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President Charles Vest's charge to graduates

(The following is an edited transcript of the speech by President Charles M. Vest to the graduates and guests at Commencement on Monday, June 3, as recorded by the MIT News Office.)

Once again we are gathered here in Killian Court -- the Great Court of MIT -- to celebrate accomplishment, heritage and passage. It may, perhaps, seem odd that a community so dedicated to the future and so permeated by scientific objectivity comes together donning strange and colorful medieval regalia. But indeed it is fitting, and seemingly fulfilling of deep human needs, that such rituals take place.

This ritual reminds us of the continuity -- through the ages of discovery and learning -- of our role in an unbroken, centuries-old chain of accomplishment of the human mind and spirit.

But above all, it celebrates your passage to a new stage in your lives, and it celebrates your accomplishments during your student years at MIT.

Life in a university has a rhythm. It ends, oddly enough, with a commencement -- a beginning. But it begins each year as summer ends and autumn approaches, when we come, or return, to the campus with that feeling of apprehension in the pit of our stomach -- and, perhaps, that nagging suspicion that we were admitted to MIT by mistake.

It proceeds through an intense year of communal living, teaching, learning, researching; of lectures, laboratories and libraries; of problem sets, UROP projects, final exams and Independent Activities Period; of dreary New England winter and renewing springtime; and now, at last, of parties, platitudes and platforms.

So here we are, gathered to salute you: our graduates. To salute your accomplishments -- past and future.

But the accomplishment of graduation from MIT is not yours alone. There are those parents, family, friends, spouses and children who have supported and sustained you. You will recognize them by their smiles, brought about by their great pride, and also by a sense of great and immediate relief to their bank accounts.

It is always especially wonderful to see the babies and small children who come to see their mother or father graduate. They too are welcome. And as this ceremony stretches onward, I give them special presidential approval to comment on the proceedings -- at any time and in any manner they see fit.

Let us, then, express our deep appreciation to all of those who have come to Cambridge today to join in your commencement ceremony. Will you, the graduates, please rise, turn to your audience and give them the applause they so richly deserve.

According to William Manchester's book, The Last Lion, Winston Churchill used to amuse himself during boring sessions of Parliament by lying in wait for neophyte orators. As they spoke, he would close his eyes, and let his head nod in feigned sleep -- just to disconcert the speaker. Once a young speaker finally became so exasperated that he shouted, "Mr. Churchill! Are you sleeping during my speech?" Churchill raised his head and replied, "No, but I wish to God I were."

But this morning you and I will have more camaraderie and mutual respect than that, because we are both neophytes. For this is my first MIT commencement. Just as you complete your studies at MIT, I complete my first academic year as president. In this role, it is my privilege to deliver this brief charge to you.

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I have found that three characteristics of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stand out in all that we do.

1/3 The first is a true and deep commitment to education -- a belief that the nature of our education and curriculum is the core of the Institute. One senses this in the quality of debate and self-criticism that go on continually among the faculty -- for example, as we concluded that modern biology must now become a General Institute Requirement. One learns it from our alumni -- who tell us that the self-discipline, knowledge base, problem-solving skills and confidence to take on truly challenging tasks that they gained at MIT have enabled them to make unusual contributions and accomplishments in their careers.

1/3 The second is the uniqueness of MIT. You undoubtedly were drawn to study at MIT by the knowledge that it is not another "cookie-cutter" university. This is a unique institution of higher learning and research -- one with its own special excellence, tradition and entrepreneurial spirit. MIT blends mind and hand, and is as proud of its connections to the real world of industry and government as of its deepest theoretical and artistic accomplishments.

1/3 The third is service. There is a palpable sense of service to the nation and to the world on this campus. We continually ask what the truly important problems facing humankind are and how we can contribute to their solution.

All of these attributes will be reflected in you as graduates, but I want to leave you with a few thoughts regarding this last topic -- service.

We have just been through an era that, for whatever reason, seems to have been characterized by far too much emphasis on the self. This has often been manifested as overt greed. It is time for this to change.

We must reduce the terrible escalation in the bifurcations in our society: bifurcations between rich and poor, between those who contribute to society and those who are rendered impotent to do so, between those who have good health care and those who do not.

These issues -- like the great issues of maintaining a sound economy and production system, taking the steps required to maintain a healthy global environment, making wise use of technology in the rapidly developing information age, creating a more peaceful and secure world, and restoring the vitality and effectiveness of our nation's schools -- are all areas in which you can contribute richly.

No one associated with MIT has better exemplified service to the nation through science, technology and service than Vannevar Bush '16. This is the centennial of his birth.

Vannevar Bush is one of the great figures of American science and engineering in the 20th century. He was a professor, vice president, first dean of engineering, and chairman of the Corporation in his long career at MIT.

But he is best remembered, perhaps, for his genius

in mobilizing American science and engineering during World War II and then, after the war, for helping to formulate the policies that guided engineering education, the federal government's support of basic research, and the utilization of technical knowledge for America's defense and industry.

At the end of World War II, Bush authored a remarkable report, entitled "Science -- The Endless Frontier," which established the structure of federal support of scientific research. We are all the beneficiaries of this system, which in turn has made America's research universities the best in the world. This report also led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation, whose distinguished new director, Walter Massey, has addressed you today.

In his reach beyond the campus, both in part-time and full-time roles in the service of the country, Vannevar Bush was an exemplar of the scientist-citizen whose value system incorporates dedication to the larger society.

The world today -- our "global village" -- needs the same kind of energy, intellect and skill that legions of scientists and engineers provided to the nation during World War II, when they were mobilized to their task by Vannevar Bush. While today's challenges may at the moment seem somewhat less focused and urgent than those linked to a war, my guess is that they will soon take on nearly the same kind of intensity as we try to cope with them.

The journey toward the "endless frontier" has never been as exciting, challenging and full of rich promise as it is today. You are fortunate to be starting on it. And we are fortunate to have you do so.

As you progress, many opportunities to serve your fellow men and women, in large ways or small, will present themselves again and again. I urge you take advantage of them -- and to use your talents and your education wisely.

I am extremely pleased that in this ceremony MIT has retained its tradition of personally recognizing each and every graduate as an individual. My right hand, of course, may dissent from this opinion.

But as we move toward your march to the platform and the presentation of your degrees, an act accompanied by a hearty handshake from the president or the provost, let me tell you that this is a moment rich with promise. It may change your life.

I recently learned that a few years ago, a man came up to former President Jerry [Jerome B.] Wiesner. He said, "Dr. Wiesner, do you remember me? You shook my hand at graduation 20 years ago. And you said something to me as I came through the line to receive my diploma that changed my life. It was the secret of my successful career."

Jerry reluctantly admitted that he wasn't sure that he specifically remembered him, and said, "Well, my goodness, what did I say?"

"You said, `Keep on moving. . . . Keep on moving.' "

Today, I too suggest that you keep on moving -- keep on the journey toward that endless frontier.

And as you do so, I say to you: God Speed. Good Luck. Go get 'em!