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Convocation Transcript


Indeed, I am Chuck Vest, and I am enormously privileged to serve as MIT's president.

But more to the point this morning, you are the MIT Class of 2004! So here you are full of energy, excitement, enthusiasm, intelligence and undoubtedly a little unspoken apprehension heading into new territory joining one of the most important, innovative and intense academic communities in the world. The skit we just watched suggested that entering MIT is like appearing on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Just enroll, learn about technology, graduate and become the next Bill Gates. Others undoubtedly will tell you that MIT will be more like Survivor. Indeed, this week in The Tech, our student newspaper, you will read many conflicting views, opinions and advice about life and learning at MIT.

(I told The Tech that I would give them a plug and wear the T-shirt they gave me, but their logo turned out to be on the back of the shirt - not the front - so I am foregoing that.)

Last year, after this convocation, one of the new students wrote in The Tech something to the effect that I was ridiculously optimistic in what I had to say. Well, as I survey the Class of 2004, think about the enormous opportunity space before you, ruminate on the changing and generally peaceful world in which we live, and consider the remarkable community and resources that MIT will provide you, I am indeed optimistic - wildly optimistic.

Furthermore, I am confident that you do not view the life and education before you at this world-class university as an analogue to some silly television show.

I know that you have decided to come here be a member of a remarkable academic community that will challenge you, inspire you, widen your horizons, and help you define and realize your goals. It is a community that is rich in discovery, innovation, vision and intellectual power. You have chosen to become part of an institution that is broad in scope, yet holds science at its core. Science is part of the human adventure - a way of knowing, discovering and understanding our world. It also provides the new knowledge that makes technology and health care possible. Furthermore, the resolution of many profound issues that your generation will face in your personal, professional and political lives will require scientific understanding. A healthy environment for our earth, a robust, sustainable economy that uses energy, food and material resources efficiently, and an advancing quality of care of physical and mental health are attainable only through the development and wise application of scientific knowledge.

So preparing for life and leadership in the 21st century by developing quantitative reasoning skills and a deep grasp of physical and biological science is a very sensible - and exciting - thing to do.


And I do hope that you aspire to some form of leadership. It is said that a leader is one who takes us elsewhere. There are many ways of leading.

And each of you has that spark, that spirit, and that extraordinary ability to lead - to "take us elsewhere." That is why we picked you, and why you picked us.

So never think for a minute that you are in the wrong the place. You are not here as the result of a computer glitch, or the report of an incompetent educational counselor.

You are not here because someone misread your SAT scores. You are a member of the MIT Class of 2004 because we believe - 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 much of this nation has lost its 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, art, or architecture, you intend to be among the best.

During your years here, and in the future, you will be leaders - as thinkers, doers, entrepreneurs, teachers, designers, managers, artists or athletes. You will do so in a world that is rapidly changing, 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 collective, or team approaches are 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 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 incremental improvement and 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 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 least 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 aren't preparation or training for your career. Your career has already begun. This fundamental truth about MIT is reflected in 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. Here at MIT, we all learn together, and we all solve problems together. The results are truly astonishing. Here are a few examples:

This summer, the working draft of the sequence of the Human Genome was basically completed and published. MIT professor Eric Lander and the students, faculty and staff at the MIT-Whitehead Center for Genome Research were at the epicenter of this historic effort.

Also this summer, MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science launched an ambitious project to create a new form of computer system that will be as available and easy to use as the oxygen in the air we breath. I am confident that many of you will be directly involved in this project - the Oxygen Alliance - as it proceeds.

During the spring, Professor Mriganka Sur and his research group demonstrated that when an animal's brain is rewired so that visual input is directed to the auditory cortex, this part of the brain dedicated to hearing is able to respond to visual stimuli. So what you say? Well, just think about the implications of this for the ancient debate about whether the brain is genetically programmed or shaped by its environment.

The day after last year's freshmen convocation, he first images from Chandra - the new X-ray astronomy astrophysical observatory - were published. By the way, Chandra was placed into space by Shuttle Astronaut Catherine Coleman, MIT Class of 1983, and it is operated from a control center across the street in Kendall Square.

And in a very different domain of human activity, last January the Metropolitan Opera celebrated the new millennium by premiering the opera The Great Gatsby, which it had commissioned from MIT Music Professor John Harbison.

I hope these examples give you some idea of the adventure on which you are about to embark.

Great science is done here. Great creativity abounds.

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 live and work in the world.

There is no better place 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, processes, services and businesses. You are a part of this now - a valued part. Be ready every day to make the most of it.


Now look about you. You will observe an amazing assemblage of people with whom you can connect intellectually. This concentration of brainpower is one of the things that make MIT the absolutely unique and amazing place it is. That is wonderful, but it is also troubling in a sense.

You are probably accustomed to excelling in every - or almost every - academic activity you undertake. Out of this entering class of 1,023 students, 40 percent of you were your high school's valedictorians. And 89 percent of you were in the top 5 percent of your high school class. No class in the history of MIT faced tougher competition to get here: we had 10,673 applicants.

You are, to say the least, an extremely competitive group. That is good for us and for you. But it is all too easy to overdo the competition. I hope that each you will try to strike a healthy balance between competition and camaraderie.

I mention the level of competition here 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.


But rest assured that you can succeed at MIT. Your high school teachers knew this.

Your parents know this, though they may be a little scared for you and with you right now. The admissions committee knew it, too. 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's also important for you to know that they have come here, in part, because of you - for the privilege of interacting with and being challenged by you.

And when you see them this week, you should engage them directly. In fact, I want you to start thinking now about the questions you want to ask them. Remember that it is part of their job - and part of their job satisfaction - to be here for you.


I have been at MIT for a decade, yet I am continually discovering new and rewarding aspects of Institute life.

There is so much going on that it can sometimes be difficult to encapsulate the qualities that make MIT the special place that it is - but after ten years, I ought to be able to take a reasonable shot at it.

So here goes:

Undergraduate education is considered to be the heart of the Institute. The faculty are exceptional researchers to be sure . . . but 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 most important issues facing humankind?" Global environmental change? Biomedical advances? Industrial productivity? Communications? Energy? And then we ask: How can we contribute - in our teaching, our research, and our work with others?

MIT is unique. There is no other institution like MIT in the world. Hardly a week goes by without some foreign leader approaching us to discuss plans to create an "MIT" in his or her country. We were the first modern research university - and 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 and discovery is like no other. The heritage of scientific and technological accomplishment is like no other.


MIT is a dynamic, constantly evolving institution.

We have just established an unprecedented partnership with Cambridge University, one that we believe will help to define the global, interconnected, university of the 21st century. It will create unique new opportunities for undergraduate study.

And many if not all of you will participate in innovative educational experiments and experiences made possible by the d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education and the Microsoft I-Campus Alliance.

During your undergraduate years, you will observe the construction of the huge new Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences; a state-of-the-art sports and fitness center; a major expansion of the Media Laboratory; well-conceived and designed new spaces for living and learning; and a continual improvement of classrooms, teaching laboratories, and information infrastructure. That's the good news.

The bad news is that we will all put up with a lot of dirt and noise from construction in the meantime. But it will be exciting dirt and noise!


Now 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 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 at MIT.

I also hope that you will also develop a sense of service. I challenge you to set as your goal 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 after you have left MIT.

It is critical that you do so. We are counting on you. So let's get started!

Thank you very much.