Charles M. Vest, who as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pushed to end discrimination against female scholars and approved an innovative plan to make the university’s teaching materials available for free online, died Dec. 12 at his home in Arlington. He was 72.

MIT said the cause of death of its 15th president, who served from 1990 to 2004, was pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Vest, a mechanical engineer, steered one of the world’s premier research centers through a dynamic period. Under his tenure — the third-longest in MIT’s 152-year history — the university expanded its reach in brain science, nanotechnology, genomic medicine, biological engineering and other fields.

Its endowment grew from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion, and an array of new buildings arose on the campus next to the Charles River in Cambridge.

But in his ninth year in office, Dr. Vest was confronted with an internal report that documented the long-simmering frustrations of tenured female science professors at MIT.

Charles M. Vest, the 15th president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , steered one of the world’s premier research centers through a dynamic period. (Donna Coveney/MIT)

Many women felt “marginalized and excluded” from prominent roles in their departments, according to the report, which also said evidence existed of a gender bias against them in salary, laboratory space and academic resources.

Dr. Vest embraced the report and chose to make a public call for action.

“I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception,” Dr. Vest wrote in a March 1999 introduction to the report. “True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist whose struggles for lab space help spur her involvement in the gender discrimination probe, said that when Dr. Vest put the prestige of his office behind the report, female academics around the world felt empowered to speak up about problems they faced. News media descended on the Cambridge campus.

“We were deluged,” Hopkins recalled. “The e-mails poured in, saying, ‘If you think you’ve got problems at MIT, imagine what it’s like at my institution.’ ”

Hopkins said faculty and administrators mobilized rapidly to redress inequities. “It was a turning point,” she said. “It was life-changing.”

Under Dr. Vest, MIT embarked on equity studies of all of its schools, increased the number of women in key leadership positions and took steps to improve working conditions for female faculty. After he retired in 2004, Dr. Vest was succeeded by MIT’s first female president, neurobiologist Susan Hockfield.

Dr. Vest shuttled often from Cambridge to Washington to champion research funding and advise federal officials on science and education.

Under President Bill Clinton, he was chairman of an advisory committee on the redesign of the international space station. Under President George W. Bush, he served on a commission that reviewed U.S. intelligence on the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the United States invaded that country in 2003. It concluded in 2005 that almost all the threat assessments from U.S. agencies were “dead wrong.”

Charles Marstiller Vest was born Sept. 9, 1941, in Morgantown, W.Va. He was a 1963 mechanical engineering graduate of West Virginia University and received a master’s degree in 1964 and a doctorate in 1967 — both in mechanical engineering — from the University of Michigan.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Vest held faculty and administrative positions at Michigan, rising to provost, before MIT hired him in 1990.

In 2001, MIT took a major step under Dr. Vest: It announced that it would make course materials available on the Internet for free to anyone. In essence, MIT would give away what others thought could make a lot of money.

Many in higher education at the time were fearful of losing intellectual property through the Internet and wanted to “put it behind a wall,” recalled Steven R. Lerman, then an MIT professor and now provost of George Washington University.

“The social trend was to figure out how to control your content,” Lerman said. “But here’s Chuck going out and saying, ‘No, that’s not what the university’s mission is.’ ”

The OpenCourseWare site, launched in 2002, has published lecture notes, exams, syllabuses, assignments and other materials for 2,150 MIT courses. That covers about 70 percent of the MIT curriculum, a spokesman said.

The site, widely used, helped lay the groundwork for elite universities in recent years to offer free online education through what are known as “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs.

Dr. Vest, who lived in Arlington after his MIT retirement, served from 2007 until earlier this year as president of the National Academy of Engineering.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Rebecca McCue Vest of Arlington; two children, Kemper Vest Gay of Arlington and John Vest of Wellesley, Mass.; and four grandchildren.

He explained his vision of academic largesse behind the OpenCourseWare initiative in a 2002 commencement speech.

“Why would we do this? Because we see it as part of our mission: to help to raise the quality of higher education in every corner of the globe,” Dr. Vest said. “This program is based on the twin values of opportunity and openness. These are values that have made our universities and our nation strong.”