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: Who are you?
Vest: I’m Charles Vest. I’m currently the President of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and I’m President Emeritus of MIT. I grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, at that time a small college town. It was actually an extraordinary time and place to grow up. I had many wonderful dimensions to my life which was in the late ‘40s and through the ‘50s into the very early ‘60s in the sense that my father was actually a mathematics professors, and that I was living in pretty typical small town America and going to public schools with kids who grew up on the farm or who were doctors’ children. I was in about ninth grade at the time that the schools in West Virginia were integrated – a little bit before the Brown decision. And so it had real great economic and motivational diversity, social diversity – sort of the great combination small school, beautiful physical area, and yet having the advantages of being in an academic family. Both of my parents, not surprisingly, were terrifically influential on me. My father was a very precise mathematician, and also a truly extraordinary classroom teacher of a rather formal type. When I went to West Virginia University as an undergraduate I actually took two courses to my father. And he in the classroom, unlike at home, was such a disciplined kind of teacher that my fellow students actually didn’t find this odd. They never gave me a hard time. It was the only class I ever took that I didn’t ask a question all day. My mother was what would, at that period of history, been a fairly typical housewife. She was very intelligent. She was extremely well-read. Looking backward I sometimes have said that she didn’t grow up in the later era because I think she could have actually been a fine scholar or teacher herself. She was particularly interested in history, and a lot of our summer vacations and so forth were trooping around the old battlefields and cemeteries up and down the east coast, particularly in the South. So this kind of combination of a wonderful, warm home and two very influential parents. I also had a few people as I went on. There was a professor at West Virginia University named Bob Schloniger who really was the person who convinced me I should become a mechanical engineer when I had been planning to probably be either a physicist or an electrical engineer. And I always think back. You know in the ’40s and ‘50s it was a big thing in this country to always take aptitude tests to figure out what you should be, and engineer or scientist never really went very far up the scale. I usually was told I should be a psychologist or a journalist or a historian. So I think all these influences kind of came together. And after following a rather straightforward engineering education career, I later moved off into administration. I think maybe some of those other influences and maybe latent interests and talents helped out. Recorded on: 12/5/07