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Hacks and Oscars take the stage at freshman convocation

The Class of 2003 got a rare taste of glamor on campus when President Charles M. Vest won an Oscar at the August 26 freshman convocation.

Building on the convocation tradition of amusing introductions, two orientation coordinators walked onto the spotlit stage decked out in Hollywood finery and presented MIT's president with the award for "Best President of an Institution." His competition? Neil Rudenstine, president of Harvard; William Jefferson Clinton; Dr. Evil of this summer's Austin Powers movie; and Bill Gates.

The presenters were Julie Gesch, a senior in aeronautics and astronautics who was elegantly attired in a sleeveless evening gown of dark blue satin; and Damien Brosnan, a junior in physics who donned a '70s-style tuxedo, powder-blue ruffled shirt and black curly wig for the event.

President Vest graciously accepted his award and took the opportunity to pass along some MIT/Hollywood lore by explaining who put the "tech" in Technicolor.

"It was, after all, an MIT engineer, Herbert Kalmus, who developed the color process for motion pictures. He wanted to credit his alma mater for his achievement, so he called it Technicolor -- and it changed the way we see our world."

Following Dr. Vest's welcome address to the freshmen, Professor Claude Canizares, the Bruno Rossi Professor of Experimental Physics, spoke to the students about the origins of the universe, of the planetary systems and of life itself. Professor Canizares, who is also director of the Center for Space Research, described in simple terms the present state of space research and MIT's role in it, and encouraged the students to get involved with the hope of answering "the ultimate question of Time magazine: is anybody out there?"

Dean of Students Rosalind Williams called the freshmen "a rare and precious life form... Get enough sleep, exercise, watch what you eat and drink and be careful crossing the street." The faculty and staff of MIT are not here to act as your parents, she said. "You are adults and are fully responsible for your actions.

"We want you to be navigators here. Set sail into some uncharted seas and find a brave new world of your own," Dean Williams said. "Take some risks -- try a sport or art, seek out people who are different from you, and wander the corridors of Boston and New England."

Some of the decisions you face will be "harder than problem sets and it won't be easy to make the right decision," she continued. During those times, remember that "older adults have experience you don't have. The Office of the Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education is entrusted with overseeing student welfare. When you need help, look us up."

Matt McGann, a senior in ocean engineering and president of the Undergraduate Association, gave a humorous address, playing down US News & World Report's recent college rankings.

"Welcome to MIT, the third-best university in the country. The red brick schoolhouse up the road [Harvard] is number two and an institution founded to be like us is number one [CalTech]," he said to much applause and laughter.

"The fatal flaw is in trying to rank us among our peer institutions," he continued. "I think that MIT has no peer institutions."

His talk was interrupted by a group of upperclassmen who took the stage to lead the frosh in singing the "Engineers' Drinking Song," the words to which had been quietly distributed among the audience.

Dean of Student Life Margaret Bates gave a short lesson on Commencement regalia and Professor of Linguistics Emeritus Samuel Jay Keyser entertained the group with a brief history of hacks at MIT.

MIT hacks have three properties, according to Professor Keyser: they're anonymous, benign ("they may be terribly complicated, but will never do any damage to people or property") and elegant. "Harvard's notion of a hack is getting guys to dress up in girls' clothes. They do it every year and get a big charge out of it," he said.

"Hacks are a kind of performance art," he said. "I hope some of you will be hackers."


President Vest's message to the freshmen encouraged them to take responsibility for themselves and the world, to become "broad and integrative thinkers," to work collectively, and to remember that privilege is not without responsibility.

"Each of you, in his or her own way, has answered the ancient Talmudic call to perform tikkun olam -- an obligation to repair the world for the sake of ourselves and our children. In other words, each of you has a responsibility to make a difference...

"People can attain excellence and accomplishment both as individuals and collectively. Both modes are important, but I must tell you that the collective, or the team approach to things, is increasingly important. During the coming days and weeks, you will be considering the balance between teamwork and individual efforts in many different ways. This will be important to your life at MIT and beyond.

"You are, to say the least, an extremely competitive group... But it is all too easy to overdo the competition. I hope that each of you will try to strike a healthy balance between competition and camaraderie.

"I mention the level of competition here not to intimidate you, but rather so that when you ask yourself, 'What happened? I used to be at the top of everything!' -- you will know that the feeling is very, very common among MIT students. And if I'm honest, it's probably true among MIT faculty and probably among MIT presidents," Dr. Vest said.

He closed by commenting on two of the responsibilities that come with the "privilege of participation and education" at an institution such as MIT -- integrity and service.

"I believe that we in the university have a responsibility that transcends that of developing and passing on knowledge and skills. This responsibility is to teach you that intellectual and personal integrity are the only substrate on which research, scholarship and leadership can be built.

"I ask you to consciously develop and maintain the highest ethical standards and commitment to personal integrity as you study and live at MIT.

"I also hope that you will develop a keen sense of service. I challenge you to set as one of your goals the use of your considerable talents to be of service to each other, and to your fellow men and women. You can find many ways of doing this while you are students and after you have left MIT. It is critical that you do so. We are counting on you."

A version of this article appeared in the September 1, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 44, Number 4).

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