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Smith Describes MIT Culture

The following is a transcript of a speech given by Arthur C. Smith, dean for undergraduate education and student affairs, at yesterday's President's Convocation. Because of a recording error, the transcript represents only the first section of Smith's remarks.

I don't know why they didn't tell those other guys to dress up.

Let me repeat part of the message you've already heard. Class of 1997, you are really welcomed at MIT. Let me also repeat another part of the message: You're important, you belong, and you will succeed. If you measure success by graduation, it may only be true for 92 percent of you, but most of you certainly will graduate from this place, and I hope you all feel that when you leave here that you have succeeded in what you set out to do.

The reason I want to emphasize that is because that's what I think my job is: To make this a place where it is more likely you will succeed, to try to help you where we can to those things that get in your way, and to try to create an environment within which you can work, study, play, and learn and become what you want to be.

For me to stand up and try to give you a lot of good advice after you've heard from Chuck and Woodie -- in fact, why anyone would stand up and try to talk to you after they've addressed you so eloquently is perhaps mysterious -- but I have been around MIT for a long time. I have been a professor of electrical engineering for something over 30 years, and dean for only a few.

I just want to pose a few observations and questions for you, and let you find out the answers as you go along through this place.

So let me make a few points, and then we'll get on with some activities that you can take part in. The first point I want to make is that MIT is different. Let me say in what ways I want you to look for that. It's different, I think, from most other universities. It's different in our expectations -- you'll find out what those are -- it is different in our requirements -- all of you will have the opportunity to learn some physics, some calculus, some chemistry and some biology. That doesn't describe every university in the world, certainly.

We have a different culture. If I had to describe it in a sentence fragment, it would be that we are more action-oriented and less contemplative than many other universities. You will find that both an advantage and a disadvantage as you go through here. And we have our own language -- what you find yourselves talking in sentences in which all the nouns can be expressed in numbers, you're part-way there. When you understand those all, you're almost all the way there, and when you stop noticing it, you're really there.

I remember that -- I did not go to school here, either as an undergraduate or a graduate -- so as a young faculty member, I remember riding up an elevator with a group of students, and it suddenly struck me that they were carrying on a complete conversation in which none of the nouns were other than numeric. It is interesting that that is the place where we are.

Let me also point out to you that MIT is different from where you have just been. There are a lot of you here, and you've been in a lot of different places, but I think I've just made a true statement: This is different from where you have just been. Our faculty are a world-renowned group. You may have the experience of going into a class where the person in front of you wrote the textbook. The number of Nobel Prize winners, the number of outstanding names, people you've heard of, people you'd like to get to know, is very large. They have responsibilities, goals, and aims which are somewhat different from those of your high school teachers did. You have to learn to recognize those, and learn how to make use of it in your passage through the Institute.

It's a wonderful resource, but it's different from the high school teacher who knew your name because there were only 12 or 14 people in the class. It is different from the situation where you've been in the same school system for many years, where you're known in the town, where you're known in terms of your family and otherwise. Recognize this as a different situation. There are a lot of advantages to that, there are some pitfalls. Look for both.

There's more research going on here than went on probably wherever you have come from. It's an important part of MIT, and you need to become part of it. There are lots of ways that you can -- look for those.

The students who are sitting around you right now, and the upperclassmen who you will meet later are a very select group. Most of you were somewhere, academically, at the top of your high school class. It is pretty clear that to live and work in an environment in which it is very likely that the person next to you is at least as smart as you and maybe smarter is a challenge, an exhilarating experience, and somewhat different. You need to adjust to that, you need to learn how to make use of that strength without being depressed. If you have established your value system based on being better than other people, it is sometimes a little disturbing to find in fact, everybody around is at least as good as you are, and maybe better.

On the other hand, to be able to talk to people who can understand you, whose minds can move as fast as yours, and to live in that kind of environment, can be immensely rewarding. So look for the good parts of that, and make use of them.

This environment is different than the one you have come from. You will be living in groups in which the population is almost entirely between the ages of 17 and 22. These will be groups which may be as large as several hundred or maybe only 30 or 40, and all composed of people about your own age.

That's a change for most of you, that's a challenge. Living with that number of people is different from living in a family. Living with people only in that age group leads to a lot of interesting phenomena. Some of you will find it very pleasant and exciting. Other times it generates conflict.

[The recording stopped here.]