Vest earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering, a master of science degree in mechanical engineering, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. But he didn’t spend his life as a mechanical engineer. Rather, he was an educator, serving as a professor (yes, of mechanical engineering!) at the University of Michigan. In 1990, he was recruited to be the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he served through the end of 2009. It was there that he pushed through a breakthrough. Step 1 was to wean MIT from being so dependent on federal grants; he did fundraising with industry and individuals to increase the university’s endowment from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion while, at the same time, expanding the university’s life sciences, nanotechnology, and new media research and development. Step 2: the Internet was coming into the public’s consciousness in the 1990s, and Vest pushed the faculty to adopt the new medium. The result, which went online in 2002: the MIT OpenCourseWare project, to offer MIT undergrad and graduate courses, including class materials, lecture notes, exams, and sometimes even entire textbooks, for free. “There was no better example of [Dr. Vest’s] vision and values than the creation of MIT OpenCourseWare,” says the university’s current president, L. Rafael Reif. “The simple, elegant, unprecedented idea that MIT should make all of its course materials available online to anyone in the world, for free.” Even better, the effort created an open framework for other universities to follow suit. Today, more than 250 educational institutions make more than 2,100 courses available through the OpenCourseWare Consortium.
During the same time, Vest pushed to increase acceptance of women in the sciences. In 1999 a faculty panel wrote a report (known as the MIT Report on Women in Science) exposing the university’s gender inequity in advancement opportunities, salaries, and resources. Vest didn’t just support the exposé, he wrote the introduction, asking every staff member to “Please read it, contemplate its messages and information, and act upon it personally and collectively.” Dr. Nancy Hopkins, who led the panel, said that Vest didn’t defend the university’s practices, but rather, “he said, ‘I see it. I get it. And we’re going to take it on.’” Within three years, eight other universities, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, also agreed with the report — “and the world changed,” Hopkins says. After leaving MIT, Vest was president of the National Academy of Engineering. He died at home on December 12, from pancreatic cancer, at 72.