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Vest calls for renewed boldness in charge to graduates

(Following is President Charles M. Vest's Charge to the Graduates at Commencement exercises on Friday, June 7. He began his remarks, which are excerpted below, in response to presentation of the class gift -- a fund for the Public Service Center -- by Matthew J. Turner, president of the Class of 1996.)

Thank you, Mr. Turner. It is a moving experience to receive a gift from the class at a moment like this -- after all we've put you through!

The fund to support the Public Service Center will stand as a lasting tribute to the spirit of the Class of 1996. It will help students develop a sense of service and caring for the larger community of which we are a part. I hope your vision and generosity will serve as a model to other classes. Thank you very much.

Soon you graduates will march to the platform to receive your degrees, accompanied by a hearty handshake from the president or the provost. Let me tell you -- that will be a moment rich with promise. It may change your life.

Several years ago, a man came up to MIT's former president Jerry Wiesner. He said "Dr. Wiesner, do you remember me? You shook my hand at graduation twenty years ago. and you said something to me as I came through the line to receive my diploma that literally changed my life. It was the secret of my successful career."

"Well, my goodness," Jerry replied, "what did I say?"

"You said, `Keep on moving; keep on moving.'"

I would like to take a moment to recognize some other special graduates of MIT who are with us today. They are the members of the Class of 1946 -- our 50-year class -- and the Class of 1971, celebrating its 25th reunion. You will recognize them by the red or gray jackets they are wearing -- along with a certain look of wonder that time has passed so quickly since they were in your shoes.

Time has passed quickly, and it has brought extraordinary change along with it.

1946 was a momentous year -- the first postwar year. America had defeated the Nazi tyranny -- a tyranny so absolute and terrible, that the Class of 1996 probably finds it difficult to reckon.

In 1946, the United Nations held its first session, and America was poised to build a new nation and a new era -- a nation whose boldness of spirit and accomplishment would prove to be without historic precedent.

In 1971, we were in the throes, unfortunately, of another war, the Vietnam War. a conflict that caused this nation, and this campus, to question our beliefs and each other. We were still struggling over civil rights, and the second wave of the women's rights movement was gathering force. It, too, was a time of great strain in society and a time of challenging the old order, but most importantly, a time of dreaming the new.

Today in 1996, we live in an age that seems to reject bold thought and bold action. This is true in America, and it is true in Europe. Why is this? Does boldness come with a pricetag we can't afford? Does it imply excess or waste or impracticality? Are we too cynical to embrace visionary new ideas? Have we turned from boldness because such vision and action usually call for shared commitment. and we care only for what affects us personally and immediately? Is this a natural outcome of our maturation as a nation and as a society?

Perhaps all of the above.

One major scientific project you're familiar with illustrates the point. A decade ago the United States Congress committed itself to constructing the Superconducting Supercollider, a huge new particle accelerator. We spent over two billion dollars, and brought the project almost halfway to conclusion. Then we simply changed our mind, walked away and left a rusting hulk in the arid Texas desert -- too expensive.

Repeatedly we have set goals to be met by our schools by the year 2000 -- just four years away: goals that call for our students to be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement. and for every school to be free of drugs and violence. But few seem to get serious about accomplishing this -- too ambitious.

In the 1960s, we determined that we would build a society in which race no longer mattered, and that we would make the necessary interim commitments until we reached that goal. We seem to be backing off right and left -- too ideological, too uncomfortable, too difficult.

Boldness, staying power, and sacrifice for the greater good seem to be in short supply. Some of the reasons, at least superficially, are apparent:

  • We need to balance the national budget so that future generations will not be burdened with our debt. Fair enough.
  • Our corporations must become more productive -- doing more, and doing it better, with fewer people -- if they are to survive and succeed in the international marketplace. Also fair enough.
  • Education is difficult in a society that is divided along economic, social and racial lines. We can't afford to do it right for everyone. Well. that is simply not fair enough.

The state of education in America is simply unacceptable, and we must correct it. We must recognize that poverty of spirit and poverty of values -- even more than financial poverty -- are at the heart of this crisis. And we must -- as a society -- resolve to act. Just as we cannot saddle coming generations with our financial debt, neither can we saddle them with our lack of investment in their future. We must invest in that future -- through education, through research and through attaining common purpose.

Now it's time for you to recognize the opportunity before you. You must return to a boldness of spirit and of thought and action. You must take up this challenge. And in so doing, you must be open -- open to new ideas and to new people. You must develop a new generosity of spirit.

These are economically difficult times in America -- at least relative to our aspirations and to the postwar boom years. And as times get tight, there is a natural tendency to turn inward. So once again, we seem to hear concerns that we should not be educating so many foreign graduate students. We hear that immigrants are a major cause of our woes. And we keep pulling apart into homogeneous groupings of one sort or another. But just because these are natural or somehow understandable tendencies does not make them right.

America has always been a nation of immigrants and we have always been a land of opportunity. These statements perhaps sound quaint or old-fashioned, but they are true and we must retain their spirit.

Each year, my wife Becky and I host a dinner in our home for the men and women who are retiring from the tenured faculty ranks of the Institute. These are always extraordinary assemblages of talented and accomplished colleagues -- people who have defined MIT, and who have defined their professional and scholarly fields. No lack of bold thought there!

Yet, as I survey that room each spring, I realize how much MIT -- and indeed America -- have benefited by openness to those from other countries, and how wise has been our tradition of selecting and advancing people on the basis of their talent and accomplishment rather than their wealth or nationality.

Openness and meritocracy are what have made MIT great, and you must continue that spirit and philosophy in your life endeavors.

Take what you have brought here, and what you have learned here. and put them to work:

  • Pursue the challenge of educating America's children with the zeal and staying power that you have exhibited in the Cambridge Schools and in Washington, DC, during your spring break.
  • Stop the retreat from bringing minorities into the mainstream and the leadership of our nation.
  • Bring the entrepreneurial spirit to America and the world that you have exhibited here in the 2.70 Design Contest and the $50K entrepreneurial contest.
  • Create the products, the jobs and the industries of the future. And while you're at it, remember that you as leaders must invest in innovation and the development of new knowledge for the next century, not just for the next fiscal quarter.
  • Bring the boldness of thought and accomplishment to science, technology and society that you have brought to your MIT research projects. Make our environment healthy. Prevent and cure disease. Rebuild our cities and renew our sense of community. Continue the great adventure of understanding the world around us.

So this is my charge to you: Be bold, be open, be generous of spirit. You have before you a new century, and an infinitely interesting and challenging world. The situation is complex and chaotic, but opportunity is everywhere.

As my favorite philosopher, Pogo Possum, once observed: "We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunity."

But then, he wasn't speaking to MIT graduates. You can surmount it.

Men and women of MIT, I wish you godspeed and great good fortune.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 1996.

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