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Vest Addresses Class of 1998

President Charles M. Vest made the following remarks yesterday at the President's Convocation in Kresge Auditorium. The following transcript has been edited slightly.

Good afternoon. I am Charles Vest, president of your university - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As you will learn, the academic year has a certain rhythm, and for me this is the high point - welcoming 1,000 of the nation's and the world's best and brightest young men and women to our campus.

You are about to embark on the challenge and adventure of an MIT education. You are privileged to be here, and we are privileged to have you here.

Now, I know what you are thinking.

Or if you aren't thinking it now, you probably will at other times during your years at MIT.

It's a thought that is harbored at one time or another by virtually every MIT student, and it's not true: You were not admitted by mistake.

You are not the result of a computer glitch, or the report of an incompetent educational counselor. You are not here because we needed more architecture majors or people from Kansas or because someone misread your SAT scores.

You are a member of the freshman class at MIT because we believe that you have the intellectual capacity, energy, imagination, and personal will to succeed and to contribute to this institution.

As you get to know each other, you will quickly sense what a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives you bring to MIT. This can be one of the strongest elements of your education here. You have a remarkable opportunity to get to know - and learn with - others whose experience and outlook are very different from your own. If you seize this opportunity, you will be in a much stronger position to help build the national and world communities of the next century.

One resource to help you make these connections is contained in the packet of materials you received as you checked in. It is a Guide to Studies in Racial, Ethnic and Intercultural Relations at MIT. This booklet includes a listing of some 80 subjects that deal with some aspect of cultural awareness, ethnic diversity, and race relations. You will be surprised at the richness of these offerings, and I strongly encourage you to take advantage of these resources during your undergraduate years at MIT.

Another opportunity to extend your experience in a way that connects with the larger world will be presented to you next Friday, Sept. 2, when the City Days Festival will take place. This is a day for giving and sharing your time and talent with citizens from your new home town - Cambridge. This may take the form of working with elementary school students, assisting in homeless shelters, or working in soup kitchens. We hope that the spirit of City Days will extend beyond this event - and that many of you will join the LINKS program to work with Cambridge elementary schools throughout the year ahead. This has been a wonderfully rewarding program for hundreds of our students over the past few years.

Why you are here . . . and where you are

Now let me say a bit more about why you are here . . . and where you are.

You are here to learn. You are here to develop your considerable talents to the fullest. You are here because you know of MIT's reputation as one of the world's great universities.

That reputation is well deserved. MIT is the foremost university in the world focused primarily on science and engineering. Yet, as you will learn, it is much more than that. It is a place in which artistic creativity thrives; it is a place in which the humanities are central to the educational experience; it is a place with world-class social sciences; it is a place that encompasses great architecture and urban planning; it is a place whose management school is setting the new directions for organizations of the twenty-first century.

Now all universities look to and learn from the past. They all engage in issues of the present. And they all lay the groundwork for the future. But MIT is nearly unique in the level of our engagement with contemporary issues, and especially in the strength and effectiveness of our commitment to shaping, indeed to inventing, the future.

MIT is a place of learning, discovery, and invention. It is a community of learning. Now that is not just a tired phrase; it describes a vital, organic system of teaching, research, and scholarship in which everyone participates.

Education at MIT does not consist of professors simply passing along known facts to students. Of course, there is a basis of disciplined, rigorous facts, methodologies, and styles of thought that you must master. This is the core of your education. But beyond that, through freshman seminars, design teams, study groups, research projects, laboratory experiences, computer programming, artistic and musical performances, discussions on the Athena network, and a wide variety of competitions, you will learn and synthesize in many different ways. A surprising number of you, especially through UROP (the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program) will end up contributing in some way at the cutting edge of science, technology and creative activity.

Let me give you an example. Undoubtedly most of you followed with great excitement the incredible observations of the impact of the Shumaker-Levy comet with Jupiter. Hopefully most of you noted that the team that obtained the fantastic images using the Hubble Space Telescope was led by the MIT astronomer Dr. Heidi Hammel. Now get this: An important role in the Hubble observations was played by Jennifer Mills, an MIT undergraduate UROP student of Dr. Hammel's, who wrote much of the computer code that was used to convert the raw numerical data from Hubble into the clear images we all enjoyed.

This is the MIT you are entering.

What challenges face us?

It is the next step toward the world you will be entering . . . a world that presents enormous challenges and opportunities.

We are living in a time of great change - scientific, technological, economic and social. Our world is connected as never before by instantaneous electronic communication. The economies of the world are linked as never before and the global industrial competition has brought profound change to the companies that many of you will work in after graduation. We have incredible intellectual opportunities as our expanding base of knowledge and scientific instrumentation enable us to explore newer domains of time, space, and matter. Our environment must be understood in much greater detail and must be protected through the development of rational policy. Our education system must be improved. The world's information infrastructure must be designed and assembled in ways that will benefit all of society. Our bridges, highways and water supplies must be rebuilt. We must build an inclusive, just society and solve the problems of violence. We must continue the progress of biotechnology and medical technology as part of the drive to improve human health.

There surely is no lack of great and worthy challenges for you to educate and prepare yourselves to face.

One of the clear, emerging characteristics of scientific and technological advancement is that most contemporary problems require multi-disciplinary teamwork because they are complex and many-faceted. The design of effective consumer products, the establishment of environmentally sustainable societies, the rebuilding of our urban infrastructures, or the development and deployment of new medical treatments all require that knowledge, expertise, and understanding from many different fields be brought together and integrated into a workable solution. This is something that you should think about during your education, and as you look ahead to your careers.

Here is something that the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay said earlier in this century that has remarkable relevance to what faces us today:

Upon this gifted age

in its dark hour

Falls from the sky a meteoric shower of facts.

They lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leach us of our ill is daily spun

But there exists no loom to weave them into fabric.

This is your challenge: You must be the weavers of scientific, technological, social and artistic fabrics - and not simply the generators of showers of facts. You must be scholars, to be sure, but you must be more: You must be problem solvers and combiners and team members as well. And to do that, you must learn not only to analyze, but to synthesize . . . and you must be able to communicate your ideas, logically and persuasively, through the spoken and written word.

These are all big challenges. You are up to them.

Today is the time to begin this quest.

What you should expect

What should you expect of your years at MIT? First, you should expect to work hard. Everyone here does, so I shouldn't beat around the bush about it. You may recall the words of Thomas Edison who said that "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Here at MIT, you will find amazing levels of inspiration - some that will be thrust upon you and others that you must seek out. But, we all know that academic accomplishment does take a lot of hard work.

Hard work at MIT, however, has its joys - the joy of accomplishment and the joy of camaraderie. If you view your university experience as a lonely, solo quest to compete for singular goals, you will miss much of its value. True, part of what you need to accomplish is personal, and you will spend solitary hours in libraries, at computer workstations, or at your desk. But this must be balanced by group experiences. You must strike new balances between competition and cooperation in learning and growth. Frankly, as an institution, we are struggling with how best to help you to create this balance. We are experimenting with new programs such as Team Works, and we are learning to better define when group learning is appropriate, and when individual mastery alone must be encouraged and assessed.

What else can you expect here? You should expect to form friendships that will last a lifetime. You should expect to form a widened world view and personal philosophy that is informed and profoundly influenced by the diversity of background, race, ethnicity, and culture of your new community. Some of you, like myself, come from small towns in Appalachia, others from inner city LA, others from the Great Plains, some from the mill towns of New England, and still others from great capitals around the world.

Let me read you part of a letter to the editor that an MIT alumna wrote to a Texas newspaper a couple of years ago:

"After having spent 10 years of my life in the prominent private schools [of my city], I was naively convinced that all parents were lawyers, doctors or business people. My first week on the MIT campus was a rude yet pleasant awakening - one roommate's father was an electrician; the other refused to speak about her father; a close friend's father drove a bus for the city of New York." She went on to comment that the students she knew and valued were diverse in many ways, but had "the drive, desire, and potential to succeed."

Work together; learn together; grow together. It is not always easy, but you must value and gain from your interactions. Widen your horizons. Learn from your differences. But at the same time never forget that there must be a solid core of values and goals that we all share. These include the centrality of knowledge, learning and discovery, and the necessity of absolute integrity and intellectual honesty.

What we will expect of you

We expect you to learn, grow, explore and contribute to the MIT community.

We also expect that during your years here on campus you come to understand why MIT exists and how its excellence is maintained. Above all else, it remains excellent because of the quality, commitment and creativity of faculty, students, and staff it attracts and nurtures. It is excellent because the federal government has provided great resources to support research and education here.

But it also is great because of the generous gifts of thousands of men and women who graduated before you. Those of you who receive financial aid - and that is most of you - are the direct beneficiaries of those who have stepped forward and said, "I was able to attend MIT because of the generosity of others, and I want those who follow me to attend because they are talented and motivated, regardless of their financial state." This is an important tradition and spirit that we hope you will appreciate while you are here and will perpetuate after you graduate.

We also hope that the MIT Class of 1998 will be the most distinguished ever - distinguished by its quality and attainments during the next four years, and by its commitment and achievements in advancing the world in the next century.

Now, before I close, I have a question for you: How many of you saw our recruiting video?

Remember the skier taking the headlong plunge off the snowy cliff?

Well, now it's your turn.

Let's begin by meeting one of the most interesting and creative thinkers on the world scene - MIT cosmologist Professor Alan Guth.

The next time we will all be gathered together will be four years from now - when we come together in Killian Court, and I address you as MIT's graduating class in 1998.

And now, Professor Alan Guth . . .