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Convocation Transcript

President Charles M. Vest delivered the following remarks to the class of 2003 at the President’s Convocation yesterday morning in Kresge Auditorium.

Charles M. Vest

President’s Convocation for the Incoming Class

26 August 1999

I don’t know what to say. I didn’t even know I’d been nominated. But I’d like to thank my mother and my father and my brother and my daughter and -- well, anyway, enough about me. That’s not why we’re here. We’re here to talk about you today. We are here to salute the high hopes, the great ambitions and extraordinary talents of you -- MIT’s Class of 2003!

Now this morning’s reference to the Academy Awards is a reminder that today’s global society seems all too happy to worship its media and sports stars. A fascination with the lives of actors and actresses, of big league athletes and of popular entertainers has been with us for much of this century. But I am here to tell you that you will be the stars of the new millennium. And the next time you watch the Academy Awards by the way, remember that many of the technologies that drive the modern entertainment industry were created at research universities by innovative thinkers like you. It was, after all, an MIT engineer named Herbert Kalmus ’04 who developed the color process for motion pictures. He wanted to credit his alma mater for his achievement, so he called it Technicolor -- and it has changed the way we see our world.

Now, while not many people have heard, perhaps, of Herbert Kalmus, I have no doubt that many of you will become recognized stars in your fields, and that all of you will make the world a better place. Each of you has that spark, that spirit, and that extraordinary ability. Each of you, in his or her own way, has answered the ancient Talmudic principle of tikun olam -- our obligation to repair our world for the sake of ourselves and our children. In other words, each has a responsibility to make a difference. That is why we picked you, and it’s why you picked us. So never think for a minute that you are in the wrong place. You are not here as the result of some computer glitch, or the report of an incompetent educational counselor. You are not here because we happen to need more architecture majors or people from Montana or because someone misread your SAT scores.

You are members of MIT’s freshman class because we believe -- indeed we know -- that you have the intellectual capacity, the energy, the imagination and the personal will to succeed here. We are very proud and excited to have you as students and I hope you are proud and excited to be here. You are here because you believe in excellence. I worry sometimes that many in this great nation have lost their will to excel. But MIT hasn’t lost its will to excel, and neither will you. Whether you have come to study engineering, science, management, humanities, social science, or architecture, you intend to be among the best. During your years here, and in the future, you will be leaders -- leaders as thinkers, doers, entrepreneurs, teachers, designers, managers, artists or athletes. You will be leaders in a world that is changing rapidly, that is increasingly complex, always challenging and fascinating, and often beautiful.

Now, people can attain excellence and accomplishment both as individuals and collectively. Both modes are important, but I must tell you that the collective, or team approach to things is increasingly important. During the coming days and weeks you will be considering the balance between teamwork and individual efforts in many different ways. This will be important to your life at MIT and beyond. The world today needs broader and more integrative thinkers and leaders. I therefore hope that you will strive to gain a broad understanding of the physical, intellectual and social universes we inhabit.

The world also needs people who can commit simultaneously to continuous improvement but also to fundamental change. As most of you have already learned, there is no inherent incompatibility between blue-sky vision and systematic, persistent effort. On the contrary, the two are complementary and reinforcing. You have it in you to do an outstanding job at both.

One of the oldest clichÉs about MIT is that this is the place where the future is invented and, like most clichÉs, it is true. That affects you in two important ways: In one sense, MIT and other great research universities invent the future because our you, our students, are the future. You are the legacy we pass on to a world that urgently needs your creativity, intelligence and expertise. We care deeply about you for many reasons, but not the least is because our success is measured by your success. The other and most immediate way that the future is invented here is through the work done every day by our faculty and, to a remarkable extent, by our students, including our freshmen. Including you. This means that freshman year at MIT is not a rehearsal, or a dry run. This is as real as it gets. By the work you have already done, in your schools and in your home communities, you have proven that you can make a difference in the world around you. The next four years are not preparation or training for your career. Your career really has already begun.

This fundamental truth about MIT is reflected by the fact that many of our most accomplished faculty members began their life’s work as MIT undergraduates. It is also reflected in the way that undergraduates, including freshmen , not only participate in serious research, but also contribute actively to the process of their own education. Along the way, we share some extraordinary opportunities and exciting experiences. Here at MIT, we all learn together; we solve problems together. The results are truly astonishing. Here are a few examples:

Just last week it was announced that Biology Professor Bob Weinberg and his colleagues have demonstrated how to cause human cells to become cancerous -- a truly major achievement in our understanding of that terrible disease. And Professor Steve Lippard in Chemistry and his group have just announced a revolutionary advance in our understanding of how the organometallic compound Cisplatin, which is used to combat certain cancers, modifies the DNA structures with which it comes into contact. And during the spring, Bob Langer and his group in the Chemical Engineering Department and the Harvard-MIT Joint Program in Health Science and Technology created the so called pharmacy on a chip, using solid state microfabrication techniques. These tiny devices, which can be swallowed or implanted make it possible to deliver very precise dosages of medicine at prescribed times, places, and rates. And during the summer, the Chandra X-ray astronomy observatory was placed into space by Shuttle Astronaut Catherine Coleman, MIT Class of 1983. Indeed, parenthetically, 29 MIT alums have been in the US astronaut corps more than from any other civilian university. The Chandra observatory is operated from a control center across the street from our campus in Kendall Square. You’ll hear a bit more about that later. Not only are we looking into deep space through X-ray eyes, we also may someday be able to look into deep space using gravitational eyes as well. MIT and Caltech are working together on the construction of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory, which is designed to help us learn whether gravity waves that were predicted by Einstein in fact exist.

And when construction of the International Space Station is completed, a huge experimental facility the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS, will be placed there in an attempt to learn whether the universe actually does contain vast amounts of antimatter. The AMS project was conceived, and is led, by MIT Physics professor Sam Ting. I hope these few examples give you some idea of the sense of the adventure on which you are about to embark.

Great science is done here. Indeed, 35 MIT faculty, staff members, or alumni have won the Nobel Prize.

And in addition to its inherent excitement and value, science is the foundation of technology, which, time and time again, has reinvented the way we work, live, and learn.

There is no better place than MIT to learn the fundamentals, be exposed to the cutting edge, study at the important interfaces between disciplines, gain the skills of problem solving, and be involved in transforming new knowledge into new products, new processes, services and businesses. And now you are a part of this and a very important part indeed. Be ready every day to make the most of it.

Now take a look around you. You actually will observe an amazing assemblage of people with whom you can connect intellectually, personally, socially. This concentration of brainpower, talent and drive is one of the things that make MIT the absolutely unique and amazing place that it is. That truly is wonderful. But it is also troubling in a sense. I am sure that each one of you is probably accustomed to excelling in every or almost every academic activity you undertake. Out of this entering class of 1,056 students, roughly one third of you were your high school’s valedictorian. And 94 percent of you were in the top 10 percent of your high school class. And no class in the history of MIT faced tougher competition for admission. You are, to say the least, an extremely competitive group. That’s good for us and that’s good for you. But it’s all too easy to overdo the competition in perhaps the wrong way.

I hope that each you will try to strike a healthy balance between competition and camaraderie.

I mention the level of competition here by the way not to intimidate you, but rather so that when you ask yourself “What happened? I used to be at the top of everything!” you will know that the feeling is very, very common among MIT students and if I am to be honest it is common among MIT faculty and is probably common among MIT presidents. So rest assured from all of us that you can succeed at MIT. Your high school teachers knew this. Your parents know it, though they may be a little scared with you and for you and with you right now. The admissions committee knew it and so does the faculty. They are one of the best faculties in the world, and you have, in part, come here because of them. But it is also important for you to also understand that they, the faculty, have come here, in large measure, because of you -- for the privilege of interacting with and of being challenged by you. So when you see them tonight at the welcoming dinner, you should begin, right off the bat, to engage them quite directly. In fact, I’m going to give you a little homework assignment this morning I want you to start thinking right now about the questions you want to the faculty you’ll meet this evening. Remember that it is part of their job and part of their job satisfaction to be here for you. Now I have been privileged to be at MIT for almost a decade, yet I am continually discovering new and rewarding aspects life at the Institute.

There is so much going on that it can sometimes be difficult to try to encapsulate the qualities that make MIT the extraordinary place that it is. But nonetheless, let me give it try. Undergraduate education is considered to be the heart of MIT. The faculty are exceptional researchers to be sure... but in the end they are here because they are teachers. MIT is dedicated to leadership and service to the nation and world: We continually ask: “What are the really important issues facing humankind?” Global environmental change? Advance of biomedical science? Gaining industrial productivity? Improving communications? Supplying energy? And then we ask: How can we contribute? Contribute through our teaching, contribute through our research, contribute through our working with others beyond the boundaries of our campus?

MIT is unique: There simply is no other institution like MIT in the world. Hardly a week goes by without some foreign leader coming here too approach us to discuss plans to create an MIT in his or her country. We pioneered the modern research university and we believe that we still set the global standard. The student culture is like no other. The faculty is like no other. The curriculum is like no other. The spirit of invention, innovation, and discovery is like no other. The heritage of scientific and technological accomplishment is like no other. But the privilege of participation and education within such an institution invest you with certain responsibilities.

I would like to close by commenting on two of these responsibilities: integrity and service. At MIT you will gain important knowledge and skills. But you will also further develop your personal and communal values and attitudes. I believe that we in the university have a responsibility that transcends that of developing and passing on knowledge and skills. This responsibility is to teach you that intellectual and personal integrity are the only substrate on which true research, scholarship and leadership can be built. And I ask you to consciously develop and maintain the highest ethical standards and commitment to personal integrity as you study and live here at MIT. I also hope that you will also develop a keen sense of service. I challenge you to set as one of your goals the use of your considerable talents to be of service to each other, and to your fellow men and women. You can find many ways of doing this while you are students and of course after you have left MIT. And I think It is just critical that you do so. We are counting on you. Thank you very much.