A carnival atmosphere overtook Killian Court today as students, faculty and staff came out en masse for a community picnic to celebrate Susan Hockfield, MIT's 16th president, who will conclude her seven-and-a-half years of service on July 1. On Wednesday, Provost L. Rafael Reif was elected to succeed her as MIT's 17th president.
"It was a magnificent day for all of us yesterday," Hockfield remarked at the picnic, "a truly great day. It's nice to follow … with a little levity today."
There was literal levity, too, in true MIT fashion: a parade of translucent blimps, designed by students in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), kicked off the event with a remote-controlled voyage across Killian Court — an airy tribute to MIT's outgoing president.
"She did really an awesome job as president," said AeroAstro freshman Molly Kosiarek. "This day is a great idea."
Thousands gathered in the sunshine for food and fun, as entertainers milled among the crowds, swinging yo-yos and performing magic tricks. On the last day of spring-semester classes, it seemed every student came out to honor Hockfield — even those in a course on land use and urban studies, which held its last class in a shady corner of Killian Court so as not to miss the fun.
"President Hockfield has done an incredible job engaging with the student population," said Sam Shames, a sophomore majoring in materials science and engineering.
In recognition of Hockfield's commitment to the student body, TyShaun Wynter, former president of the Undergraduate Association, and Aalap Dighe, vice president of the Graduate Student Council, presented Hockfield with a brightly colored vase from MIT's Glass Lab.
"We must honor the people who not only aspire to greatness, but inspire others to greatness," Wynter said.
In his remarks, Chancellor Eric Grimson spoke of Hockfield's extensive accomplishments as president, including her support of the MIT Energy Initiative, the Production in the Innovation Economy manufacturing initiative, and numerous international collaborations, as well as spearheading the yearlong celebration of MIT's 150th anniversary. Grimson also pointed to Hockfield's role in "dramatically reshaping student life," supporting the construction of buildings such as Maseeh Hall and the new Ashdown House, "all with style, grace, dexterity and insight."
Blanche Staton, senior associate dean for graduate students, spoke of Hockfield's "unwavering" support of MIT staff, saying that the president could often be heard saying that staffers "are the engine" that run MIT. Staton also thanked the president for her significant contributions to diversity and inclusion throughout the Institute, which she said was tremendously encouraging, bringing members of the community "out from the invisible."
"It is so clear to me that what has happened in the last seven years is because of all of us," Hockfield replied in her remarks to the community. "It has been thrilling to be president during such a remarkable time."
In closing, Hockfield thanked the MIT community for its "willingness to do experiments — many of them successful — which will position MIT" to grow in the years to come. She also thanked the MIT students — particularly this year's graduating class, many of whom finished their final MIT class today.
In response, loudspeakers kicked on, blaring a musical tribute to Hockfield as a flash mob of students ran to the center of Killian Court, waving international flags in a choreographed dance. The students circled back to the stage, running up to high-five and fist-bump with the president.
Freshman Sarah Vente, who spontaneously joined the student line, remarked afterward: "It was the most inspiring high-five of my life!"