Freshman Convocation 2005

Monday, August 29, 2005

Good afternoon. Welcome, families. Welcome, friends. And most of all, welcome, members of the Class of 2009!

It is a great privilege to greet you at the beginning of your time at MIT, at this Freshman Convocation. Convocation is a gathering to welcome you into the MIT community – to give you some words of introduction, and some words of advice. (But not too many.)

I am joined by a few of the people who will play key roles in your lives over the next few years. You will hear shortly from our Chancellor, Phil Clay, and then from the Dean of our School of Science, Bob Silbey. Also here on the stage are the Provost, the Deans of the Institute’s other four Schools, the Deans for Undergraduate Education and for Student Life, and the housemasters of the undergraduate residence halls. Also with us to welcome you is John Cloutier, president of the Undergraduate Association.

Freshman Year
I will be watching your progress with particular interest, because I, like you, am a freshman, a new student at MIT. I began as President last December, and am still discovering new things about MIT every day. Let me share with you a few of the things I have learned.

First, this is a place of incredible energy. There’s a kind of crackling drive and curiosity that fills the air. There is a creative passion, an intensity, and an intellectual playfulness that trigger everything here – the ideas and the innovations, in the classroom and in the laboratory.

Second, MIT is a place of striking practicality. People here love to solve problems, including some of the most daunting the world presents. As I walk across campus to my office each morning, I look up at the names that ring the magnificent Killian Court: Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, Franklin. They – and we – are separated by centuries and nations, but we are all united by a passionate curiosity to understand the world and to make it a better place.

Third, MIT is a community that embraces and learns from differences. Look around you: you come from 46 American states and the District of Columbia, and from 62 different countries. You come from cities, farms, and small towns. You are musicians and athletes and mathematicians and entrepreneurs. In short, you bring the world to MIT. And this wonderful variety will be an important component of your MIT curriculum.

And finally, MIT is a great meritocracy. Here, it does not matter where you come from, what you look like, who your parents are, or how much money you have. What matters is only how well you do the work.

Raising the Bar
You will quickly discover that you have never before experienced any place like MIT. This is not high school 2.0, no matter how demanding your high school was. MIT is a uniquely intense environment. That intensity is driven by the curiosity and passion of the people who work and study here. Our history demonstrates again and again that when our nation or the world confronts a major challenge, they look to MIT to solve it. Now you become a part of that glorious MIT history.

You each had your own reasons for choosing us. MIT chose you because we believe that you can excel in this enterprise. You are among the most brilliant students anywhere in the world today. And all of you are here because we saw in you the extraordinary abilities and the commitment to excellence that are the essence of MIT.

There is no question that you can make it here. But neither is there any question of it’s being easy. At MIT, you will be challenged and stimulated and tested, as never before. MIT is about raising the bar. You will raise the bar for yourselves, and you will raise the bar for one another.

During my introduction to MIT last year, a Student Advisory Board helped me learn about the Institute. When we came to the topic of competition, which expresses itself in different ways in different academic cultures, the students told me that here success is measured not only by what you achieve on your own, but also by how many people you bring along with you. Collaboration is an important part of the MIT culture, and we know that you will choose to push yourselves and one another to meet MIT’s and the world’s challenges.

You could say that the culture of collaboration was built into the walls of the Main Group, the buildings constructed in 1916 that surround the Great Dome of MIT. These buildings are actually one huge, single, interconnected structure. The Main Group was designed without internal boundaries – so that people interested in similar problems can work together freely, across what might otherwise be disciplinary divides.

You’ve probably already walked down the “Infinite Corridor,” the hallway that forms the spine of the Main Group and connects to most of the rest of our campus. In their design, the Main Group actually helped invent MIT’s culture of collaboration, and that culture of collaboration has helped MIT invent the future.

Service to the Nation and the World
Hard work, collaborative spirit, creativity, and excellence are hallmarks of MIT. But what sets MIT apart from other great universities, more than anything else, is our focus on a distinctive mission of service – to the nation and the world.

In the middle of the 19th century, our founder, William Barton Rogers, saw the need for a new kind of university – not an ivory tower set apart from the world, but a school that would provide a rigorous, pragmatic education relevant to an increasingly industrialized society. He believed passionately in the power of learning by doing, and in tackling real-world problems.

This commitment to serving society and inventing the future is evident all around us – in the works of MIT faculty and graduates over the years. What has MIT given the world? Let me give you just a few examples: The development of radar during WWII; synthetic penicillin; strobe photography; the Ethernet; Bose speakers; the holographic images on your credit cards; the science and engineering for new cancer therapies.

These are only a few of the very many things that MIT has given the world – through the people of MIT. From people like Herbert Kalmus of the Class of 1903, who developed Technicolor – now you know why it’s called Technicolor! – to today’s professors like Frank Wilczek, who received last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for his elucidation of sub-atomic forces, and Maria Zuber, who is mapping the planet Mars.

Your turn is next. The world will look to you to lead in designing solutions to our pressing challenges. Challenges like sustainable energy, contagious diseases and urban sprawl. Challenges like understanding the nature of the furthest reaches of the universe. I could make a very long list: There are more than enough world challenges to go around! At MIT, you will develop the skills to address these challenges. Our mission is to teach you to make the world that will be, and to become the leaders of that new world.

You have incredible native intelligence and talents. Your parents, families, friends, and teachers have nurtured your growth. And to get here, you have already made the most of your previous educational experiences.

To put it simply: You have received great gifts. You will, of course, remember the first thing you learned about receiving gifts – to say, “Thank you.” And the second thing – that it is better to give than to receive. What do those principles mean in this case? That you have an obligation to give back, to put what has been given to you to work for others.

Changes Ahead
So, you are about to start working harder than you ever have before. And you are about to start changing the world for the better. You are also about to start changing yourselves.

At this moment, you may think you know who you are. You are understandably confident of your abilities and identities. But when you graduate four years from now, you will undoubtedly have become a very different person.

At this great educational institution, you will discover abilities, skills, interests, and ambitions that you do not yet know you possess. MIT will present a wealth of experiences, inside and outside of class, that will allow you to explore your interests and expand your talents and horizons.

So, I exhort you: Discover the extraordinary talents you each possess; discover how those talents, driven by passion and curiosity, can make the world a better place.

And so, fellow freshmen, I welcome you to the great traditions, the great ambitions and the great inventions that are MIT.