Memorial Service for Charles M. Vest

Thursday, March 6, 2014

As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon. Becky. Kemper. John. Thank you for allowing us to embrace your family within the great family of MIT.

When Chuck came to MIT as president, I was a faculty member in electrical engineering. Like everyone on the faculty, I came to know Chuck as an approachable leader, warm with a great sense of humor, a “boy from West Virginia” – so humble, modest and unassuming, that you did not notice his great intellect … at first.

As provost in the years after Chuck went to Washington, I knew him as a colleague – one who always maintained a respectful distance, who never intruded – a friend who, when I needed his perspective and advice, answered the phone on the first ring.

But as MIT’s president, I see Chuck now as a teacher. And I have become one of his most committed students.

After leaving MIT, Chuck published a book of his annual essays. And it is in those pages that you see the full force and depth of his intellect. He was profoundly thoughtful, articulate, passionate and clear -- an impressive and formidable thinker. His words, wisdom and vision stay with you. Yet what really takes your breath away, looking back over the distance of time, is the eloquence of his actions.

We will hear a great deal about his actions today, but let me cite just two examples: In 1999, women faculty in the School of Science presented evidence that they had experienced measurably unfair treatment in their MIT careers. Chuck immediately took steps to correct the harm and change the system. And because he had the courage to share these hard truths honestly with the public, he made sure that the world could benefit from our experience. In 2002, inspired by MIT faculty, Chuck took the world by surprise by launching MIT OpenCourseWare, committing MIT to put virtually all of its course materials online, free, for the use of anyone in the world.

These were bold decisions -- non-obvious, non-trivial, historic. Decisions that –  without marketing or fanfare –  enabled quiet revolutions, here on our campus, across the country and around the world.

Chuck’s candor about MIT’s treatment of women faculty prompted dozens of institutions to reform their own practices, and to change the reality for women in science and engineering. Chuck’s vision in seeing the potential of OpenCourseWare unleashed a global “open sharing” movement. His actions enabled and inspired us, a decade later, to launch edX and MITx. And he made it possible for us to say to the world, with credibility, that our actions will help revolutionize higher education here and around the world.

To learn from Chuck’s example, we must ask, “Where did he find the courage?” In his last Report of the President, Chuck explained it this way:

“Boldness does not come naturally to me. Indeed, I have observed that … academics save their boldness or radicalism for their intellectual endeavors, rather than for their day-to-day lives and behavior, or for the organizations they inhabit....

“But there are instants when both institutions and individuals must decide whether or not to strike out in new directions, or to seize a moment. The conclusions they come to…make all the difference. Boldness…[then], seems not at all…mysterious....Rather it is the simple application of core values at a critical moment in time.”

Chuck came to MIT as an outsider. But he believed passionately in our mission, and he shared our deepest values: Excellence. Integrity. Meritocracy. Fairness. Openness. Humility, respect and kindness. An instinct to always take the high road – and a commitment to making the world a better place.

At MIT, our mission and values demand a great deal from us. Living up to them requires an abundance of ambition.

Because the seeds and the foundation of Chuck’s decisions can be found in the rich soil of MIT values – and because they were bold – they have grown to inspire generations, probably beyond anything he could have anticipated.

And I am very grateful that he lived to see his bold dreams come true.