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Hockfield asks MIT to solve world's woes

At her inauguration as 16th president of MIT, Susan Hockfield accepts the university charter from Dana Mead, chairman of the MIT Corporation.
At her inauguration as 16th president of MIT, Susan Hockfield accepts the university charter from Dana Mead, chairman of the MIT Corporation.
Photo / L. Barry Hetherington

At her formal inauguration as MIT's 16th president this afternoon, Susan Hockfield announced a new initiative on energy and the environment and said that the Institute should combine its "historic strength" in engineering with its newer strengths in biology and brain and cognitive sciences to help "tackle humanity's most urgent problems."

"The world has never needed MIT as much as it does now. Think how many of the major challenges of this uncertain, unsettled age are shaped by science, technology or daunting problems of quantitative analysis and complex synthesis," she said.

Dana Mead, chairman of the MIT Corporation, handed the Institute's charter to Hockfield at 2:51 p.m. Hockfield, a neuroscientist and former provost of Yale University, has been in office at MIT since Dec. 6.

The ceremony featured a procession of delegates from 61 universities worldwide marching in order of their institutions' founding dates. Neil Malcolm of the University of Oxford in England, founded in 1249, was the first in line. He was followed by David Good and Alison Richard of Cambridge University in England (1284). Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University (1636), was fourth in line, representing the oldest American university. Former MIT Chancellor Lawrence Bacow, now president of Tufts University (1852), processed in position 23. MIT was founded in 1861.

Academic regalia ran the gamut, with crimson, purple and gray robes scattered in among the sea of black, and hoods that ranged from canary yellow to bright reds and brilliant blues. Some brightly colored, squashed velvet hats stood out among the assorted headgear as the pageant of delegates processed from Walker Memorial down Memorial Drive and into the tent on Killian Court.

MIT musicians performed four original musical pieces composed by MIT faculty members for the occasion: "In Time of Silver Rain" by Elena Ruehr; "Sabar Gong" by Evan Ziporyn and Lamine Touré; "Chorus From Pindar" by John Harbison; and "Fanfare and Fugue" by Peter Child. The Rev. Amy McCreath, MIT's Episcopal chaplain, gave the invocation; Alison Richard, vice chancellor of Cambridge University, welcomed Hockfield on behalf of the Academy.

Hockfield spoke of her impressions of the Institute to date, calling it "a place of deep personal integrity and striking practicality" and comparing it to a "stadium with no seats; everyone is in the game, sometimes 24 hours a day." She put forth her vision for the future of MIT, including the establishment of the initiative on energy, which she said will focus on increasing the energy supply and bringing scientists, engineers and social scientists together to develop the best energy policies.

"Over the last 30 years, these two words--energy and the environment--have gotten a little tired, tired not from overuse, but from lack of progress. The time for that progress is now … It is our responsibility to lead in this mission," Hockfield told the crowd of roughly 2,300 people, which overflowed the tent set up outside under gray skies on the 50-degree day.

Hockfield said that just as MIT was instrumental in developing radar, which helped the Allies win World War II, the Institute should now take a lead in the current "convergence of engineering and the life sciences."

"MIT can and must lead in this essential new field-of-all-fields," she said.

Hockfield, the first woman and the first life scientist to lead MIT, committed the Institute to sustaining its commitment to intellectual openness, as well as to increasing the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities in academia.

"We will work toward intellectual openness around the world and to preserve the vital flow of international students and scholars who contribute so much to our universities, and to our society as a whole.

"We also need to sustain our rich diversity of ideas and cultures by building a powerful pipeline of young women and underrepresented minority students eager to pursue advanced degrees and academic careers," she said.

"We need to be the spark that ignites the passion of every child who wants to make the world a better place. We need to reach those young explorers and bring them with us on the great adventure of discovery and innovation that is the soul of MIT," Hockfield said. "We need to help America fall in love all over again with the marvelous possibilities and promises of engineering, science and technology."

Immediately following the ceremony, members of the community quickly filled three smaller tents on the court to enjoy desserts and delicacies accompanied by music from a jazz combo. As the new president greeted a long line of well-wishers, a large banner made an unexpected appearance, unfolding under the dome of Building 10 in apparent student hack. Two playing cards were pictured, along with the words: "The king is dead. Long live the queen."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 11, 2005 (download PDF).

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