"Be thou the Advocate!": William Barton Rogers makes the Case for MIT

Sunday, August 29, 2010
Freshman Convocation 2010

Welcome to the MIT Class of 2014! I also offer a very warm welcome to all of your families and friends who have come to help you settle into your new home here at MIT.

After the long months of the admissions process – more competitive than ever this year – you, our new MIT freshmen, may feel that you are lucky to be here. But let me state very clearly that we are lucky to have you join us. You bring to our community your intelligence, your energy, and your life experience. You bring an enormous variety of languages, religions, regional backgrounds, and cultural perspectives. Above all, you bring your brilliant curiosity and your creative passion. You bring all these things to MIT, a transfusion of positive forces that inspires and invigorates the entire Institute. Thank you for coming.

In fact, MIT has been waiting for you, for almost 150 years. The Institute will officially celebrate our 150th anniversary next spring. Because you have the good fortune to arrive in our sesquicentennial year, I want to use this historical moment as an observation point from which we can understand some of the characteristics of the community that you have worked so hard to join.

At MIT, we sometimes describe our purpose, a bit immodestly, as "inventing the future." The challenge of inventing the future influences everything we do: the research we pursue, the companies we start, the way we teach and even the students we choose to admit. And standing among MIT's greatest inventions is the Institute itself.

From his earliest ideas for this Institute, our founder and first president, William Barton Rogers, imagined and designed MIT as a remarkable mechanism for discovery and innovation. Above the main entrance at 77 Massachusetts Avenue, the carved letters of his name still supervise our work every day. In the Victorian photographs of his era, he appears equally stony, imposing and distant, but if we could invite him to the podium, I believe we would all recognize him as one of us because he loved doing science, and he was very, very good at it, from a young age; because he wasn't afraid of provocative new ideas, if they propelled the world toward the truth or the future; because he thrived on intellectual companionship; and because he was determined to use his gifts to serve the world. Each of these qualities in William Barton Rogers shaped the Institute that he founded, and even today, they permeate the character, culture and accomplishments of the MIT that you have joined. To illustrate what I mean, let me explore each of those qualities briefly.

First, because William Barton Rogers loved doing science, he believed in "getting your hands dirty" in the pursuit of truth. I mean that literally: early in his career, he spent six years clambering over the mountains and slogging through the swamps of Virginia, to conduct the state's first serious geological survey. Through this and other experiences, he developed a passionate belief, quite radical in his time, that teaching science should be a hands-on proposition. He believed students should feel at least as comfortable working in the laboratory as listening in the classroom, because they would always remember best the lessons they taught themselves. Today, hands-on research remains a hallmark of an MIT education. Through our Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), more than 85% of our students have worked in faculty-led research programs by the time they graduate. And UROP is not about washing glassware: in fact, 25% of last year's graduating seniors had authored or co-authored a published paper during their time at MIT. I hope that all of you will sample this distinctly-MIT, hands-on style of learning-by-doing.

Second, because William Barton Rogers did not fear provocative new ideas, he nurtured, over decades, a striking new vision of a great "polytechnic" institution that would revolutionize American higher education. MIT was not the first technological institution in America, but it was, perhaps, the most ambitious. The Institute that Rogers imagined stood in stark contrast to nearly all American higher education of the day. Rogers observed the great economic, social and scientific tides of his age and realized that a newly industrialized America needed an entirely new vision of both the style and content of education.

In the period before the Civil War, America's scientific elite had little interest in practical affairs. So, across this still-young nation, engineers and architects, mechanics and farmers, chemists and manufacturers, were held back by their meager grasp of the science of the materials and forces they worked with. In effect, Rogers saw a double opportunity: to make scientific knowledge useful, and to make the "useful arts" scientific – and thus to advance them both. The MIT motto, "mens et manus," or Mind and Hand, reflects that symbiotic ideal, and you will experience this powerfully productive symbiosis every day through the work of our faculty, who pursue the most fundamental research and abstract theories along with the most advanced, market-ready innovations.

Of course, your MIT education will also mix science and technology with a set of equally important investigations in literature, music, history, the arts and architecture, business, political science, economics and more. If MIT aims to serve the world, the liberal arts help us appreciate why the world is worth serving, and they will give you an entirely different set of critically important tools, as I will come back to a bit later on.

Third, because William Barton Rogers thrived on intellectual companionship – the chance to work with people who challenged his own assumptions – he walked away from the small rural campuses of the first 25 years of his career and came to the bustle of Boston to launch the remarkable community of fellow learners that continues to animate MIT. As he considered moving to Boston, Rogers wrote to his brother Henry in 1846:

Ever since I have known something of the knowledge-seeking spirit, and the intellectual capabilities of the community in and around Boston, I have felt persuaded that of all places in the world, it was the most certain to derive the highest benefits from a Polytechnic Institution.i

The benefits continue to flow both ways. To a degree that would delight President Rogers, MIT and the communities of Boston and Cambridge offer a wealth of stimulating minds and creative opportunities. I urge you to engage with them. That intellectual community will begin for you here on our campus. The students who gain most from MIT are those who get to know one or more of their professors really well. Make that a goal for your freshman year. Many students also reach well beyond our campus to engage the larger Boston and Cambridge community, from the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the local theater and music scene, from volunteer opportunities in the Boston and Cambridge schools to sailing lessons on the Charles. Get out and explore your new city – both of them! And students who start their own businesses are, very often, those who dive into the vibrant local community of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The mentors you need are out there, and you can start finding them now.

Rogers also took special pleasure in the intellectual companionship of his closest scientific collaborators and peers. For instance, he conducted a lifetime of vivid correspondence with his three brothers, equally accomplished and science-loving. They constantly wrote back and forth about the "hot" scientific debates of the day, with a kind of passion that most people now might reserve for the Red Sox or the World Cup: Geology; Physics; Electricity; Evolution. The fearless range of their curiosity foreshadowed the lively interdisciplinary way of thinking that now drives so much pioneering work at MIT. Today, more than 60% of MIT faculty are associated not only with their home academic departments but with one or more MIT research labs and centers, which reside at the exciting intersections between traditional fields. Close to one-third of our nearly 400 engineering faculty work on projects that engage the life sciences. And about one-fifth of undergraduates major in more than one field, a path made even easier by last year's introduction of double majors.

And I probably do not even need to mention that some of the most inspiring intellectual companions you will find at MIT are sitting with you on Killian Court right now. Much of what you learn at MIT you will learn from each other, and we can easily predict that the intense MIT connections of your undergraduate years will blossom into friendships that last the rest of your life.

Fourth and finally, because William Barton Rogers was determined to use his gifts to serve the world, he did. This last quality seems to me especially in tune with the character of your generation - that signature combination of creative energy and the dedication to serve others that makes me think of you as Generation "Why not?" I am continually struck by your readiness to simply roll up your sleeves and get to work solving problems, large and small. In promoting science, engineering and the "useful arts," Rogers aimed to accelerate and magnify America's industrial progress. For him, in building MIT, he was performing a conscious act of national service. Through the Institute he created, we at MIT continue to find countless ways to serve the nation and the world, and I have no doubt that you will, too. You may invent the new face of computing, in the cloud. You may develop vaccines to prevent devastating diseases or invent breakthrough technologies to battle the global crises in energy, transportation, water and food. You may found a new company or non-profit, serve in public office, teach in a struggling neighborhood or even at MIT. You can use your MIT education to serve the world in all these and many other ways. And your service will without question be shaped by another distinctive characteristic of your generation, a global awareness that makes every one of you a citizen of the world. But whatever your vision of service, I hope you will pursue it to the limits of your ambitions and abilities, because this world needs you urgently now.

I have focused a great deal on science and technology, but I want to close on a different note. For President Rogers, the founding of MIT began with 25 years of thinking. But the process of securing the land for the original MIT building in Boston came to a boil in two hectic final years that included three different petitions to the Massachusetts Legislature and countless hours speaking and writing and persuading every potential supporter he could find. As he wrote at the time, "to do anything with the public or the Legislature, definite printed plans…and arguments are indispensable."ii The truth is that beyond his skill and prominence as a scientist, Rogers owned another very sharp tool: his eloquence, his ability to make his vision come alive in words. In fact, his persuasive powers were so well known that as the last of the three petitions went before the Legislature, Rogers received a personal letter from Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, who also wanted the proposal to succeed. To make that happen, the Governor insisted that Rogers -- and only Rogers -- should speak on its behalf. As he wrote, "My Dear Professor… I hope you will [speak]... but no one else….Be thou the advocate!"iii

A faculty member once observed that the hardest lesson to teach MIT students is that, in the real world, the best technology doesn't always win. Even the best idea rarely succeeds on its merits alone. To persuade your colleagues, to win the next grant, to bring a new product to the marketplace, you need not only to produce superior science and engineering, you need to make a clear, relevant, compelling case for your ideas. Be thou the advocate! While you are at MIT, I urge you to do everything you can to hone your public speaking and writing abilities. Make time to study history, culture, literature and politics. Seek out opportunities to serve as a leader. Be thou the advocate! Because no one can advance your ideas better than you.

On April 10, 1861, Governor Andrew finally signed the bill granting the MIT charter. Roughly four days later, the Civil War began. William Barton Rogers' long-nurtured dream had to wait a little longer to take form. But within four years – despite the war – MIT was fully launched, and racing to invent a new future for American science, industry and education. Today, you stand on the verge of your own possibilities, and we could not be more excited to have you with us, as, together, we rise to the challenge of inventing the future again.

Welcome to MIT!


iLife and Letters of William Barton Rogers, eds. Emma Savage Rogers with William T. Sedgewick (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1896), 1:259.

 ii Ibid., 2:70.

 iii Ibid., 2:75.