The 150th anniversary convocation of the signing of MIT’s charter took place Sunday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. It proceeded much like an MIT commencement ceremony, right down to the framing of the huge stage with imitation Killian Court columns.
The size of MIT’s extended family at the convocation numbered in the thousands, with a much larger representation of alumni than current students. Many alumni clubs in other parts of the world also attended gatherings to participate in the convocation via the event’s live webcast.
A little-known Twitter account, #MIT150Convo, tweeted constant updates of this distinctly multimedia event designed to highlight MIT’s unique characteristics.
Prior to the ceremony itself, attendees were engaged by MIT trivia and a timeline of the Institute’s history. The Rambax MIT Senegalese Drum Ensemble accompanied the procession of the speakers, senior officers, deans, and members of the MIT Corporation and the Faculty. They were followed by Institute recipients of Marshall, Rhodes, and Truman scholarships, the Lincoln Laboratory Steering Committee, staff, alumni, and current student leaders. All participants in the procession dressed in full academic regalia.
Chairman of the MIT Corporation John S. Reed ’61 was the first of the spectrum of speakers for the convocation, many of whom emphasized the Institute motto, mens et manus. President Susan J. Hockfield followed Reid’s reflection with a call for the continuation of MIT’s essential contributions to society for another 150 years, citing the Institute’s unchanging “commitment to meritocracy and hard work” throughout its history.
Tenth U.S. Archivist and former MIT Libraries Director David S. Ferriero spoke about restoring the original library of MIT founder William Barton Rogers. Ferriero also remarked that “inventing the future is easy at [MIT],” a sentiment that Institute Professor and Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp corroborated in his speech, saying that “the mission of MIT is to create the future.”
Institute Professor Sheila E. Widnall ’61, who served as U.S. Secretary of the Air Force from 1993 to 1997, followed with yet another perspective of the Institute. As a woman and a self-termed “child of MIT,” Sharp related her unique experience flying in a U-2 plane. “Unless there are any astronauts in the audience, I’ve been higher than any of you here today,” she said.
Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, senior advisor to the President and former MIT chancellor, attested to the Institute’s role as a meritocracy. He recalled MIT’s long-lasting and adaptable relevance, noting the priority of talent over legacy and the ability of Institute goals to change with the needs of society. Clay provided yet another social dimension to MIT’s history, juxtaposing his path and that of Robert R. Taylor, MIT’s first African-American student.
Professor of Management Lotte Bailyn’s speech elaborated on the social development of MIT, saying that between her first visit and today, the number of female faculty has grown from a single woman to 21 percent of the faculty.
Institute Professor Robert S. Langer ScD ’74 recounted how he attempted to use his chemical engineering knowledge to help people through drug delivery instead of accepting one of the many jobs oil companies offered him. His story brought an MIT taste to the age-old lesson of daring to do the seemingly impossible, as he recalled multiple his ignored letters before he achieved success. “People will tell you that it’s impossible, that it will not work,” Langer said. “It’s rarely true; there is very little that is truly impossible.”
Interspersed between the speeches were original compositions by MIT professors Charles Shadle, Elena Ruehr, Keeril Makan, Mark S. Harvey, and Peter B. Child commissioned specifically for the convocation and performed by a conglomeration of MIT ensembles. Among the musical groups present were MIT’s Rambax Senegalese Drum Ensemble, Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Chorus, Concert Choir, Wind Ensemble, Festival Jazz Ensemble, and Jazz Choir.
The most pivotal moment of the afternoon, the re-signing of MIT’s charter, was also among the most lighthearted; signers amusingly struggled to commit their flourished signatures to the screen of an iPad with a quill stylus. Upon finishing his signature, Undergraduate Association President Vrajesh Y. Modi ’11 displayed the iPad document to the crowd in a Lion King-like fashion. The iPad signing received mixed responses, especially considering Ferriero’s remarks in his keynote address about William Barton Rogers fighting to preserve the Declaration of Independence in its original form.
The convocation closed with a jazz rendition of MIT’s alma mater, starting with the MIT Jazz Choir and growing into a unified singing of the masses in attendance.
The MIT150 Convocation served to demonstrate the spirit of MIT today, as well as to reflect upon its past. But the broader, more important theme was how MIT will progress in the future from its foundation.
“We have a responsibility to turn our founder’s tools to the tasks of today,” Hockfield said.