I was profoundly saddened to hear about Charles Vest's passing of pancreatic cancer a few weeks ago. He was MIT President while I was a doctoral student there and while I didn't have too many interactions with him (we might have attended one or two of the same meetings when I was part of the Graduate Student Council's Executive Committee, but that's about it), I remember chatting with him and his wife at a Christmas reception at their house - it must have been 2002 or 2003.
The obituaries that have been written about Vest emphasize both his fundamental decency and personal warmth as a human being as well as his visionary thinking for MIT in particular and higher education in general. So many years later I remember the same thing - fundamental decency, personal warmth, visionary thinking. Also, a genuine interest in the students who had shown up on his doorstep and a very healthy attitude toward the power inherent to his position - no small feat for someone who led the #1 research university in the world for a total of fourteen years, and later went on to chair the National Academy of Engineering. I guess what appeals to me the most is that, like me, he didn't have an Ivy League pedigree before graduate school but had a family who believed in higher education. He ultimately made a profound difference to the world of research and academia - his ascent from Morgantown, West Virginia boy to MIT President epitomized the American dream. (The path of MIT's current President, Rafael Reif, offers yet another version of that same American dream - that is what I love about MIT.)
Charles Vest will be remembered for a staggering range of accomplishments while he led the Institute. These accomplishments are described in comprehensive fashion in a MIT news release and include his overseeing the fourfold increase in endowment from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion, a pioneering foray into online education through MIT OpenCourseWare (the predecessor of all MOOCs), international engagement through large-scale ventures such as the MIT-Singapore Alliance, and a string of new buildings, from Simmons Hall to the Stata Center. He is also known for his thoughtful handling of a 1998 report detailing gender-equity problems in the School of Science.
Vest was also a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival advisory board, and you can watch him be interviewed for the festival below. (Video uploaded to Youtube by USA Science and Engineering Festival.)
Here is a brief retrospective of his life up to 2012 when he received the 2012 George Brown Prize - one of the many, many prizes he received throughout his career. (Video uploaded to Youtube by internationalscience.)
Finally, below is a longer (45 min) video, uploaded by DistinctiveVoicesBC, where Vest discusses US competitiveness in the 21st century.
I'll give the last word (as quoted by MIT News) to Larry Bacow, who served as Chancellor under Vest before he became Tufts president: "Chuck Vest was, above all, an extraordinary human being. Not only was he perhaps the most respected figure in higher education, he was a man of extraordinary decency, integrity and grace."