Skip to content ↓

Vest guides MIT grads to optimism and service

President Emeritus Charles Vest
President Emeritus Charles Vest
Photo / L. Barry Hetherington

Today's graduates live in a world where the challenges are more complex and global than they were in the 1950s, but they should maintain a '50s sense of optimism, said MIT President Emeritus Charles M. Vest in the main address for MIT's 141st Commencement exercises. Today's graduates should have confidence, he said, that an MIT education has afforded them the knowledge and skills to "make the world well."

During the sun-drenched ceremony, 2,110 undergraduates and graduate students received 1,068 bachelor's degrees, 1,000 master's degrees, 282 doctorates and 10 engineer's degrees.

MIT's extraordinary faculty, Vest said, has given "you and me the opportunity to literally change the world."

Vest said that the rate of technological progress is accelerating every year. While it took 55 years and 35 years respectively for the automobile and the telephone to be within the reach of most Americans, the Web took only seven years.

"We'd better get used to it. Three thousand new books are published each day. And the amount of technical information is doubling every two years," he said.

Advances in understanding the human brain, in biological engineering and in genomic medicine bring great benefits, but also great challenges, he said.

"Will these new capabilities of information science, life science, engineering and their combination be used for good or ill? How will you grapple with the ethical and legal questions that will come along with these new powers? How will you influence the public discourse and action on these questions?" he questioned the sea of black-robed graduates in Killian Court.

Vest encouraged graduates to use transformative technologies such as the Web to "build a more inclusive, engaged and more egalitarian society" and to "be prepared to engage in the public dialogue and bring to it your own moral compasses and your commitment to applying the rationality of science and engineering to improving the human condition."

Vest said that what he most valued about his 14-year stint as president of MIT was the opportunity to serve.

"I had the opportunity to serve as a voice for science, engineering and higher education and for the importance of our nation being open to scholars from all over the world at a time when America sorely needed to think about these things," he said.

Vest also said not to underestimate the power of opportunity. After being turned down for an MIT assistant professor position, 22 years later, he was offered the presidency.

"Not in my wildest dreams as a young faculty member could I have imagined that one day I would be called to serve as president of this remarkable institution," he said.

"So always read your mail from MIT," he advised. "There is an outside chance that instead of asking for a donation, it may ask you to be president … or perhaps Commencement speaker."

Pomp and other circumstances

Just at the moment that Chair of the MIT Corporation Dana G. Mead took the podium, six vertical white cloth panels unfurled from the portico of Killian Hall. The mini-hack read, with one word per panel: "Will have thesis finished pronto--IHTFP."

Following Vest's address, Eric Weese, president of the Graduate Student Council, spoke to the assembled graduates, friends and relatives. He said while he was surfing the Web, he came across a quote from someone earning $150,000 a year who said that he didn't seem to be earning enough to have any fun. "It's likely that some of us will not have all that we want," Weese said, "but it's also likely most of us will have what we need. We should keep in mind that we are among the most fortunate people ever."

Susan J. Shin, president of the Class of 2007, presented MIT President Susan Hockfield with a check for $26,861, the senior class gift. More than half of the graduating class contributed, up from around 30 percent in recent years.

Among the graduating students, Shin said, were individuals who published research, won patents and battled life-threatening illnesses, but as a whole, "When it came to choosing between giving up and hoping, we made the right choice … We conquered our fears and doubts. We have survived the Institute."

Hockfield delivered the traditional charge to the graduates.

"It is my fervent hope that, as you join new communities, you will transmit to them the values that define the MIT community," she said. "That you will make integrity the touchstone of your judgments. That you will exemplify the pursuit of truth and an unwavering drive for excellence. And that you will continue to demonstrate the value of good, old-fashioned hard work."

The Rev. Johanna Kiefner, MIT Lutheran chaplain, delivered the Invocation, and the a cappella MIT Chorallaries sang the national anthem. The MIT Brass Ensemble, led by affiliated artist Larry Isaacson, provided accompaniment for the processional and the rest of the ceremonies.

Hockfield presented the following degrees: bachelor of science; bachelor of science/master of science; bachelor of science/master of engineering; and advanced degrees in the School of Science, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology.

Provost L. Rafael Reif awarded advanced degrees in the Schools of Architecture and Planning; Engineering; Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences; and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News