In Memoriam: Charles M. Vest, 1941-2013

CharlesCharles M. Vest Marstiller Vest, an OSA Fellow who served as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), died on 12 December 2013 at his home in Arlington, VA. He was 72.

Vest earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and master’s and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan.  He joined the faculty at Michigan as an associate professor in 1968 and was the provost and vice president of academic affairs before departing for M.I.T. in 1990.

Vest served as M.I.T.’s president from 1990 to 2004.  During his tenure, the third-longest in the university’s history, he focused on science, technology and innovation policy, and on building partnerships among academia, government and industry.  He oversaw an expansion in research and online education and increased the number of women and minority group members in leadership positions.  He grew the university’s endowment from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion, which enabled M.I.T. to put more research money and effort into fields like life sciences, nanotechnology and new media.  Under his leadership, new major institutes in neuroscience and genomic medicine were created, and the OpenCourseWare project was launched in 2002. Through its website, the project offers free exams, syllabuses and other materials for more than 2,000 M.I.T. courses and invites users to earn certificates for coursework.  The project was a model for other universities in developing so-called massive open online courses.  In 2004 he published a book of essays about his time at M.I.T., Pursuing the Endless Frontier.

While president of M.I.T., Vest served on an advisory committee appointed by President Bill Clinton concerning the redesign of the International Space Station.  He was appointed by President George W. Bush to a commission that concluded in a report released in 2005 that federal intelligence agencies had been “dead wrong” in reporting the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the United States invaded in 2003.

In 2007, Vest was elected president of the National Academy of Engineering and vice chair of the National Research Council.  As NAE president, he promoted evergreen programs on the Grand Challenges for Engineering, which spawned Grand Challenge Summits at universities around the U.S., and a Global Grand Challenges Symposium to foster better public understanding of engineering and its importance to the well-being of the nation and world.  He expanded the NAE Frontiers of Engineering program by creating bilateral Frontiers of Engineering symposia with China and the European Union, and he initiated the Frontiers of Engineering Education symposium series.  He spearheaded a major NAE effort to understand the value nexus between manufacturing, design and innovation to national prosperity. Vest became the spokesperson for engineering by illuminating the forces reshaping the landscape of engineering nationally and globally, including its practice, education and future. 

Vest was named an OSA Fellow in 1979.  In 2003, he received OSA’s Robert E. Hopkins Leadership Award “for leadership in setting the national agenda for higher education and university research, including its impact on optics.”  He also received 17 honorary university degrees, the National Medal of Technology from President Bush, and the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board.

Vest is survived by his wife of 50 years, Rebecca; two children and four grandchildren.

If you would like to make a memorial donation to an OSA Foundation fund or endowment in honor of Charles M. Vest, please visit www.osa.org/donate.