Graduates, families, friends and faculty of MIT shared a vision of world progress and a slightly giddy sense of personal optimism during the Institute's 131st Commencement exercises, held on a cool, clear day in Killian Court last Friday.
Because some students receive more than one degree, the total number of degrees--2,280--exceeded the number of students who received them--2,035. Altogether, 1,023 SB degrees and 1,257 advanced degrees were awarded. The advanced degrees include 247 doctorates, 999 master's degrees and 11 engineer degrees, a professional degree somewhat beyond a master's degree.
The School of Engineering awarded 1,088 degrees, the most among the six schools. The Sloan School of Management awarded 508; the School of Science, 425; the School of Architecture and Planning, 130; the School of Humanities and Social Science, 118, and the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology, 11. Degree recipients included 618 women and 525 members of American minority groups.
In addressing the graduates, President Charles M. Vest noted that they would work in a world "driven by. science and technology, internationalization and changing demography." He urged them to maintain a sense of social responsibility while pursing their careers.
Building on these themes, President Vest said in delivering his charge to the new graduates:
"Take your education, your talent and your energy and build us a nation and a world community that consider knowledge a gift to be shared. a healthy planet a place to be cherished. and human dignity and opportunity fundamental conditions to be enjoyed by all people."
The principal speaker, United Nations Secretary General Kofi A. Annan, noted the similar goals and tactics used in diplomacy and scientific research and called upon the graduates to help maintain continued US support of the UN. Mr. Annan, who earned a master's degree in management from MIT in 1972, also reminisced about his days in Cambridge.
"At the outset," he said, " there was competition--rather intense competition--among my cohorts. Each was equally determined to shine and to demonstrate his leadership qualities. I say 'his' because there were no women among us; I am certainly glad that has changed.
"Walking along the Charles River one day in the middle of my first term, I reflected on my predicament. How could I possibly survive let alone thrive in this group of overachievers? And the answer came to me most emphatically: not by playing according to their rules. 'Follow your own inner compass,' I said to myself. 'Listen to your own drummer.' To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there. My anxieties slowly dissolved.
"What I took away from MIT, as a result, was not only the analytical tools but also the intellectual confidence to help me locate my bearings in new situations, to view any challenge as a potential opportunity for renewal and growth, to be comfortable in seeking the help of colleagues, but not fearing, in the end, to do things my way."
Dr. Paul E. Gray, presiding at his final Commencement as the outgoing chairman of the Corporation, opened the ceremony by calling on baritone Philip Lima, MIT assistant manager for benefits, to sing the national anthem. Mr. Lima, a trained opera singer, had never performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in public.
To prepare for the performance, Mr. Lima said, "I read and re-read the poem, so I could communicate its message. Its original intent--to inspire patriotic fervor, perseverance and determination to overcome obstacles--comes through a very powerful text. Then, I had to make it feel fresh and new."
The entire crowd--numbering more than 10,000, including guests--stood as Mr. Lima walked to the microphone; as "The Star Spangled Banner" rang out in his rich baritone, Campus Police saluted, and numerous guests, particularly those of the Class of '47, wearing their 50th-reunion red blazers, sang along.
The Rev. Constance Parvey, MIT's Lutheran minister, then delivered the invocation. She called upon the Class of 1997 to let their lives be guided by the "good, the just, the true" and "a commitment to build a global society. that holds in guardianship a just world for all people."
Following Mr. Annan's speech, Constantine Morfopoulos, president of the Graduate Student Council, and Pardis Sabeti, president of the Senior Class, made their presentations.
Mr. Morfopolous saluted MIT, urging members of the community to "sow your ideas in the abundant fields of the cosmos. Be bold, generous and grateful for all the Institute has given you."
He used a quote from Goethe--"whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it"--to reflect Commence-ment's general feeling of hope and anticipation, which was enhanced by the presence of babies and toddlers of many nations in their first suits and party dresses.
Ms. Sabeti, who presented the class gift to President Vest, referred gaily to "those of you who survived ICE (Integrated Chemical Engineering), Design 2.70 and Course 6 and 1.70. who have seen more Boston sunrises than you'd care to admit," all to quick applause.
"In four crazy years, we've gained the knowledge we need, and now we're entering a new phase. Now we're the ones asking the questions. We gained a great sense of spirit as a class and as a part of MIT," she said. Now, the seniors will "give back to MIT through the new SPICE Fund--Students Promoting an Improved College Experience." The fund will bring speakers and events to MIT students. Thanking the leadership of Class Chairman Pang Lee, the Senior Class Gift, establishing the SPICE Fund, is $60,000, a "record contribution."
Before delivering his charge to the graduates, President Vest offered a tribute to his predecessor as president, Paul Gray. "Paul is completing his service as chairman this July, and after some time off for good behavior, he will return to what he calls the best job at MIT--being a professor. With his lifetime of service to and leadership of the Institute, I consider Paul Gray to be the very personification of MIT, in his integrity, his caring, and his insistence on recognizing and rewarding excellence, wherever it is found.
"As the one who followed in his presidential footsteps, I count no privilege of my office higher than that of having Paul as a counselor, guide and friend. Paul, together with his wife and partner Priscilla, have blessed this place. Now it is our turn to thank them," Dr. Vest said.
In keeping with the day's festive tone, President Vest strayed spontaneously from his prepared text to quote a filmmaker on immortality: "Woody Allen once said, 'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.'
"Nevertheless," President Vest concluded, "achieve immortality through your works. I wish you Godspeed and great good fortune!"
And then the race was on. Not the measured pace of graduates, marching in order from their seats to the stage and back, but the exuberant pace of proud family members as they sought clear photo views of their loved ones in robes, carrying the coveted red folders.
A "bullpen" set up near the orchestra accommodated a limited number of parents. As each page of the program was completed, an usher would tear the number off a large binder, revealing the page of names coming up. A press of parents would then propel a new group onto a two-tiered photo stage.
As President Vest noted, different generations would express their approval for Commencement differently. But the Killian Court proceedings embraced them all, including a romp through the grass in new clothes, a nap in a stroller or a quiet spot among old friends, or a handstand and a cartwheel by graduates upon receiving their diplomas.
Even a very personal sign of loyalty fit well among the rest. Robert N. Creek died before he could celebrate his 50th reunion with fellow MIT members of the Class of '47. But his wife Margaret wore the traditional crimson blazer and gray-and-red tie herself. The fit, she said, was perfect.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 11, 1997.