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Vest’s Convocation Address

Charles M. Vest

President’s Convocation for the MIT Class of 2005

23 August 2001

I am Charles Vest, President of MIT.

I may not be a “Survivor”, but I do have a great job. And one of the very best parts of being MIT’s president is what I get to do right now. It is my great privilege and honor to formally welcome each of you to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and to the MIT Class of 2005!

You are on this day a full member of an extraordinary community - the community of MIT. This is Day One of a relationship that we hope will enrich you for the remainder of your life - a relationship with our faculty, staff, graduate students, returning undergraduates, our alumnae and alumni, and each other.

But before I talk a bit more about the wonderful opportunities before you, I know we need to address a concern that is haunting you. A concern that I can promise you 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 Montana 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 intelligence, the energy, the imagination and the personal will to succeed here. You have the right stuff.

We are very proud and excited to have you as students -- and I hope you are proud and excited to be here. You probably are.

What is this Place?

And you are probably wondering: just what have I gotten myself into? What is this place? And what is it that makes MIT different?

For one thing...MIT began 140 years ago as a new idea in the world of higher learning. Not as a place of scholarship set apart from the world, not as an ivory tower, but as a place of the world.

MIT is grounded in science; great science happens here. And science is the foundation of technology - which, time and time again, has reinvented the way we live and work in the world.

MIT is a place where people want not only to discover the world, and how it works, but also to make it better. And we have done just that.

MIT’s faculty, staff, and graduates have been key to developing a huge catalog of ideas, discoveries, and inventions that have changed our world: Ecology. Chemical engineering. Technicolor. Cybernetics. Computer-aided design. RNA splicing. Artificial skin. Atom lasers. Magnetic core memory. Chaos theory. Linguistic theory. The World-Wide Web. Synthetic penicillin. Radar. Quarks. The list could go on.

Our faculty, alumni and staff have received 47 Nobel Prizes.

And they have founded over 4000 companies.

We can put a police car on the great dome, and we can put a man on the moon!

How does this happen? What is it about MIT that makes these things possible?

First, we think every student should be a partner in research and discovery... whether in the classroom or laboratory. A lot of the learning here is hands-on. That’s what our faculty do, and we think it’s the best way to keep our teaching and learning interesting and exciting. Here at MIT, we all learn together, and we all solve problems together.

Second, we give you the tools of science and logic and creativity and reflection, and the opportunities to use them.

Third, we try to make campus life here both stimulating and you opportunities to explore new activities and friendships, as well as new ideas. Our job is to open up your world.

Finally, we place our confidence in you. With these tools and opportunities, and with our guidance, you will become your own best teacher.

So this is the place you have come to. We will expect a great deal of you, but only because we know that you’re capable of great things.

And it begins now.

A Day of Great Beginnings

This is a day of great beginnings. Look around this room - at the hundreds and hundreds of faces. A few we might know - perhaps even more than a few, for those who took part in one of our Pre-Orientation Programs. But not one of us knows more than a relative handful. Yet in this room today are people with whom we will share some part of the rest of our lives.

I count myself as someone whose life will enriched by some of you. There will be opportunities - in the days and years to come - for us to sit beside each other, as learners and teachers together.

In some ways, that is the essence of a university: people living and learning together. For the most part, the people you form the strongest bonds with will be your fellow students. The connections and the friendships that you make here will last for years. Some will last a lifetime.

But I hope you will get to know some members of our community who carry titles other than “fellow student”. This is important.

Believe it or not, those students who say they have had a great experience here are most likely to be those who have come to know at least one faculty member well. So put this at the top of your list: get to know one or more faculty or staff members here at MIT.

An excellent way to get to know faculty members is through UROP - our “Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program”. There are hundreds of research projects out there - just waiting for you. But research is just one way to get to know a faculty member. Perhaps you will discover that you share a love for old Bob Marley tunes, or that by coincidence you have been snowboarding on the same trails together.

Or here’s one - one that might surprise you. There is actually a good chance that you know things that members of our faculty wish they knew. Yes, they are teachers and scholars, but you might be able to show one of them how to share directories between a Palm Pilot and a cell phone, or how to think differently about a math problem or a poem or the latest in music.

Seriously. We are teachers and learners together. You have come here to learn, and we have much to share with you. But do not lose sight of the fact that you have much to share as well.

We are, in short, a learning community - on the road to discovery together.

A Time of Unprecedented Change and Opportunity

And I must say, you have an excellent sense of timing: You are entering MIT at a moment of unprecedented change and opportunity. At no time since the end of World War II has MIT undergone such change - educationally, intellectually or physically.

The physical change is most immediately obvious: it is hard to overlook the large cranes that are at work on buildings all over campus. But that physical change is easily matched in importance by the exciting educational and intellectual frontiers we are exploring.

And where there is change and exploration, there is opportunity - for you! Let me highlight just a few of these frontiers:

* First, the evolution of the Internet and the advance of pervasive computing shows no signs of slowing, and probably won’t. This is an area that needs not only brilliant science and engineering, but good sense in how they should be applied.

* Second, modern communications have generated growing interconnections among the world’s peoples, activities and economies. We need creative, broad-thinking leaders for this global society. You could be one of them.

* A third frontier is nanotechnology. Think what you could do if you could build tiny machines out of individual atoms. That technology is just around the corner. And it could lead to such things as computers that are a thousand times more powerful but use only a millionth the amount of electricity.

* And then there is the whole area of biotechnology. Now that the basic sequencing of the human genome has been accomplished - much of which was done here at the MIT-Whitehead Genome Center, by the way - we are embarking on a scientific adventure that will lead to dramatic advances in medicine, energy, agriculture and more.

* Another great frontier is neuroscience - which will revolutionize our understanding of the human brain and mind. The neurosciences may not only lead to treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, they may help us to remember better, learn better, and communicate better.

* Yet another challenge - and this is a big one - is how to protect and enhance our environment, while making it possible to build and sustain healthy economies. We need a world that prizes clean air and water, even as it builds strong industries. You could help get us there.

And underneath this all is an entire universe of mysteries within, around and beyond us. The bottom line is this: it’s not what we know, but what we don’t know that will make the difference in the long run. We must continue to explore the unknown - from atoms to the Antarctic, from microlasers to macroeconomics, from genomes to galaxies, from the mysteries of the heart to the mysteries of the mind.

Some of these explorations will have great payoffs to our health and well-being...and all will be worth the trip.

A Full Participant

I know that each of you has worked to get here and that you probably see MIT as a great opportunity to prepare for your future. But I’ve got news for you. MIT is much more than preparing for your future. This is your future. Your time at MIT is not a rehearsal, or a dry run. This is as real as it gets.

And you are now a part of this great adventure. Be ready every day to make the most of it.

Remember also that, if you need help, advice, guidance - from your teachers, your fellow students, or from any of MIT’s staff - the smart thing to do is ask.

An MIT education is rigorous and intense, but no matter how smart you are, no one expects you to figure everything out on your own. If you aren’t here to benefit from the wisdom, experience, and intelligence of others, then there’s no point in being here. We are a learning community.

I know you will achieve extraordinary things, both at MIT and in the larger world while you are here, and as you continue in your careers. Take advantage of your time here to explore yourself as well as the world. Take time for reflection and contemplation, and make your personal growth as much a priority as your academic and professional growth.

So work hard, have fun, and - precisely because you are so full of promise and ability - please look out for, and take care of, yourselves and each other.

Again, on behalf of all of us at MIT, welcome to your next great adventure. And go for it!

Thank you very much.

* * *

Now that you’ve been subjected to the obligatory observations of your university’s president, let’s move on to address the real reason you came to MIT - to be with great scholars and teachers.

It is my great pleasure to introduce one such person to you now. He is Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology in our Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

But that hardly describes his range of interests: you might think of him as a cognitive neuroscientist...or a linguist...or a sociologist. He is all that - and more. He is a daring and creative scientist, a pungent public commentator on individual and social behavior, a fellow of many scholarly societies, and one of our most popular and gifted teachers.

Steven is the author of five books - so far - including: How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct...both of which were placed among the ten best books of the decade, or the 100 best books of the century, by various publishers or societies.

He himself was once named by Newsweek as one of the 100 Americans for the Next Century.

Where did this man come from - and what is he doing here?

Well, he is a native of Montreal, where he did his undergraduate work at McGill.

He did his graduate work at Harvard, receiving his Ph.D. in experimental psychology in 1979. Three years later, he joined the faculty here at MIT, and has been here ever since.

Both in the classroom and the lab, he works with undergraduate and graduate students on such subjects as visual cognition, language acquisition, the psychology of language, and even the evolution of language, which he has described as the “survival of the clearest.”

I am delighted that he is here to give you the first glimpse into what the MIT faculty have to offer you.

Please welcome Professor Steven Pinker.