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President Vest sums up recent past, look to the future

(Following is a partial text of remarks to alumni and alumnae by President Charles M. Vest at the Technology Day luncheon:on June 3.)

Some of you were here just a week ago, at our Commencement exercises. and if anything can give us confidence that MIT is doing its best by its students, it was that joyful celebration.

For me, this commencement was a special moment-because this graduating class was, in a sense, my class as well. We all entered MIT together in the fall of 1990-they as freshman students-I as a freshman president.

For all of us, these four years have been intense. They seem to have passed by in the twinkling of an eye, and they seem to have lasted a lifetime. We moved through changes in our internal and external worlds that were beyond our imagining. We encountered new ideas and new people, and were enriched by what we learned in these encounters. Above all, we learned to couple intellectual rigor and discipline with creativity and innovation, and we gained the self-confidence to approach virtually any challenge we encountered.

I would like to spend just a few minutes describing some of the challenges and achievements of these past four years.

We have felt the sting of public criticism and degrading federal commitment to higher education and research.

We have celebrated the attainments and continuing contributions of three of our faculty members as they won the Nobel prize.

We have taken the lead in reshaping engineering education to meet the challenges of a new era-starting with the design of the new master of engineering degree programs.

We have learned that we are not immune to the terrible violence in our society, as it consumed the life one of our own class members.

We have established the new general institute requirement in molecular and celluar biology.

We alone challenged the Department of Justice's improper and intrusive attack on our commitment to the system of need-based financial aid that keeps America's premier universities like MIT accessible-and we prevailed.

We came together as an academic community to debate each other, but also to support each other, as we watched our country go to war in the [Persian] Gulf.

We have established a leadership position in education and research associated with the environment and global change.

We brought together 800 leaders of industry and government from around the world to consider the global challenges facing the industrial sector.

We showed enormous commitment to service as hundreds of our students took part in outreach programs, giving generously and continually of their time and talent to Cambridge school children.

In the world beyond our campus, these four years have been momentous.

The Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Industries and corporations transformed themselves in fundamental ways with wrenching rapidity.

We in the United States have been through very difficult economic times, but now we see the signs of slow healing.

The information highway began to form and the Internet is increasingly familiar territory to the public.

Our national research and development system has been thrown into turmoil and the commitment to fundamental and long-range research has decreased dramatically.

Our primary and secondary education systems remain in disrepair, and we have come to live with a level of violence in our cities that would have been utterly unthinkable in my youth.

In the international arena, we have stepped back at last from the superpower standoff and yet we find peace and stability challenged by the unleashed forces of nationalism, ethnic hatred and local warfare.

Nonetheless, I believe that the true historical trend of this time is one of communication, interaction, and cooperation. Witness the people of South Africa, who have placed apartheid behind them and set off on a brave new path.


I am an optimist. Communication, engagement and integration are the dominant themes I see ahead. And with these will come understanding, problem solving and a greater sense of shared humanity, values and destiny. Though the world may be somewhat less predictable and stable, the field of opportunity to discover, learn, grow and serve has never been so great.

Just look at what happens-every day-at MIT. Thanks to our remarkable faculty and students.

Science advances at MIT. as they seek to understand memory and learning by exploring the brain at the most fundamental level. as they take part in the hunt for evidence of the elusive top quark.

Art thrives at MIT. where world-class composers and world-class musicians collaborate on a new cello concerto to rave reviews.

Technology extends our reach. MIT faculty and their students have begun development of the world's fastest machine for massive scientific calculations.

Thought leads to new order. MIT faculty are working to determine the nature of organizations in the 21st century-organizations that will be completely global and integrated through advanced information technologies.

New modes of learning emerge. MIT faculty have begun to establish new paradigms for the practice and teaching of architectural design.

These advances and achievements are all cause for confidence and celebration-particularly during these times when the environment in which we learn and work is changing so rapidly.

As we respond to, and take the lead with new initiatives, however, we must take care to reaffirm and articulate the basic values of academia.

In the months and years ahead, for example, we will be rethinking our relationship to industry and to the government. Opportunities for service will abound, but profound issues of balancing intellectual independence with meaningful participation in the advancement of industry and commerce must be addressed. For example:

Can we continue to serve as thoughtful critics while simultaneously turning our talents to more direct engagement with industry?

Can we maintain the appropriate commitment to free and fundamental inquiry in an era that values rapid change and that stresses rapid application and commercialization of technology?

Can we keep MIT accessible to the students with the most potential-not the most money-and still have the financial resources to maintain and enhance our teaching and research programs?

The answer is: we must, and we will.

These are great challenges and great opportunities. I am very privileged to work with my colleagues in the faculty and administration and with all of you to ensure that MIT continues to be the best, and to do the best.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 36).

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