"After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I asked him 'Are you angry? Do you think, why me?'
He said no. He said he felt extraordinarily lucky. He said, 'Who'd have thought that a boy from Morgantown would get to do so many amazing things - to speak with US presidents and vice presidents, meet the Dalai Lama, and even the Queen of England.' "
West Virginians grow up learning, memorizing, and touting famed individuals who have hailed from our wild and wonderful state. Our parents make sure to tell us all about Don Knotts, Chuck Yeager, Jennifer Garner, Steve Harvey and Jerry West. And if anyone ever speaks publicly about how amazing West Virginia is – or makes us look good in any way – we West Virginians make it spread like wild fire.
In my household, one famed West Virginian was talked about more than the others. As I grew an interest in math and science, my dad starting telling me of a lesser known, but no less successful person from Morgantown, WV. As if he were his own best friend, my dad would brag about the accomplishments of Charles Vest – Morgantown High School and West Virginia University alumna who went on to become the President of MIT. We had the same academic foundation, and so he became a living symbol of what someone from my own hometown who went to WVU could accomplish.
On December 12th, 2013, Chuck Vest died of pancreatic cancer. This past week, I attended his memorial service at MIT and I learned more about him in that 90 minutes than I had my entire life. Two of his accomplishments stuck out to me the most, and extend much further beyond his title.
1. Agent of Change for Equality for Female Professors
The first is that he spoke out and revealed inconvenient truths about gender-equity problems for MIT women faculty members. Apparently, in the 90’s, there was a lot of talk about how women faculty members at universities were often times getting the short end of the stick (think smaller salaries, smaller lab space, fewer resources, etc). But in 1999, MIT released a study confirming that such inequalities were true at its own institution.
At the memorial service, faculty members stated that Chuck Vest could have easily pushed responsibility for this down the line of command, and the report could have eventually been pushed under the rug. But instead, he used his position of power to shed significant light on the problem and spearhead initiatives to change them. Leaders from around the world followed suit, and helped rectify inequality issues at their own universities. Chuck Vest reported receiving emails from women around the world thanking him for taking on this issue.
2. Spearheaded the Open Educational Resources Movement
The second accomplishment that stood out in my mind was his leadership in the movement to make MIT’s educational materials online – for free – for everyone. This initiative became known as MIT’s OpenCourseWare which has helped usher in the “open educational resources” movement.
While this may not seem revolutionary today, you could imagine reasons why the president of one of the top universities in world would not want to do this. It would be a great public resource - sure, but it also means that students from around the world may not actually have to attend (and pay to attend) MIT to receive an MIT education. But he pushed for it anyway, and now universities around the world have started to develop their own open educational resources as well. I’d say, this is just a pretty big win for humanity.
So, fellow West Virginians, as you continue to brag about the coolest people who have come from our beautiful state, remember to include Chuck Vest - A Morgantown native with humble beginnings and a West Virginian twang who improved equality in the academic world and helped lead the movement to provide free education for everyone.
For further information about Charles M. Vest: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/former-mit-president-charles-m-vest-dies-at-72-1213.html