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Vest fields questions at town meeting

At the third in a series of "town meeting" forums with President Charles M. Vest, audience members last Wednesday got answers to their questions about reengineering, the retirement incentive program and other issues.

Most of the informal session-where many attendees ate their lunch as Dr. Vest jotted down questions for all to see on an overhead projector-stemmed from MIT's financial situation, where factors including federal funding cuts have created the need for reengineering and the retirement incentive. Still, few people realized "how quickly the onslaught of problems attacking the financial and organizational core of universities in America were going to pile up on us," Dr. Vest said. "Despite the anxiety it has brought to all of us, I would like to tell you today that I'm absolutely convinced that the Institute is in a leadership position and is honestly facing up to these difficulties."

He urged the approximately 300 who attended not to lose sight of the fact that MIT has been and still is a superior university-"by a substantial margin, number one" in an American Association of Universities ranking, for example.


Asked if he was "happy" with the response to the retirement-incentive offer, Dr. Vest said, "Happy is not necessarily the right word, but it appears to be a very successful program." As of last Wednesday, 640 employees on campus and at Lincoln Laboratory had elected to accept the offer. The retirements will allow more assistant professors to be hired over the next few years, since "our goal is not to reduce the number of faculty at MIT," he said. Most of the retiring professors will stay on at 49 percent time or less, he said.

Trimming other campus staff, however, "is something we absolutely have to do in order to restrain the growth of costs and to help us in reorganizing work. and somehow operating in a more efficient manner in the future." The overall goal is to fill only 50 percent of the administrative, support and service positions vacated by retirees-282 on campus and 97 at Lincoln Laboratory.

Dr. Vest characterized the program as a "win-win-win situation" because it offers a generous financial package to retirees, reduces staffing levels and opens up some positions. However, he emphasized that the community must recognize this important crossroads; "we must not fail to take advantage of this opportunity for renewal and strengthening of our administrative activities."

His "biggest worry," he continued, was a concern that in areas with significant staff losses due to retirement, fewer people will be doing the same amount of work. In order to counter this possibility, each senior officer must submit a plan to an oversight committee that details how work will be redesigned and positions filled "in an optimal and fair manner," Dr. Vest said. That committee will consist of Vice President for Human Resources Joan Rice, Senior Vice President William Dickson and Jonathan Allen, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

Later in the session, an employee who retired before MIT offered the incentive challenged Dr. Vest about the apparent reversal of the Institute's intentions as stated at a "town meeting" two years ago. At that time, Dr. Vest replied, "I don't think it was a matter of arguing on behalf of not having a retirement incentive plan, so much as an absolutely honest statement that we had no intention of implementing one. There was no dishonesty or deception. We had not planned to do this; we'd not even planned to do it at some nondesignated time in the future." Last fall, however, discussions with the Executive Committee of the Corporation-based partly on the state of the economy and on projections of how many would accept the retirement offer (projections which have proved "relatively accurate") indicated that it would in fact be beneficial.

Whenever this type of offer with a fixed window of opportunity is made, "there are other people who don't gain the benefit from it," Dr. Vest said. This includes everyone who will retire after this point, as well as members of the Academic Council who were ineligible for the offer because of the potential conflict of interest, he said.


Other audience members asked how MIT's reengineering effort was progressing on "growing and moving in new directions" as well as on cost-cutting, and whether there was "light at the end of the tunnel" with regard to balancing the budget.

Dr. Vest responded that MIT and other universities are entering a new age of continued rapid change. "We hope the basic core of changes we have to make will happen rather quickly," within a three-year period (of which one year has already passed). "We're in a period of rapid change, but we won't just change and then be in a steady state," he cautioned. However, the retirement incentive program "has brought us a long way to our steady-state size," he added. Though sponsored-research funding will always be subject to some uncertainty, "I think the fact that we've faced [the funding problem], developed a strategy and worked together is the light at the end of the tunnel."

Another employee voiced concern that staffing reductions and other changes are fostering a "loss of regard" for staff by faculty members and an overall loss in the sense of community at MIT. "We cannot lose that sense of community," Dr. Vest said. Although the concept of reengineering "at first felt strange to all of us here," it is in fact "the ultimate statement of respect for staff, because its methodology involves all of you figuring out what the changes are and how to get to where we need to go. It is not the kind of thing where a few people somewhere in the administration began dictating what we're going to do."

A recent Faculty Newsletter editorial criticized the reengineering effort as piecemeal rather than system-oriented and asked for a statement of vision by President Vest and Provost Joel Moses, an audience member observed. "No other university has done this on the scale that we have. We've taken a new path. It's been rocky; it's not been perfect," Dr. Vest said. "But if we sit back and wait until the methodology is perfect and other universities try it out and perfect it for us, it's going to be too late."

There have been "lots of things to criticize legitimately; if you don't have negative feedback, I can assure you you're not going to get better. It doesn't bother me when you criticize, as long as it's not emotional, but based on fact." Reengineering will prove to be the right course for MIT, he concluded. "Ten years from now you're going to look back and say, `Yup, MIT did it again.'"


Dr. Vest also commented on Stanford University's recently announced initiative to raise a special endowment of $200 million in order to offset federal funding cuts, and the applicability of such an idea to MIT. The Institute, he noted, "is in some senses farther out on the edge of the limb than virtually any other university in the country" because of its emphasis on federally funded science research. "Therefore we are more at risk than anybody, including Stanford." Though there will be a short-term "modest increase" in support from sources such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, a bipartisan drive to balance the federal budget by 2002 will mean a total funding loss of at least 12 percent between now and then, he said.

Rather than take Stanford's approach, Dr. Vest said, "we are going to look very much to the private sector in new and different ways as we go forward." Examples already in place include the collaboration between the Department of Biology and Amgen Corp., and the linking of engineering, science and management education and research. MIT has had a "spectacular year" in private fund-raising, with much of that money earmarked for student financial aid.

Another worry was the possibility that the School of Humanities and Social Science or the School or Architecture and Planning would bear the brunt of belt-tightening. Dr. Vest emphatically refuted this notion. "It's just been understood that we are not going to solve our problems by saying, `well, things like architecture and the humanities are somehow peripheral to the Institute, so we'll just cut there in order to keep engineering and science strong'," he said. "We are a lively and sparkling institution in very large measure because of what goes on" in those schools.


Given the uncertain state of research funding, one questioner asked if MIT could maintain the flow of young people into careers in the basic sciences. Dr. Vest acknowledged that for a time, "there will be to some extent a reduced opportunity for all but the very best in basic science," but that he was "optimistic" that legislators and the public would reaffirm the importance of government-sponsored research. "What is important in science will shift, and it always has," he said. "We have been a little unfair for the last two decades or so in creating an image for many of our students, particularly at the PhD level, that the only worthwhile career is to be a professor, or to work at an absolutely fundamental level in some federal/industrial research center." One alternative is the public sector, Dr. Vest indicated. Very few legislators now have any medical or scientific training, and "we need people in policy-making roles who have a deep knowledge of science."

A student asked what role students can and should have in the Institute's decision-making process. "I think we have not done as good a job as we should" in that regard, Dr. Vest said. "They have important things to say. I'm very open to getting more student involvement." He and Becky Vest have made a habit of talking with students a few at a time at their residences rather than in more formal group settings, he noted. "I really value my informal contact with students."

Another concern voiced at the meeting was whether escalating tuition costs would ever stabilize. In response, Dr. Vest said that over the last two years, the tuition/room/board total cost has been kept within about 1.5 points of the consumer price index (CPI). "We're doing our very best to hold the rate of tuition down," he said. It will never be as low as the CPI, partly because "we are breaking our backs to keep our financial aid strong." More than 60 percent of undergraduates receive aid, and MIT is committed to maintaining need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid, he added.

Alumni and alumnae also play an important part in helping the Institute in monetary and other ways, Dr. Vest said in response to a question about the role of alumni/ae in the MIT community. MIT cannot benefit as much financially from its graduates as the Ivy League schools do, since part of MIT's tradition is that many students are drawn "from the so-called working class, public high schools and first- and second-generation immigrants. Engineering and science in America have always been viewed as a way up, and we're very proud of that."

MIT alums "tend to be unusually critical of the institution, usually but not always in a healthy way. It's just part of the rigor and intensity of the thought process which they've developed here," Dr. Vest said. Consequently, the typical alumni function "isn't always a rah-rah college love-in," he quipped. On alumni/ae fundraising, "we have to work at it a bit more consciously than we have in the past," he acknowledged. However, MIT alumni and alumnae have been helpful in other ways, such as in primary and secondary education issues, letters to editors and to Congressional representatives, he added.

Regarding former MIT student Lori Berenson, Dr. Vest termed her trial and solitary confinement in a Peruvian prison "absolutely shocking and totally improper." He has written Secretary of State Warren Christopher and others, including Congressman Joseph Kennedy, who has taken a personal interest in this matter. In response to a question about what others can do, he noted that as individuals, we do not have any direct influence on the judicial process in another country, but that writing letters to members of our Congress and administration does help to keep attention on this issue at the governmental level.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 22, 1996.

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