PRESIDENT CHARLES M. VEST
CHARGE TO THE GRADUATES
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
CAMBRIDGE, MASS., JUNE 6, 1997
ACCEPTANCE OF THE CLASS GIFT
Thank you, Ms. Sabeti. It is a moving experience to receive a gift from the class at a moment like this - after all we've put you through!
This fund will stand as a lasting tribute to the spirit of the Class of 1997. It comes at an especially appropriate moment - as we take a fresh look at how to improve the living and learning experience for all of our students. I know your vision and generosity will serve as a model to other classes.
Thank you very much.
A COMMENT ON RITUAL
Once again we are gathered in Killian Court - the Great Court of MIT - to celebrate accomplishment, heritage, and passage.
It may seem a bit odd that a community so dedicated to the future would come together on this occasion dressed in strange and colorful medieval regalia. But indeed it is fitting, and seemingly fulfilling of deep human needs, that such rituals take place. They remind us of our role in an unbroken, centuries-old chain of discovery, learning, and accomplishment - achievements of mind and of spirit.
But above all, this ceremony celebrates your accomplishments during your student years. This is not to say that you have accomplished the remarkable feat of graduating from MIT all on your own, however! We are surrounded by parents, family, friends, spouses, and children who have supported and sustained you through the years. Let me simply add my thanks to yours, for all they have done to make this day possible.
It is also especially wonderful to see the babies and small children who come to see their mothers and fathers graduate. They too are welcome. And as this ceremony stretches onward, I give them special presidential approval to comment upon the proceedings... at any time and in any manner they see fit.
TRIBUTE TO PAUL E. GRAY
Before issuing my charge to the graduating class, I would like to note that this is a graduation of sorts for one person here on this stage...the person who is presiding over Commencement for the last time today. I refer, of course, to the Chairman of the MIT Corporation, Paul Edward 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.
TECHNOLOGY, EDUCATION, BUSINESS AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
By now, you may be tired of the predictable onslaught of statements about the Twenty-First Century, the New Millennium, and the Year 2000. Thus, I will desist from using those particular rhetorical flourishes. Nonetheless, I do believe that you will play out your personal and professional lives in an era that will be very different from that your parents and most of us here on the platform have experienced.
The differences, I believe, will largely be driven by three forces: science and technology, internationalization, and changing demography. Thus, as graduates of MIT, you will have unusual responsibilities - and opportunities - because these forces have been integral to your education here.
This morning, I would like you to consider your professional and social responsibility in a world that is undergoing profound shifts - not the least of which is a shift in - indeed, a rebalancing of - the roles traditionally held by the public and private sectors of our society.
Rebalancing the Private and Public Sectors
What do I mean by rebalancing the roles of the private and public sectors? Most of us would recognize that two major themes of the current decade are competitiveness and privatization. There is less trust in governments, and more trust in business and market efficiency. Central planning has generally been found to be a failure, and entrepreneurial activity is increasingly valued. As both parties in the United States Congress and Administration pledge to balance the federal budget, many long-standing programs will be reduced or eliminated.
These shifts from the public to the private sector hold many implications - one of which is a realignment of social responsibilities. Increasingly, industry will be called on to address issues of common good that extend beyond the traditional principles of market-driven efficiency and shareholder value. And you will be charged with seeing this through.
Let me suggest three areas in which these changing circumstances will offer you both greater opportunity and greater responsibility. They are:
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Sharing Scientific and Technological Knowledge
First, some comments about creating and sharing scientific and technological knowledge: Our nation and world are the beneficiaries of an unprecedented reservoir of knowledge about science and technology. This reservoir has been developed and continually replenished largely by two sources - federally supported university research, and research conducted in corporate laboratories. Federal support of university research is waning, and is in danger of falling well below its necessary level. And in recent years, corporate research has largely been refocused on shorter-term, often proprietary, development. This is understandable in the current competitive climate, but is likely to contribute less and less to the base of knowledge that is shared broadly with other companies, academia, and federal agencies.
The importance of this shared base of knowledge was dramatically highlighted last month by a study of patents issued by corporations world-wide. It was found that over 75 percent of the scientific literature cited in patents came from so-called public science, that is government-sponsored research. Thus the line between public and private responsibilities in science and technology is far from distinct, and it is changing.
What does this have to do with you?
Let me suggest that as you pursue your careers and undertake your roles as citizens and officials, you must strive to promote the development of new scientific and technological knowledge and to find ways to ensure that it is shared for the benefit and advancement of all.
Environment and Sustainable Development
The second area in which you will have both increased opportunity and responsibility is the environment. For the past thirty years or so, environmental concerns in this country have been dominated by a mentality of government regulation and remediation. At its best, this has dramatically improved our health and quality of life. At its worst, it has led to unreasonable legalistic resolutions, and priorities set without sound scientific bases.
I believe that in the future, industry and academia must play increasingly important roles in exercising environmental responsibility. We at MIT are working hard to establish this new paradigm - by educating engineers, managers, scientists, economists, and policy experts to analyze environmental issues and synthesize sound solutions. This does not mean only that we need to educate more environmental experts, it means that sound thinking about, and commitment to, sustainable development and environmental stewardship must be an integral part of the general education and practice of engineering and management.
This approach will, I believe, be welcome in the corporate world, which is finding that sound and proactive environmentalism is good business. The growing commitment to a healthy environment on the part of both industry and academia is setting the stage for new partnerships between the public and private sectors.
Take, for example, the Montreal Protocols on the reduction of CFCs in our environment - in order to halt the damage to the earth's protective ozone layer. These protocols are based on the fundamental scientific work of MIT's Nobel Laureate and Institute Professor Mario Molina. It is an agreement that rests not only on sound science, but on determined and thoughtful work across complicated political and geographic boundaries to ensure that all the citizens of the world benefit, whether they reside in rich nations or poor ones.
As you pursue your careers and undertake your roles as citizens and officials, I urge you to emulate Professor Molina's example - and bring both sound science and effective environmental stewardship to the worlds of industry and policy.
Addressing the Problems and Opportunities of a Changing Population
A third area in which you will face both increased challenge and responsibility has to do with addressing the problems and opportunities of a changing American population.
Colleges and universities have acted on this challenge, in part, by enrolling bright, motivated students from diverse geographic, economic, cultural, racial, and experiential backgrounds.
We have done so because of our conviction - born of practical experience - that this diversity makes educational sense. Students learn by encountering new ideas and new people - not by reaffirming what they already know.
We have done so because of a conviction deeply rooted in the American psyche - a conviction that education is the most important factor in enabling people to earn their place in this world.
And we have done so because it is our responsibility to educate all those who will contribute to our society's well-being.
Why, then, are many of our universities being denied the tools to ensure access to many minority students? Over the past several years, programs that promote diversity and opportunity in higher education have been dealt serious blows by the Congress, the judiciary, some of the voting public, and some university governing boards.
Last year's repeal of all affirmative action by the University of California's Board of Regents, and the federal court decision prohibiting any consideration of race or ethnicity in admissions by the University of Texas Law School have had chilling effects. If anyone doubts the negative consequences of such actions, consider this: the number of African-American and Latino students in the University of California has dropped sharply, and the number of black students entering the University of Texas Law School this fall will be exactly...zero.
This is a deeply troubling phenomenon in a society still wrestling with the lingering curse of racial division. We still have far to go until we become a nation fully integrated at every level and in every aspect. Whatever your views on how we reach that goal, we must reach it. We look to you as citizens and leaders to create effective ways to do so.
CHARGE TO THE GRADUATES
In closing, I give you this simple charge:
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.
Men and women of MIT, I wish you Godspeed and great good fortune.