Former MIT President Charles M. Vest passed away today. He was 72. Many people knew President Vest better than me, and worked more closely with him than I did. Yet, with just a few interactions, he has changed my life — and the lives of hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian youths.
It started with an email. This email, from Professor Yoram Koren (University of Michigan) to President Vest:
I hope that all is well with you.
I was in the summer in Israel and visited in Jerusalem an Israeli-Palestinian summer camp for high school students, which was organized by two MIT students and a student from London. The instructors were MIT graduates. They collected contributions of some $40,000 from companies to finance the expenses. The participants were about 20 students, Arabs and Jewish, who studied software in teams for about 4 weeks (as I remember). The intention is that they become friends, which eventually will lead to peace in the Middle East.
Next year the organizers are considering to organize the camp again, but to do it at MIT. They would like to meet with you to discuss the idea.
The students are Yaron Binur, 3rd-year student in computer sciences at MIT (tel 617-285-85xx), and his sister, Anat Binur, who is doing PhD in political economy at MIT.
Are you willing to meet them?
Are you coming to the NAE meeting in Washington next week?
I was an undergraduate student (2001-2005) at MIT during Charles Vest’s tenure as president. In the late months of 2003, my sister Anat, my old friend Assaf, and I had the crazy idea of starting a program that would bring together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers around computer science, business, and leadership, taught by MIT students. That idea turned into MEET. We launched the first program in Jerusalem in 2004 with the help of Abeer and Sandra. The first program was small — 30 students and 4 MIT instructors — but it was a great success.
Like most young entrepreneurs, we acted first and thought later. By the end of the first summer we knew we had created something special, but now needed to figure out how to keep it going. That first summer was done on a shoestring budget; now we had to raise significantly more money for the following year.
We also wanted to formalize our relationship with MIT, since we had not asked for permission or gone through formal channels when we had started the program — we just did it. Now that we wanted to expand and grow the program, potential partners and donors wanted to know who backed us at MIT. This was the first make-or-break moment for us, and would be one of the biggest ones in MEET’s history.
That’s where Professor Koren’s email came into play. I am sure that the President of MIT gets hundreds of emails asking for a meeting every day, but President Vest was more than happy to meet with us.
On November 22nd, 2004, in the middle of a crazy semester at MIT, Anat and I met with President Vest at his office. He was approaching the end of his tenure as President, but was as engaged as ever. Anat and I were understandably nervous, but President Vest was his usual down-to-earth, friendly self. We made our pitch.
Soon after the meeting, we received the following letter:
Ms. Anat Binur,
Mr. Yaron Binur
1010 Mass Ave #42
Cambridge MA 02138
Dear Anat and Yaron,
I was delighted to meet you to learn about the innovative program that you initiated last summer for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. I would like to help it continue for a second summer.
It was very moving to hear the participants testify to their enthusiasm for the MIT instructors’ teaching and to hear them express a deeper understanding of and openness to their Palestinian or Israeli peers. I share your hope that science and technology can provide a bridge that will reduce the chasm between these warring societies.
From the MIT perspective, I see this as an opportunity for our students to learn in a hands-on way how to advance knowledge of science and technology in the Middle East. I know that many of our students are passionate about sharing their education with others. We want them to do so in ways that also build their own understanding of the world. The Middle East is a region of enormous importance for the United States and will be throughout their lives and careers. If we can prepare MIT students for teaching experiences like the one you organized last summer, I think this will be very important for our students, and, I hope, a contribution in the region.
Concretely, I would like to authorize another $60,000 from MIT funds to MEET activities for the summer of 2005 and to do so through the MISTI program. As we discussed, there are many issues involving the educational preparation of MIT students, their safety in the region, the participation of Israelis and Palestinians in planning the projects, and the full commitment of MIT faculty to supervising and authorizing the activities. For this reason, I am asking Professor Suzanne Berger, MISTI director, together with her colleagues Professors Nazli Choucri and Richard Samuels, to work with you and the other student organizers.
I know how challenging this is to do and I hope that you will be able to continue the great success of last summer’s program. Please know that you have my very best wishes and support as you move ahead.
Charles M. Vest
Given how big and complex an institution like MIT is, President Vest could have raised many concerns about the risks MEET posed for the safety of MIT instructors and for the Institute’s reputation. Instead, he channeled the core values of MIT and supported student-entrepreneurs trying to change the world. By the end of the meeting, he not only committed $60K towards the program — by far our largest contribution at that point; he also gave us his personal backing. A few months later he joined the MEET Honorary Board of Directors. Without his support, I doubt MEET would have survived.
President Obama mentioned MEET last summer during his speech in Jerusalem. He called it an example of a program that is making a positive, concrete difference in the Middle East.
When our co-CEO Noa Epstein shared this exciting mark of recognition with the MIT community, President Vest replied to Noa with the following:
This was started by two MIT students who used to drop by — a brother and sister, one an UG and the other a grad. student.
Going forward, all subsequent MIT Presidents have shown us enormous support, but without President Vest’s initial backing I am not sure we would have made it.
As an entrepreneur, there are certain people who change the course of your life, and who shape the kinds of projects you undertake. Charles Vest encapsulated everything that I love about MIT: he was open-minded, down-to-earth, and held a strong desire to make an impact on the world. He sustained a deep belief in the power of entrepreneurship and technology to change our future. He changed my future.
Thank you, President Vest, for changing my life — and the lives of hundreds of young entrepreneurs in the Middle East. I will do my best to pay it forward.
MEET 2013 Summer Program with 160 students and 20 MIT instructors