Although MIT's faculty fully expects the school to face an uphill course in the coming years, members say they are confident that Charles M. Vest, the recently appointed president-elect, will steer them well.
"If you were writing a job description, that's what you'd write," Robert Solow says of Vest's resume. Solow chaired a faculty search committee to replace outgoing president Paul Gray.
Vest's resume, others confirm, contains a fairly impressive list of accomplishments. When Vest takes over the helm at MIT, he ends a two year stint as provost of the University of Michigan. Prior to that he was Michigan's dean of engineering from 1986 to 1989.
It is no coincidence that the new president of the institution widely viewed as a pacesetter of American engineering is an engineer himself.
Leaders of the search say that being an engineer was not a prerequisite for the job. But they add that an engineer may be best qualified to oversee vast curriculum modifications, such as changing the standard undergraduate professional engineering degree to a nonprofessional one.
And Vest, who takes over after MIT biologist Philip Sharp declined the post this spring, is no novice at such monumental tasks. At Michigan, he was part of a team which over-hauled the school's engineering curriculum.
Although engineering reform is an important concern, it is only one of only a handful of issues that Vest must tackle. For example, MIT, which receives substantial funding from the Defense Department, expects to be hurt by imminent cuts in the nation's military budget.
Vest is also expected to uphold MIT's role in the revitalization of America's lagging manufacturing sector. "We felt that anybody who had spent most of his adult life in the state of Michigan would understand that issue," Solow says.
But despite the many administrative tangles Vest will face, MIT faculty say they are confident he will make undergraduate education a priority. At Michigan, Vest was known for his rapport with students, and is said to have eaten in undergraduate dining halls on a fairly regular basis.
"He has emphasized the undergraduate education for MIT," says Henry Jacoby, chairman of the MIT faculty. "He has a demonstrated interest in undergraduate life."
Vest is not expected to provide a medicine kit of remedies for MIT's problems, but faculty members familiar with his career say his demonstrated skill as a listener will prove to be invaluable.
"He has both thought about the issues and evidence the ability to draw together the faculty to reach a consensus," says Claude Canizares, vice chairman of the faculty search committee. "That's really what we need here."
Canizares says he expects Vest to assume the presidency with an open mind, "rather than trying to come in with a very specific set of proposals coming from the outside."
But despite Vest's proven administrative ability, most expect the job's inherent demands to preclude the prospect of smooth sailing.
"I just wish him the best of luck," says Sharp. "He's going to need all the support we can give him."