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Remembering Chuck Vest, a pioneer in engineering education

Charles Vest

Charles “Chuck” Vest, former University of Michigan (U-M) provost, Engineering dean, Mechanical Engineering (ME) professor and a U-M ME alumnus, has passed away at 72.

Vest remained a dear friend and honored alumnus after leaving the University to become the fifteenth president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a post he held from 1990 until 2004, and its president emeritus since 2005. He was also the president of the National Academy of Engineering from 2007 until earlier this year.

Throughout his career, Vest championed new directions in education and research, global scientific communication and cooperation, racial and ethnic diversity, and gender equality.

“Chuck Vest was regarded not only as one of the great leaders of higher education through his service to Michigan and MIT, but his leadership of the National Academy of Engineering was of immense importance to both the prosperity and security of our nation," said James Duderstadt, U-M president emeritus and university professor of science and engineering. "He will be missed greatly by his friends and colleagues."

Vest received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University before arriving in Ann Arbor, where he earned master’s in 1964 and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering in 1967. He later received an honorary doctorate from the U-M College of Engineering.

"Chuck's passing represents an enormous loss to his many colleagues at the University of Michigan," said David Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. "He was revered as a faculty member and administrator during his years in Ann Arbor. He went on to become a towering national figure in engineering and science, but he never forgot his academic roots and we never forgot him. He was the most genuine, insightful, and supportive friend one could ever wish for. We shall miss him dearly."

Recognized many times for his contributions to engineering and education, Vest told Michigan Engineer magazine that he was especially moved when receiving The National Medal of Technology, the highest honor the United States can award to a citizen for achievements related to technological progress. He was also the recipient of the Vannevar Bush Award, which recognizes “truly exceptional lifelong leaders in science and technology who have made substantial contributions to the welfare of the Nation through public service activities in science, technology, and public policy.” He held an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, and received Michigan Engineering’s 2004 Alumni Society Medal, about which he said, “It was an unexpected honor that’s very dear to me.”

“Chuck Vest was a remarkably thoughtful and dedicated educator," said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. "As so often happens with Michigan provosts, a university presidency was in his future; his leadership of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology extended well beyond Cambridge and benefited all of science, technology and higher education. I will miss his gentle demeanor and the grace that defined his personality and impact.”

In a profile for Michigan Engineer magazine, Vest said, “Whatever I’ve accomplished in my life is because of West Virginia University, the University of Michigan and MIT.” He added that he had “fond memories of Ann Arbor and everything it offered.”

Among his many publications were two highly acclaimed books: The American Research University from World War II to World Wide Web: Governments, the Private Sector, and the Emerging Meta-University and Pursuing the Endless Frontier: Essays on MIT and the Role of Research Universities.

Vest served as dean of engineering at U-M from 1986 until 1989 and U-M provost and vice president for academic affairs from 1989-1990.

He is survived by his wife, Rebecca; daughter and son-in-law, Kemper Vest Gay and John Gay; son and daughter-in-law, John and Christina Vest; and grandchildren Mary and Robert Gay and Ameri and Charles Vest.

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