What Charles Vest Did for Higher Education

If low-cost Internet-based learning totally transforms higher education, we can thank Charles “Chuck” Vest, long-time president of M.I.T. Chuck, who died last week of cancer, was a great man in many ways, but his crowning achievement, the OpenCourseWare program at M.I.T., spurred  huge changes whose full implications are only beginning to be understood.

In 2002, Chuck made his greatest contribution to higher education by inducing MIT to put all of its syllabi, reading materials, examinations, etc., on-line, allowing anyone with an inquisitive mind to learn a large portion of what formally enrolled MIT students would learn in Cambridge. “This program is based on the twin values of opportunity and openness,” he said. How nice. Most highly selective schools focus on the elite and ignore the broader population. These schools are characterized by three “E” words: expensive, exclusive, and elitist. Chuck was more sympathetic to three “A” words: accessibility, affordability, and accountability.  The stress on affordability may reflect the fact that Vest grew up in West Virginia, one of the nation’s poorest states.

Out of this open source movement morphed the MOOCs. Educational entrepreneurs like Sebastian Thrun were critical in developing this movement, but they all drew their inspiration from the earlier moves of Chuck Vest (MIT now is in partnership with Harvard with their edX MOOC offerings).  But Vest made his mark in terms of promoting accessibility in other ways, such as dramatically increasing female and minority student and faculty participation at MIT.

While Chuck Vest was in some ways a revolutionary (in his aggressive support of on-line education), he was in other ways the epitome of the Academic Establishment. He excelled in the academic arms race, going on a huge building program and over tripling MIT’s endowment. After MIT, Chuck went on to serve until early this year as the head of the National Academy of Engineering.

I served with Vest on the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education in 2005-2006.  Some of us (to an extent chairman Charles Miller and myself, for example) were willing to throw bombs and seek far-reaching changes, but Chuck urged moderation, aware of the difficulties of trying to radically alter the conservative ways of academia. Along with his close friend and former University of Michigan president and colleague Jim Duderstadt and Penn professor Bob Zemsky, he  counseled us to stick to attainable moderate changes.

Chuck Vest was not paid the over $1 million salary that 42 present day private school presidents currently earn. I always sensed he regarded his leadership role as more of a vocational mission, not just a high-paying job.  Unlike some current leaders of schools that seem almost mercenary and self-centered, Chuck genuinely wanted to help people and solve problems. When Bill Clinton needed someone to help in the redesign of the international space station, he called on Chuck. When George W. Bush needed help in a highly sensitive matter of assessing American foreign intelligence failures after the Iraq war, he called on Chuck too. When my university needed a sagacious academic leader to impart wise words at the annual commencement ceremony, Chuck accepted the call.  Chuck was a kindly, gentle, good-humored man who personified much that was good about American higher education.

Are there other Chuck Vests out there, talented, bright persons who are more community-spirited than self-centered? I think so, but the proportion of university leaders fitting the Chuck Vest mold may be diminishing. While there is much to be said for making universities more business-like, an occasional side effect is that a growing proportion of today’s academic leaders view themselves as quasi-corporate executives, expecting appropriately corporate-size salaries and perks. Universities sometimes forget that they are given a privileged place in society precisely because they are different from profit-seeking corporations.  Corporations pay taxes; universities receive taxpayer subsidies. Good university presidents are aware of that, and behave accordingly.  We need more leaders with the vision, the sagacity, and the unselfish integrity of a Chuck Vest.

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