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Largest-ever crowd at Commencement applauds Clinton, Ho

President William J. Clinton and prominent AIDS researcher Dr. David D. Ho stressed the importance of technology and education in their speeches to the largest graduating class in MIT history on June 5th.

One thousand forty-nine undergraduate and 1,384 graduate degrees were awarded. The greatest number of degrees were awarded by the School of Engineering (1,268), followed by the Sloan School of Management (554), the School of Science (349), the School of Architecture and Planning (125), the School of Humanities and Social Science (123), and Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology (14).

MIT's 132nd Commencement exercises, attended by about 10,000 people, may have been the longest in MIT history as well. Family, friends, faculty, staff and local, national and White House press began arriving more than four hours before the midmorning event. They were entertained first by recorded music, including songs by the MIT student a capella group the Chorallaries, then by the Boston Brass Ensemble conducted by John Corley.

Security arrangements involving the US Secret Service, Cambridge Police, state police and MIT Campus Police required everyone entering the cool, sunlit Killian Court to pass through metal detectors and, in some cases, to allow a bomb-sniffing German shepherd to inspect items such as television and camera equipment. Buildings 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 13 were closed during the presidential visit, as were parts of Massachusetts Avenue, the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge and Memorial Drive.

President Clinton arrived at Briggs Field by helicopter. He met with student leaders, President and Mrs. Charles M. Vest, and other MIT dignitaries in President Vest's office before proceeding to Killian Court

Alexander d'Arbeloff, chairman of the MIT Corporation, convened the exercises. Ms. Margaret O'Keefe, affiliated artist in the music and theater arts section, sang the The Star-Spangled Banner, and MIT Chaplain Swami Sarvagatananda of the Ramakrishna Vendanta Society offered the Invocation. His prayer, recited in both Sanskrit and English, called for a separation of the real from the unreal, for excellence, and -- in the refrain of "Om shanti, shanti, shanti" -- for "the peace that passes understanding."

Mr. d'Arbeloff introduced Commencement speaker Dr. David Ho, scientific director and chief executive officer of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Rockefeller University in New York, the largest private HIV/AIDS research center in the world. Dr. Ho is a graduate of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (MD '78).

Dr. Ho's well-received 20-minute address focused principally on AIDS research and the value of science.

"After years of cursing the darkness of AIDS, a candle of hope has been lit by science," said Dr. Ho. "In the past two years it has become possible to control HIV so effectively that the virus is no longer detectable in the infected person."

He stressed, however, that a cure is still not in hand and AIDS is not over. "It is my deepest hope that the recent scientific advances will inspire government, academia and the private sector to remain vigilant and to redouble our efforts to bring an end to this tragedy." He further noted that "prevention is the ultimate key to controlling the epidemic" and that "vaccine science must now take center stage."

Dr. Ho's personal research showed that the AIDS virus is active from the beginning of infection. Until his work, researchers had thought that the virus remains dormant for up to 10 years before its outbreak into AIDS. In describing his discovery, Dr. Ho, a professor at Rockefeller University, said: "So incredible was the ensuing intellectual satisfaction that I now fully appreciate the meaning of a line in the book The Ascent of Man. It reads, 'When the answers are simple, then you hear God thinking.'"

MIT influenced Dr. Ho in many ways. "As a young immigrant boy growing up in southern California, I was awed by this august institution from afar," he said. "My love for science was inspired by the genius of extraordinary men like Feynmann, Luria, Baltimore and Ting, whose presence at one time or another graced this campus. I will forever be indebted to you."

Dr. Ho, who emigrated to the United States from Taiwan when he was 12, also drew applause and eventually President Clinton's thanks for his comments on immigrants. "America has continually benefited from the drive, labor and creativity of immigrants," he noted.

Geoffrey J. Coram, president of the Graduate Student Council, gave a salute to MIT from the graduate student body. He acknowledged the new graduates' blend of relief and exhaustion, remarking, "You would have been disappointed if MIT didn't test you."

Salman Khan, president of the senior class, followed Mr. Coram's comments with an enthusiastic presentation of the class gift to President Vest. "We've proven ourselves. Remember the sleepless nights. Cherish the friendships," he urged his classmates before announcing the class gift, a contribution of $26,000 to renovate the Stratton Student Center reading room.

In his charge to the graduates, President Vest encouraged the Class of '98 to "keep alive the excitement, the beauty, the joy and the creativity of science and technology. Ponder the unthinkable. Dream of a better future. Be steady friends and bold companions. Live your lives well."

President Vest introduced President Clinton, who spoke for about 40 minutes in robes representing Yale University, where he attended law school.

President Clinton acknowledged members of the MIT community who had worked with him in government. "My administration has been able to carry on in no small measure because of contributions from MIT," he said. "Sixteen MIT alumni and faculty members have served in important positions in this administration, including at least two who are here today -- the former Secretary of the Air Force, Sheila Widnall, and the Deputy Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz."

Institute Professor John Deutch, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was unable to attend.

The challenge confronting MIT graduates in particular, said President Clinton, is the technological and social impact of the information revolution. This revolution already affects the "way we live; the way we learn and the way we work," he noted.

Focusing on the way we learn, President Clinton called on those present to "imagine the enormous benefits to our economy, our society, if not just a fraction, but all young people can master this set of 21st-century skills" related to using and creating technology.

"History teaches us that even as new technologies create growth and new opportunity, they can heighten economic inequalities and sharpen social divisions," said President Clinton. He drew attention to nearby East Somerville Community School, where teachers are trained to use technology thanks to equipment and support from Time-Warner Cable. Such a collaborative educational success story is a "small miracle that could be replicated in every school, rich and poor, across America."

To remedy existing and potential disparities resulting from the information revolution, President Clinton proposed a $180 million teacher training program, in which the federal government would provide middle schools with funding to train a technology expert, who in turn would train other teachers and students. Ten states, including Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, already have computer training requirements for high school students.

President Clinton also discussed the so-called E-Rate, which gives poorer school districts, health centers and libraries discounted telephone rates to help them link computers to the Internet.

"If we really believed that we all belong in the Information Age, then, at this sunlit moment of prosperity, we can't leave anyone behind in the dark," he said.

"To make the very most of your life and the opportunities you have been given, you, too, must rise to your responsibility to give something back to America of what you have been given. When you turn your good fortune into a chance for others, you then will not only be leaders in science and industry, you will become the leaders of America. Twenty-first century America belongs to you -- take good care of it," the President declared to the graduates.

Following his address, President Clinton presented diplomas to Mr. Khan, Samantha L. Lavery (Class of '98 vice president) and Michelle K. McDonough, vice president of the Graduate Student Council. He exchanged a "hearty handshake" with Mr. Coram, who graduates next year. The remaining degrees were presented by President Vest and by Provost Joel Moses.

Robert M. Metcalfe, president of the Association of MIT Alumni and Alumnae and chief marshal for Commencement, welcomed the new graduates into the association and led the academic recession.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 10, 1998.

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