visa processes smooth again. Some real heroes in the State Department who really understood why our international relations with our students is one of the greatest things the United States has. But the world changed a little too much.
The economic piece is different. The economy came into play in two ways, in terms of controversy or big movements. One is, during the dot-com bubble, we of course encouraged entrepreneurship in university faculties and so forth. And some schools got a little over the edge, just in terms of the commitment of time that people were giving to starting companies instead of working their own labs and teaching. I think we've actually come out of that with a pretty good balance, because the transfer of technology into the profit-making sector is a very important thing for universities to do. But they shouldn't get obsessed by whether they're going to make a whole lot of money on patent royalties. Because I can count on a few fingers the royalty streams that are really big around the country. You've got vitamin A and gene splicing, and a few things.
But the idea of encouraging universities to move technologies and innovation out into the marketplace, I think it's very good, and continues to be very good to this point. But that sort of mad rush for awhile did get some major conflict of interest issues around the world. And that created a little bit of ill will in Washington. But I think we're pretty much through that.
But the legacy it does have is that -- at the beginning of our conversation, we talked about the fact that, prior to the end of the Cold War, that advancement of medicine and the advancement of our national security in the sort of traditional military sense were the primary drivers for federal support of research and graduate education. And today, that second, second column of national security has really been replaced by an understanding that if we're going to prosper in the future, we're going to have to be innovative. And a lot of that innovation is going to have to be technological. And that's actually become a pretty positive and relatively bipartisan rationale in Washington for support of universities.
It's very good for us. In the big picture, we have to be a little careful that the view of higher education doesn't become too strictly utilitarian. I passionately believe in the importance of these things, but there's a broader need out there, in liberal arts and the humanities, and performance and communication. All the things that, really, we need to be good citizens and educated people. The world has to move in all of these directions. But the sort of federal support stream is clearly, today, focused on advancing medicine and healthcare delivery, and on keeping us technically innovative to move our economy forward.