Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush.
Question: Do universities have a philanthropic obligation?
Vest: Well I think that’s fundamentally nonsense, and let me explain why. And again let me reflect personally. I have spent major chunks of my life at West Virginia University, at the University of Michigan, at MIT. I taught as a visiting professor one year at Stanford. I visit campuses all over the place. They all have a role, but I believe that this nation should always have a long reach and should always go for excellence. And it is a fact that there are a few schools who sort of average quality or excellence is greater than the average quality or excellence of others. By the way, you can go into virtually any state university in this country and I can find you some students, and I can find you some faculty that are every bit as good, maybe better sometimes than people I can find at Harvard, or MIT, or Stanford, or Caltech. It’s out there. We have a marvelous situation of a lot of excellence across both public and private higher education. So these places got good because they stuck to the fundamentals. They had a vision of what they wanted to be. They remained relatively focused. They had very high standards for hiring, and promotion, and tenure. And over time they evolved into real world beaters. We need world beaters. Why? What happens to their graduates? Their graduates go into our companies. Hopefully their graduates go into our government. They go into education. They teach at other universities. The knowledge and the entrepreneurship that spin out of these institutions benefits everybody. So we cannot, cannot take the approach of, “We see some tall mountains out there. Let’s cut ‘em down and fill in the valleys.” What we have to do is boost the support – both the moral support and the financial support – of these other institutions, all of whom play an enormously important role. If you say to me, “How many really good research universities are there in the country?” The answer is not three, or four, or five. The answer is probably a couple hundred. And where we have been hurt over the last 20 years is that the state support for their best universities has been going down and down and down, and they are scrambling for more and more private money. And the social contract has sort of been damaged between several of them in their states. The number one thing we have to do is build up the support of these great state universities across the country that, by the way, educate the vast majority of our students. But to say therefore you shouldn’t have a Harvard or an MIT, but attract some, you know . . . their share of terrific undergraduates and a lot of the best graduate students in the country, I just think is the wrong approach.
Then finally let’s talk about this business of endowment size. Speaking as a former president of MIT, I gotta tell you we never felt that we were all that rich. We had to pay for a lot of things out of the endowment there that I didn’t have to when I was provost at the University of Michigan. And without that endowment, a university like MIT would become unaffordable because it is the strength of that endowment that allows us to create the financial aid; that allows you to have a private university that you can attend whether you’re rich, poor, or middle class. Secondly if we look at some of the Ivies who do have pretty large endowments, they generally have decided to remain modest in size. And their resources have been built. A lot of this goes into research. A lot of it goes into hospitals, and medical schools, and so forth and so on. So I’m not worried that a few schools are getting too rich in the sense that it’s damaging the others. I just don’t believe that that’s the truth. And in the fields . . . In my own field of engineering, if you asked me to name the top 10 engineering schools in the country, half of them will be state universities, and maybe more than half of them will be state universities. We all have to compete for the same federal grants and contracts, but please let’s always keep excellence as the standard and not drop off mountains to fill in the valleys. Recorded on: 12/5/07