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Waiting 37 years for an MIT degree

After commencement this Friday, he'll go by Michael Zelin '81.
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Michael Zelin completed his undergraduate degree requirements in 1981. He will receive his diploma at this year's Commencement.
Michael Zelin completed his undergraduate degree requirements in 1981. He will receive his diploma at this year's Commencement.
Courtesy of Michael Zelin

On Friday morning, Michael Zelin will don a cap and gown and march into Killian Court, one of more than 2,700 students attending MIT's 148th commencement. He'll wave to his parents, take pictures, and listen to speeches.

Yet unlike most grads that day, Zelin will have a surprising suffix added to his MIT affiliation. While most undergraduates will add ’14 to their names, Zelin will add ’81.

That’s because Zelin, who completed all four undergraduate years at MIT more than three decades ago, never walked in Commencement, nor received a diploma. His program at the time, Course 6A, required students to complete their master’s thesis before earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Because he stopped short of completing his thesis, he never received either degree. When he double-checked the requirements a few years later, they were still rigid on that point, and he let the issue lie for a quarter century.

“I had a job after graduation,” Zelin recalls, “and my thesis became bigger than originally planned. My new employer was willing to wait a few months, but ultimately I had to start the job with an intent to finish the thesis at night. The reality of getting wrapped up in my first job got in the way of that plan."

“There was a lot of disappointment at home,” Zelin adds, “particularly when my advisor, Professor Leonard Gould, pulled my parents aside at a dinner we had before I left and prophetically proclaimed to them that I would likely not finish the thesis. They trusted me more than him — oops!"

Zelin moved to New Jersey and took a job with Datascope in the medical devices field. Later, he became chief technology officer of a startup called i-STAT, which has since become a $400 million business unit of Abbott Labs. There, Zelin is now vice president of research and development. Zelin holds nearly 20 patents in fields such as pulse oximetry and blood pressure monitoring from his days at Datascope, and miniaturized point-of-care blood diagnostics from his work at i-STAT.

Throughout his stellar career, Zelin has always been honest with his colleagues about never having graduated from college. “It’s been fodder for jokes in the office,” he says, “though a lot of people point out that it’s kind of cool nowadays not to have a degree in the startup world.”

When a medical visit brought him to Boston this winter, Zelin figured he would stop in again at the Registrar’s Office on campus. It turns out that the old Course 6A requirement changed back in 1995, years after his last check-in. “Now they decided that simply submitting a thesis proposal would meet the requirements of the undergrad degree, so I had no more work to do,” Zelin says. He completed his paperwork for Commencement and began making plans.

“When we see people like [Zelin], we say, ‘Let’s work with you,’” says Anne Hunter, an undergraduate advisor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who speculates that there are many potential MIT alumni who, like Zelin, are eligible to come back and apply for a diploma. Hunter notes that it’s impossible to query all student records, most of which are on paper, with any efficiency to determine that. "You'd have to sit down and investigate each student, check to see that all their requirements were satisfied, and audit everything," she says.

Zelin plans to become more involved in the MIT Alumni Association in the years ahead, offering advice to undergrads or mentoring fellow alumni. He will also look forward to telling his Zeta Beta Tau fraternity brothers of his new accomplishment, not to mention attending his 35th reunion in 2017. 

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