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Smith Advises Freshmen on Choices, Consequences

Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Arthur C. Smith made the following remarks yesterday at the President's Convocation in Kresge Auditorium. The following transcript has been edited slightly.

I have a couple of words to say first about choices and consequences. One of the things we try to do at MIT is to give you lots of choices. Some of them are obvious to you. For example you're going to start very shortly an important choice on where you're going to live.

You may have noticed if you talked to your friends from high school that this is not the way the university they go to does it. At least that's generally true. All the students that I know who are going elsewhere knew in the middle of summer that they were going to live in Room 215 in Adams Hall with someone who's name they knew - but that's all they knew.

We decided quite some time ago that was not really the way we wanted to start MIT students out on their career. We want you to choose. We want you to think about it: What the choice is and what its consequences are.

It's not a choice that's going to have terrible consequences; almost all students who have made the choice rather like where they live. They often live there for four years.

But it is a choice and it is one we ask you to make. We will not give you time enough to make it. We will not give you all the information you need. We are simulating real life.

I can tell you for sure it would make your parents more comfortable if they knew where your room was now and they could move in with you and get all your stuff settled. Of course you would have to disassemble it and make it your own.

That is a choice that has consequences. Use good sense and it will be a good choice.

You have some other choices to make academically. You get to choose your major. You get to choose how many units you take - after the first year. You can choose to do your assignments or punt them. You can choose whether to go to class. You can choose whether to stay awake or fall asleep. All of those choices have some consequences. Use good sense and you'll do alright.

You have some choices in lifestyle. No one is going to tell you when to get up. No one is going to tell you when to go to sleep. No one else will clean your room. No one will tell you it is time to eat, or what did you have for dinner tonight.

No one will give you good advice about what other substances you might ingest and in what amounts. All of those decisions, all those choices have consequences. Use good sense and you'll be alright.

I hope everyone gets to choose a lifestyle that involves some exercise. MIT has a lot of opportunities for that and I know that it's kept me sane for over 35 years to play squash three mornings a week. You can find your own way of doing it, but I recommend it highly in this particular environment.

I also recommend activities with others. Quite often your education is limiting you to a somewhat solitary and perhaps even selfish activity. There are lots of opportunities to do things with other people. We have assembled with you in this room probably the most impressive collection of people you will ever be together with for four years. Take advantage of them, do things with them and for them.

Let me move from choices and consequences to a few quick words on what I call real life. People often refer to the non-academic world outside the boundaries of MIT as the real world. That has some virtues, I suppose, but it has some implications which say that while your at MIT it's not real. I just want to be sure you remember that a lot of real life goes on.

If you choose to cross Mass. Avenue against the light, you may find yourself facing some consequences you didn't intend. Since I expect to see 95 percent of you on that morning that Chuck alluded to in Killian Court, I hope you won't do that.

Also, my office looks out on the crossing of Mass. Avenue, and I have a pretty delicate stomach.

Extrapolate that to matters of your personal safety where and when you walk in Cambridge and its environs. What happens when you have unprotected sex and the risk of AIDS. There are all sorts of real things that haven't been put on hold just because you're a student at MIT.

We had an unfortunate incident a few years ago where everybody had a good deal of concern for public safety. And I heard a student say, "Hey! It's MIT's job to keep you safe." No. You have a responsibility for yourself; there's only so much we can do. Keep that in mind. You have responsibilities for yourself. You have actions to take.

Also there will be things that happen outside of MIT which will affect you. I had a student, an advisee, who came into my office one day and said, "My younger brother is in Beirut. They're bombing the city. What can I do?" I didn't have the answer to that crucial question. We talked. And, in fact, we eventually worked out a way to get him back home for a while to be with his family.

Just last year one of my advisees came back from Christmas, and I said, "How did it go?" She said, "My parents are were just waiting for me to go off to college." That was a tough hour too.

There will always be tough hours for somebody. Life goes on outside MIT, life goes on inside MIT. Be prepared for that and look for help.

And that brings me to the next line, which is sort of a commercial for the Dean's Office: We're there to help - in lots of different ways.

My vie that I have is a word that I haven't quite figured out how to give to you in the five minutes allotted to me. So I condensed it all into one short phrase: Be a doer. Don't just sit and listen. You can take your classes at MIT and think you have done well, by sitting and listening, reproducing on the problem sets and so forth. Be a doer. You know what that means, just do it.