Gray addresses graduates at Commencement
(The following is an edited transcript of the speech by President Paul E. Gray '54 to the graduates and guests at Commencement on Monday, June 4, as recorded by the MIT News Office.)
Thank you, Mr. Babiec.
Dr. Saxon, President Barco, ladies and gentlemen . . . good morning. And a special greeting to the graduates.
Most of the seniors here today arrived at MIT on August 29, 1986. And most of you took part in the most memorable freshman convocation in my tenure as president. Some of you will remember that the Kresge organ took on a life of its own that afternoon, and punctuated my remarks with bursts of a Bach toccata. It was a terrific hack. It was also a vivid demonstration of the combined power of science and the arts. If any of the hackers are here today, I salute them . . . and I trust there will not be an encore this morning.
On that day nearly four years ago, I told you that there would be only one other occasion on which essentially the entire class would assemble in one place -- and here we are, right on schedule.
Since March of 1989, I had planned to follow your example and graduate myself later this month. However, as the search for MIT's fifteenth president continues, I now expect to carry on for a few more months. I hope you will forgive me some envy at the apparent ease with which you got it all together and got it right.
For you, this is the moment. You have just completed the most rigorous university education in the country. Today, we all gather to celebrate your accomplishments and to welcome you into that legendary band of champions known as MIT alumni. Congratulations!
Now anyone who has successfully completed this intellectual tour de force may well consider that experience the ultimate test of the individual. But you know and I know that you have not reached this moment by yourselves. We are joined today by those remarkable people who have been stalwart members of your winning team over the past four -- and more -- years. I speak, of course, of your families and friends.
By way of thanks, I ask the graduates to please stand, face the guest sections, and join with me, the faculty, and the trustees in applauding some of the most remarkable people in higher education today.
Commencement addresses are a difficult art form. The graduates and their families quite appropriately are eager to get on with the real business of the day, and the conventional range of subjects is narrow. Among the overworked themes evident on these occasions is that of change, and the focus is frequently on the aspects of personal change that accompany your transition from the university to the larger world.
In the next few minutes I will comment on some other aspects of changes recent, rapid, and irreversible that are evident in the world you are about to enter.
The first and surely the most dramatic change has
to do with the sudden collapse of the Soviet empire and the transformations occurring in Eastern Europe. This change was conceived in the irrepressible human striving for freedom of thought and action, for political self-
determination, and for ethnic and spiritual identity and respect. And it was born of the extraordinary failures
of the command-and-control model of state socialism. Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are embarked on economic and political transformations of incalculable significance.
The world has, in Peter Drucker's phrase, crossed an historical watershed, and we shall all be affected. The reordering of alliances and associations, the rethinking of national interests and priorities, and the reconsidering of national budgets -- defense and otherwise -- have scarcely begun.
The second dimension of change derives from the recognition late in coming, but now overwhelming, that we humans are affecting the natural environment in ways that are dramatically destructive and that are probably irreversible, at least on the time scales that concern humankind. In our remarkable capacity to reproduce, in our insatiable appetite for resources of all kinds, and in our reluctance to act as stewards for the generations to come, we are changing the conditions of life on earth, not only for ourselves but for the countless other living things who share this planet with us.
This awareness of global environmental issues, itself a dramatic and abrupt change, must be followed by changes in the way we live, indeed, by changes in the way we perceive our relationship with the earth and all its rich variety.
A third dimension of change in the world around us has to do with the development of a global economy -- an economy that, increasingly, will integrate and subordinate all national economies. Global markets now exist for most products and many services. Stateless corporations, whose research, development, manufacturing, and marketing activities transcend national boundaries, are on the rise. And as they grow, they -- and the changes that they generate -- will influence national structures and organizations, will challenge long-held cultural attitudes and beliefs, and will place a premium on the ability to think and act in transnational dimensions.
You, the 1990 graduates of MIT, will be deeply involved in these matters. Why? Because you have the intelligence, the talent, and I believe, the inclination, to tackle the greatest challenges. Because you have developed the skills to evaluate, even devise, different remedies to global problems that have scientific and technical dimensions, not a common quality in a society where few are numerate and fewer still are scientifically literate. Because you have already been living in an international community for at least the past four years. And because, with your education, you are destined for leadership, like it or not.
In all of this, one of the greatest challenges you will face has to do with changes in social organization. Increasingly, your world will be filled with people from cultures, races, and points of view that are different from yours -- and that medley will change, and become even more diversified, over time. Not only will the global economy impress new values and perspectives on your current ways of seeing the world, not only will environmental change influence the way you live, not only will international politics affect your daily lives in new and profound ways, but you will find that you have different players on your home team. In this country, for example, people of color will become the majority, women will take their rightful place, and -- believe it or not -- the younger generation will be fast on your heels. And with these changes -- in politics, in economics, in social organization -- comes the imperative to learn from and to live with people whose experience of the world, whose outlook, whose talents, are different from yours.
Change doesn't come easily to institutions or to individuals. This past year has tested us all in the matter of dealing with differences. I think we have all learned something, and I think we all have something more to learn. And that is the importance of being able to differ with each other without being divisive. Of being able to listen, even when we think we've heard it all before. But most important, it is simply being willing and able to learn.
Without the inclination and the ability to be flexible, to be open to new ideas and changing times, to adapt and grow -- in short, to learn -- we become trapped. Trapped by outdated ideas, by the fear of difference, or of change -- trapped in prisons of our own making. The key to that prison is an open mind, an honest intellect, and a courageous and compassionate heart.
As you embark on lives that will be characterized by startling novelty and by frequent and unsettling change, I would hope that you will carry with you the qualities of intellect, imagination, and compassion that are the keys to making this world a better place. I have confidence that you do, and that you will.
Good luck and Godspeed.