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President Vest Welcomes Class of 1999

MITPresident Charles M. Vest gave the following address at the President's Convocation, 2 p.m. Thursday in Kresge Auditorium.

Good afternoon. I am Chuck Vest, President of MIT. And you are the MIT Class of 1999!

Now, I know what you are thinking. It is a thought that is harbored at one time or another by virtually every MIT student. Let me assure you that it is not true: you were not admitted by mistake. You are not here as 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 - we know - that you have the intellectual capacity, the energy, the imagination and the personal will to succeed here. And we are confident that you will bring to us as much as we have to offer you.

Let me tell you the first thing that strikes me as I stand here. It may surprise you, but I envy you. Just think: you are about to set forth on an extraordinary adventure, and you will be entering the new millennium prepared with all the tools of an MIT education. This is a great privilege. And it is a great privilege for us to have you as members of the MIT community.

Ours is a unique group of men and women who are devoted to learning - learning in its many forms. This means learning by formal study and teaching, learning by disciplined research, learning by doing and by working on real problems, and above all, learning from each other.

Your experiences as MIT students will play very important roles in defining your lives. This remarkable institution will be a gateway and a guide to your future in very profound ways. During your years here, we hope that you will dream great and worthy dreams, and that you will obtain many of the skills and insights needed to achieve them.

For our part, we hope to strengthen your commitment to the world of the mind. We intend to teach you to connect the theoretical and analytical to the practical and the real. We hope to intensify your appreciation of knowledge of the past and your dedication to the future. Above all, we want you to understand in the deepest way possible that the world is not something that happens to you - it is something you can shape and contribute to mightily.

What should you expect about studying and learning at MIT? First off, MIT is a place that values hard and effective work. I should be very honest about this. We expect you to study and work hard. On the other hand, we avoid the trivial in what we ask you to think about and do. We also know that most of you will realize the joy of accomplishment and the rewards of deep learning.

What MIT is not about is "credentialing." It is about learning - learning to understand and apply fundamental principles, acquiring skills and "know-how," and being exposed to many of the finest minds anywhere - and this includes your fellow students as well as the faculty. It is also about having the opportunity to consider the context, meaning and potentials of science, technology and their applications.

Of course, your MIT degree will be highly respected throughout the world. It is a valuable credential. But the reason it is valued is that everyone knows that the students who come to MIT are among the best and the brightest, and that they have succeeded in a rigorous, up-to-the-minute education.

Educational rigor characterizes the MIT experience - whether you major in engineering, science, the humanities or social sciences, architecture or management. MIT thinks about and works on "big" subjects - major issues facing humankind. Faculty and students study and work on fundamental scientific and technological problems, to be sure, but they do so right along with work on the challenges presented by the environment, manufacturing, macroeconomics, energy, defense, transportation, biotechnology, global networking and telecommunications, and the like.

Through both formal classroom study, and through programs like UROP, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, we hope that you will devote some time to such matters, regardless of whether you aspire to be a cutting-edge bench scientist, or a corporate or political leader.

This brings me to another point about learning at MIT. You may be thinking that these next four years will prepare you for the real world. Well, it's time to get yourself out of the "preparation" mind-set. Real life begins today. Right here at MIT.

Don't think of yourself as a container to be filled with information and skills by faculty lectures. MIT is an active place. And learning at MIT is active. You are about to enter into a collaborative partnership in learning - learning for innovation and learning for leadership. Leadership and teamwork are closely interdependent: They feed on each other.

Your partners are other students. Teaching others (and being taught by them) is one of the keys to learning. Indeed, something that is very much on our minds these days is the perceived tension between individual achievement and group accomplishment. Academia has traditionally valued individual excellence, and we certainly still do. As you might imagine, students at MIT tend to be very competitive with each other. In most circumstances this is healthy, but modern organizations, whether in business, government or academia, deal with problems that are very complex. So group work -team work - is increasingly important.

You will have many opportunities, both formal and informal, to gain the ability to communicate effectively, and to work together to integrate the efforts of many to achieve a goal. Take advantage of them, and recognize their value to you.

Your partners are also the hundreds of individuals who make up MIT's faculty and senior research staff. Make contact with them, and keep up those contacts over your years here. Don't assume they are too preoccupied with their loftier godlike enterprises to be bothered with the likes of you. You are a central part of their mission here. You will meet them in class, of course. And the UROP program that I mentioned earlier is another way for you to work with faculty, as part of their research teams. Most students do this at one time or another, although usually not as first term freshmen.

You do have an opportunity this fall, however, to form a lasting partnership with at least one faculty member. And that is in the Freshman Advisor Seminars, which well over 90 percent of you have opted to join. Ask your friends at other universities and colleges how many of them get to gather for a couple of hours every week in a close circle with a half-dozen other freshmen and a world-renowned faculty mentor, and spend that time talking about ideas, trying out hands-on learning, and exchanging insights about life issues. Your freshman advisor seminar is a unique opportunity to do just that. I hope you will take advantage of it from the outset.

Now let me tell you a little secret about the professors at MIT. You may wonder how we maintain a faculty of such world-class distinction. Is it because MIT always pays them more than other universities? No. Is it because our laboratories and facilities are superior to others? Often this is the case; sometimes, frankly, it is not. Is it because housing costs are so low in the Boston area? I don't think so.

The fact is that if you ask MIT professors why they are at MIT, nine times out of ten they will say emphatically "Because of the students!" That is, because MIT students are bright, interesting, creative, challenging and fun to work with. There is a unique quality and culture among MIT students, and it is unmatched anywhere else. We are, indeed, privileged to have you here.

I should also warn you that there will be times when you will be certain that we have forgotten that we are privileged to have you here. There will be times when your self-confidence will wane. Believe me, this happens to all of us. But you will overcome these feelings. You have what it takes, and you will succeed wonderfully.

Now this brings me back to you - MIT's Class of 1999. Look about you. Your class is not simply one whose talents, abilities and aspirations stack up against any group of first-year students in the world. Your class is also one of the most diverse in America:

You come from every state and from scores of other countries.

This year, for the first time, over 40 percent of you are women, and it's about time!

You come from an extraordinary array of ethnic, racial, economic, cultural and religious backgrounds.

What you have in common are brains, determination, a belief in the importance of education, and now, a distinguished Cambridge address - 77 Massachusetts Avenue.

As you get to know each other, you will quickly sense the wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives you bring to MIT. This can be one of the strongest elements of your education here. Learn from each other. Learn together. Be proud of who and what you are, but be prouder still of what we can become together. Diversity is most valuable when we weave its various threads together to achieve a coherent whole.

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.

In closing, I should tell you that I think this convocation is the most energizing event of the academic year. To have this entire class assembled in one place at one time, filled with that wonderful mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension, and having four defining years immediately ahead of you, is just spectacular.

You join an astounding procession of previous MIT freshmen. They include: Richard Feynman who revolutionized 20th Century physics; Shirley Jackson, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; I. M. Pei, one of the world's best recognized architects; Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation; Katharine Dexter McCormick, pioneer of modern contraception and of women's right to vote; John Reed, Chairman of Citicorp; and many others whose names you may or may not recognize, but who have made immense contributions to society.

This is an extraordinary moment. But there will be one more moment that you will find even more exhilarating, and that is when we gather together as an entire class in Killian Court - the great court of MIT - for your Commencement in June, 1999. I look forward to seeing you there!

Now before I introduce the next speaker, I have one 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.