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Charles M. Vest Memorial Service

“Remembering a Man of Perspective and Compassion”

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Recorded for Video

Thursday, March 6, 2014

I am grateful for this opportunity to sing the praises of a remarkable man and wonderful friend.

It was apparent from the moment I first met Chuck Vest in 1990, when he was a candidate for the presidency of MIT, that he had an unusual combination of personal modesty, and tremendous focus on what needed to be accomplished, not merely at MIT—but in the innovation ecosystem of the nation, and the world as a whole.

Chuck and I intersected at many times and in many places, but I particularly remember working with him in 2006 on the National Academies’ report Rising Above The Gathering Storm, which called for a comprehensive effort to preserve our country’s capabilities in scientific discovery and technological innovation. Thanks, in great measure, to Chuck’s incisive intelligence, the basic ideas of a 500-page document were articulated over a weekend. There were other contributors, of course, and Norm Augustine did a magnificent job of guiding the group, but the end product—straight-forward, sensible, compelling, influential—had a personality much like Chuck’s.

Chuck possessed a quality that is all too rare—perspective—which, combined with an enormous intellectual and social range, allowed him to accomplish great things, while weathering life’s storms—and helping his family, his friends, and his colleagues to weather them.

When he became ill, he told me about it in an almost matter-of-fact way, but also said that he was going to fight as hard as he could. In other words, he was just as he always was: self-effacing and courageous.

Chuck demonstrated enormous strength in taking on the presidency of MIT as an outsider and then making such a success of it. But at MIT, he led by letting others lead. Without always ringing his own bell, he quietly—and sometimes not so quietly—pushed for inclusion, diversity, and fairness at MIT, and elsewhere.

He had a tremendous appreciation for the aspirations of others, and he knew how to make people comfortable. Under his leadership, MIT became a much more welcoming place for people of both genders and all ethnicities. Here are but two among many examples: Chuck was the first MIT President to appoint an African-American faculty member to a senior administrative officer's position by naming Dr. Phillip Clay as Chancellor in 2001. And Chuck’s frank and forceful response to evidence of unequal treatment for women faculty members not only changed MIT, but also altered the entire landscape of academe.

When Chuck knew he was right, he was immovable—but he was never afraid to admit that he could do something better.

At my inauguration ceremony as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Chuck delighted the audience with a quietly witty speech that included congratulating Rensselaer on its cleverness in hiring me, “a spy in the inner sanctum” of MIT.

He also offered a long list of things university presidents need to be, including humble servant, provider of wholesome and tasty dorm meals, towering public figure, and just one of the gang.

Chuck Vest was all of these things, and more.

What I learned from Chuck were the qualities he demonstrated every day:

  • Perspective
  • Passion
  • Compassion
  • Courage, and
  • Fortitude.

I will honor his memory by carrying those values with me—and striving to embody them as gracefully as he did—for the rest of my life.

Thank you very much.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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