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Wrighton Addresses Freshmen

The following is an edited version of Provost Mark S. Wrighton's speech yesterday at the academic convocation.

Good afternoon and welcome once again to Kresge. My name is Mark Wrighton. I'm your provost. You may be wondering, what is a provost after all? The official term for the MIT provost is the chief academic officer. I happen also to be a professor in the chemistry department. As provost, I am responsible, at least in principle, for the academic and research programs and I am also responsible for coordinating the considerable resources that we can bring to bear to make your education fulfilling. Indeed, I manage a $1.1 billion budget.

You have already been alerted to the possibility that we have some constraints in the years ahead and I am here to tell you that we do equate people and dollars. And it is probably true that in the next four years, one-half of the 18,000 member community will not be here. I hope you are among them, you are going to graduate in 1997!

We expect a great deal of you, and as I look in the dictionary and find the real definition of provost, you will find that one says: "keeper of a prison!" You may feel constrained at times during your career here at MIT but in reality you are only bounded by your fears, your own capabilities, and your own actions.

My principal role as one of the senior officers of the Institute is to serve the students and faculty and to work to assist them to achieve their considerable potential and to do that with the least set of encumbrances and the least set of difficulties. In short, I serve you and faculty, but I also have very high expectations of you and the faculty, and I am confident that you will fulfill these.

Incidentally, it falls upon my shoulders from time to time to make those critical decisions in your lives like canceling classes if snow falls. The right set of circumstances have never come into play that would allow me to do that in my three-year tenure. But, I'm reminded of a snowy day long ago when [Paul E. Gray '54] was president of MIT -- he is now Corporation chairman, freshman adviser, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Paul invited me to go to lunch at the President's house, which is a unique experience, I hope you all enjoy it some day. And on that snowy day he called off classes and he closed the institute.

But a luncheon invitation at the President's house is something I took seriously. So I decided to dig my way out of the driveway at 7:00 a.m. to ensure that I would arrive by the 12:00 hour, and when Paul called my home at 8:30, my wife Barbara said that I was already at work slaving away on behalf of MIT. So I went over to lunch at the President's house, which was just a block away. And when it snows here it's incredibly quiet. And Paul and Priscilla Gray told me a little story of how they were awakened early to make the decision about whether to close MIT. And there were a couple of joggers running along Memorial Drive and one came up, close to the President's house -- when it's very quiet, you can hear these shouts of the joggers quite easily -- and one jogger said to the other, "Hey! Look over there! Paul Gray has already gotten out and shoveled his driveway!" The other one laughed and said, "Heck, no! Paul never does that. Priscilla gets out and does it." That little story is amusing, and it's true. I'm not sure that Prescilla Gray does the shoveling, but I could believe it. Both of these individuals have contributed a great deal to this community in the past and they will continue to do so in the future in their current roles.

But it illustrates a degree of humanity. This is a place which involves human beings, people with emotions, people with real commitment and dedication. And as we move forward from this point of your beginning as an academician here at MIT, I hope you will recall that we are all human beings and treat each other with respect and civility. We will be linked together for many years to come as you will be graduates of MIT and included in its alumni activities.

Today you begin the heart of your MIT experience: your academic agenda. Some of you have already met your advisers. Most of you are already well-informed about your choices for this upcoming term, and most of you will be deeply engaged in your chemistry, biology, physics, math, and Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences subjects. I am also very pleased with the level of participation you have extended in our freshman advising seminar program and I'm also pleased with the level of commitment that I've seen among the faculty. This program, coordinated by [Travis R. Merritt, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs] offers a unique program to engage your faculty adviser with you, and you will be involved in regular contact not only to deal with the administrative details associated with your presence here at MIT, but also to acquaint you with some of their intellectual interests. Get to know your faculty and let them come to know you. I am looking forward to my own seminar on the chemistry of energy technologies. I have already met with my group and it's going to be interesting and I think a rather important aspect of my own learning experience here at MIT.

But let me say a bit more about your first year experience here at MIT. The General Institute Requirements include two terms of calculus, two terms of physics, a term of chemistry, and now, for the first time at MIT, one term of biology. This is a hefty dose of science, but in terms of subject commitment at MIT, your requirements in the HASS is even larger. Our core requirements apply to all students whether you are a humanist or an electrical engineer. We have one brand of science: the MIT brand. We do have science for poets, economists, musicians, linguists, political scientists, architects: the very same science we offer for engineers and scientists. The core provides a common knowledge base in the fundamental disciplines of science, and we are proud to offer to you the core discipline of biology, with an emphasis on molecular biology. MIT contributed to founding this discipline, and Boris Magasanik, a person I think some of you met this morning in the meet the instructors, is associated with the development in the early stages of this discipline. Another instructor, Nancy Hopkins is a leading researcher on the use of fish in studies of genetics. If you go over to her laboratory, you will see a large number of aquaria, and they have zebra fish and not all the stripes go the same way. So you see, at MIT designer genes means something other than Calvin Klein! Biotechnology, which is the industry associated with this revolution in science also is very closely linked to MIT. You may have heard of the major corporation based in California called Genentech, which was in fact founded by an MIT graduate by the name of Robert Swanson along with others. And this is but one small component of the MIT story that has led to the development in this arena.

A second subject that you will be taking is a subject close to my own heart: chemistry. This is an excellent forerunner to our biology offering, it is a core discipline, and it has an interesting innovation this year: TeamWorks is an idea that encourages team work and learning together. One of your central accomplishments at MIT will be learning how to learn. TeamWorks offers you a path to learning that will better simulate your situation later in life when you are pursuing your independent careers outside a classroom setting. In chemistry , as you address problems, one of my little quips is: you are either part of the solution or you are a part of the precipitate! Work together, learn together. One of your instructors in 5.11 is a distinguished contributor with whom I have taught. His name is Professor Alan Davison. Professor Davison has been working in his research group in the development of the chemistry of an unnatural element, that is an element that does not exist in significant natural abundance, namely technetium. In the development of this synthetic element, Davison has developed a new radio-pharmaceutical called CardioLite. It is an imaging agent for the human heart. And to give you a sense of his dedication to this endeavor, he first used this heart-imaging agent on himself, and this provides very compelling evidence that at least one chemist at MIT has a heart! I also recall with some amusement the time we had the Ugliest Man on Campus. The Ugliest Man on Campus concept is an enterprise dedicated to bringing some resource to charitable organizations and one places votes in the form of money to document the most worthy recipient and one year there was a flasher. And I was sitting in class, listening to Professor Davison give his lecture and in slinks a person in a trench coat and it was clear that this was the person campaigning to be the Ugliest Man on Campus. Davison is up at the board lecturing with chalk and the flasher opens his coat. Davison turns around, stunned. He says, "Doesn't turn me on, man, why don't you turn around and show the girls in the front row." And that's the kind of presence that our faculty has.

Chemistry is also a subject that brings out the best in the students. In my own recollections about what takes place, I've seen a common level of commitment. And when I joined the faculty 21 years ago it turns out that we had rather different laws than we do now in the state of Massachusetts. And I recall at the first hour exam that I was giving in Introductory Chemistry, a student coming into class about ten minutes late, completely out of breath, said, "Sorry, professor, I'm late, but I had to steal a car to get here."

Well, I don't expect you to have to steal cars to get to your classes, but I encourage you to come. Some forethought on you part will make it possible for you to arrive on time without stealing a car. Chemistry is a subject which is rather important when you think of it in the big picture. It is a science associated already with a major industry and contributes $15 billion to a positive balance of trade for the United States.

The other two core science classes you will be taking, physics and mathematics, are subjects with which most of you are familiar and also ones in which you have demonstrated excellence. There are a large number of options in this arena and I think you will have to undergo some close consultation with your advisers, and with upper-class advisers that you may meet. Any subjects that you may be taking underlay much in the engineering and science majors that you'll be taking. And a deep understanding of the core subjects in these areas will be essential as you build a foundation for success as you pursue your major. Each of these subjects has remarkable intrigue for the major, but these subjects introduce the principles that will be needed for the vast majority of MIT students.

Beyond the requirements in science, you will find a broad menu of opportunities to fulfill your other scholarly interests, and not incidentally our requirements, in HASS. We are proud of our distinction in these areas and our faculty are anxious to work with you.

You will find individuals here teaching Shakespeare through the innovative, interactive computer system being developed by Professor Peter Donaldson, taking a class from one of three Nobel laureates in economics, or becoming acquainted with the history of science, you will be engaged with world class instructors who want to work with you.

There are many opportunities to pursue strong programs in HASS, and you may find yourself to be a physicist best--selling author--our own Alan Lightman who authored Einstein's Dreams. I judge our HASS programs to be far stronger than you likely imagined and for more critical to your success and happiness than you may feel at the moment.

Let me now conclude by saying a bit about our research enterprise. MIT is a research institution. What does that mean? Well, it's a very large fraction of what goes on here at MIT. Arguably we are the largest and finest academic institution for science and engineering research. As measured in dollars, it's a $700 million dollar per year enterprise. We support and encourage early involvement in research, freshman advising seminars, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and the Edgerton Center. Get involved in research, discover something that others want to learn. You will find that this dimension is one of great importance as you work your way through MIT. There is nothing more personally rewarding than the thrill of discovery! You will be amazed to find how soon you can working on the cutting edge of your field with faculty colleagues.