Former Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Charles M. Vest, 72, who began its initiative to offer free courses online and oversaw expansions in its research fields, died of pancreatic cancer Thursday at his home in Washington, MIT announced Friday.

Mr. Vest led MIT from 1990 to 2004. During his tenure, MIT expanded its research in cognitive science, genomic medicine, biological engineering, and nanotechnology.

He asked a faculty committee in 1999 to explore how the Internet could broaden MIT's mission. The result was its non-degree OpenCourseWare project, which by 2007 offered more than 1,800 courses to learners worldwide. The online learners now may earn certificates for coursework.

Other universities began exploring similar programs, and last year MIT announced a partnership with Harvard University, called edX.

Mr. Vest also transformed the campus with new buildings and grew its endowment from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion, MIT said.

Mr. Vest was president of the National Academy of Engineering from 2007 until this year. He was a frequent government adviser, including heading a committee to redesign the International Space Station during President Bill Clinton's administration. He served on a commission appointed by President George W. Bush that concluded in 2004 U.S. intelligence agencies had been wrong in reporting the presence of weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. - AP