The past week was full of celebrations in honor of the inauguration of MIT’s 17th president, L. Rafael Reif. The events reached a peak Friday afternoon with the inaugural ceremony in Killian Court.
The morning dawned clear and sunny, if a bit chilly. There was a nip in the air signaling the colder season ahead as students, faculty, alumni, and other guests piled into Killian Court that afternoon. But underneath the large white tent — which encompassed nearly the entire Court — the mood was anything but cold as audience members took their seats.
Accompanied first by the MIT Ceremonial Brass and then by the Rambax MIT Senegalese Drum Ensemble, the inaugural procession seemed to continue for an eternity as delegates from different universities walked to their seats either on the stage or in the black chairs in front of the stage. Finally, amid the diverse colorful gowns and decorative hats, the audience got its first glimpse of Reif in his regalia as he walked through the pavilion and took his place on the stage.
Robert M. Randolf, chaplain to the Institute, offered his solemn prayer for Reif’s time as president, hoping that Reif “may be wise and surrounded by the learned … so that we stand or fall together.”
Despite the formality of the event, unexpected humor occasionally popped up. Drew G. Faust, president of “that red brick school up the street,” followed Randolf with her own congratulatory and supportive speech. Taking the MIT-Harvard rivalry in good stride, Faust called the two schools “sisters working side by side” and presented Reif with a framed picture of John Harvard’s statue completely decked out in MIT apparel, just “1.9 miles, or in MIT units, 1797 Smoots” away.
Reif stepped onto the podium to deliver his inaugural speech after receiving and accepting the charter of MIT “with the full sense of the magnitude of my responsibility.”
“I am just the steward of something much bigger than myself,” Reif humbly stated, after thanking the audience for celebrating the inauguration with him. Centering his speech on the future of education, which was also the theme for Friday’s symposium, he said that “higher education has reached a historically important, but difficult, crossroads — one full of opportunities, but also full of risks.”
Calling upon the students, faculty, staff, post-docs, alumni, and friends to join him in the great historical challenge of the future of higher education, Reif said that MIT has “two choices — to take part … or watch from the sidelines.” He immediately dismissed the idea of sitting out the challenge. Describing the path he believes MIT should take in confronting the future, he acknowledged that there are risks, especially financially, of higher education — but he believes that the opportunities available outweigh the dangers.
Though addressing the future of higher education is a daunting task, Reif will not do it alone. “MIT should help define the frontier” to the future, he said. “I want MIT to play a leadership role — and I need your help.”
“I am determined to find the right way to address these questions, and I will seek advice from across our community on how best to proceed,” continued Reif, calling on “our brilliant army of nearly 11,000 students.”
Apart from the academic and international aspects of education, Reif has “big dreams and goals for MIT, hoping everyone will “feel at home at MIT,” just as MIT is a home for him. Reif proposed a reciprocal relationship between the president’s office and the community: “Keep teaching me, and I will keep listening and learning. All I ask, in return is the following: continue to be open-minded.”
Acknowledging that he is still learning, Reif thanked the previous four MIT presidents, including the late Jerome B. Wiesner, for their influence and advice. Finally, Reif thanked his parents for their part in his journey to “the dream I never dared to dream.”
Reif’s last supportive words? “We have a great deal to accomplish, and the world is waiting. So let’s get started.”
Immediately following the ceremony, everyone went to the next tent for a reception, which was soon flooded with people. The Tech was able to talk with President Reif and MIT’s 16th President, Susan J. Hockfield, for a few minutes.
When asked about his thoughts following the ceremony, Reif said he was “thrilled.” “I’m just thrilled. At the reaction from the students, from everyone,” he said.
Reif “has a great plan outlined. It’s the start of a new era for MIT,” added Hockfield. She mentioned that she will be taking a quiet year “on sabbatical, but I will be on call to help if [Reif] ever needs my advice.” Hockfield was recently named a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Students were also receptive to Reif’s inaugural address.
“His speech renewed and reaffirmed my love of MIT. I felt a swell of pride forming within me; during his address, I could not have felt more connected to the community of MIT peers and faculty,” said Jennie O. Zheng ’15. “What struck home for me were the comments Reif made about access to education to everyone, whether he be lucky enough to attend MIT or just a student with limited resources who thirsts for knowledge and wants improve his quality of life.”
Freshmen were especially excited about Reif’s inauguration — “I think it’s cool that he was inaugurated during my freshman year,” Jiwon J. Kim ’16 commented. Sruthi A. Narayanan ’16 called him “inspirational,” and Tiffany B. Wong ’16 agrees: “He has good ideas, and I think he will make MIT a better place.”