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President's charge to graduates: 'reweave the rainbow'

President Charles Vest told graduates to draw on the full spectrum of their knowledge and experience, and to weave the human art of caring and community in their lives.

"As you graduate," he said on Friday, "remember to bring all that you have learned and value to your personal and professional lives: science and the arts, deep inquiry and creative application, and one thing more. Bring with you the lessons that you have learned from living and learning with a remarkable group of students and faculty from every culture and corner of the world."

Dr. Vest, addressing the graduates of the year 2000, his 10th graduating class since becoming MIT's president, told the thousands of students, parents and friends, "Today, MIT is an icon for excellence in science, engineering and management. And we are an icon for engaging the world... At the heart of our mission is the culture of science." Science, he said, "provides the new knowledge that makes it possible to address many of the most profound challenges of our times: providing a healthy environment for our planet; creating robust, sustainable economies around the world; and dramatically improving health care and quality of life."

MIT is more than science and technology, however. Referring to MIT's founding in 1861 as an institution to advance science and the arts, Dr. Vest asked, "What is the modern meaning of the arts at MIT? It is the Metropolitan Opera's January 1, 2000 production of The Great Gatsby, which it commissioned from MIT Professor John Harbison. It is the unique performances of our student Balinese Gamelan Society. It is the widely acclaimed Brain Opera by the Media Lab's Tod Machover. It is the powerful writings of Professor and novelist Anita Desai. It is the strongly affecting public art of Krzysztof Wodiczko and his students. It is the new level of architecture embodied in the buildings designed for us by Frank Gehry, Fumihiko Maki and Steven Holl -- buildings which will rise on this campus over the next five years.


"The arts have a deep and permanent place at MIT. Indeed, so integral have the arts become at MIT that the School of Humanities and Social Science is taking on a new name. Beginning July 1, it will become the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

MIT "seeks to bring the full spectrum of scientific, technical, social, and artistic perspectives to bear on what we do."

He urged listeners to view science as an integrating force, not a force of fragmentation as "knowledge is splintered into ever more discrete disciplines." He referred to a poem by John Keats, who was appalled when Sir Isaac Newton showed that a prism could separate white light into its constituent colors. Keats "felt that what Newton had done was to unweave the rainbow -- fragmenting it and diminishing its wonder and beauty," said Dr. Vest.

"My hope for MIT, and for you, is that we reweave the rainbow and bring our light to its brightest potential. This requires the integration of every person -- of every constituent element of our light.

"Our individual lives and concerns must be informed and shaped by those of our friends and colleagues. We must care for each other. If we can do all this, our contributions as individuals and as a community will have no match," he said.

The crowd became hushed after Dr. Vest asked that "you allow me to share a personal comment about the meaning of community.

"This spring represents for me, as for you, a new beginning and a new reality. My wife Becky is with us today, celebrating your Commencement, because of the MIT community. On February 26 of this year, in the middle of the night, six of our Campus Police officers responded to my emergency call from the President's House. Their rapid and professional actions saved Becky's life. But they weren't just doing their job. They cared. And her continuing recovery has been due in no small measure to the outpouring of concern and offers of help from every corner of MIT. We will be forever grateful for that... and for the privilege of belonging to this remarkable place that is MIT.

"As you move into the world beyond this campus, keep weaving the rainbow that connects our explorations and aspirations, and carry with you the knowledge that you are, and will always be, a part of MIT."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 2000.

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