Freshman Convocation 2006

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Good morning. Welcome, families. Welcome, friends. And most of all, welcome, members of the Class of 2010! 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 also some – but I hope not too many – words of advice.

I am joined by some of the people who will play key roles in your lives over the next few years. You will hear shortly from our Chancellor, Professor Phillip Clay, and then from our Dean for Student Life, Dr. Larry Benedict. Also here on the stage are the Provost, the Vice President for Institute Affairs and Secretary of the Corporation, the Deans of the Institute's Schools, the Dean for Undergraduate Education, and housemasters of the undergraduate residence halls.

Killian Court: The Symbolic and Ceremonial Heart of the MIT Campus
We gather this morning in the magnificent space we call Killian Court. This is the symbolic and ceremonial heart of the MIT campus. I will come back to the symbolism in a moment. As for ceremony, the next time we will all gather here together will be in the spring of 2010, when you will step forward to receive your degrees at Commencement.

Killian Court and the buildings of the "main group" that embrace it represent MIT's history and its future. MIT began in Boston in 1861; when we outgrew that site, we moved to this side of the Charles River in 1916. The spirit of collaboration speaks through the architecture of the main group, constructed as a single, interconnected building.

Now, for the symbolism: As you can see, the frieze of the buildings around us carry the names of some of the world's great scientists and engineers, chosen by members of the MIT faculty as the Institute prepared for its 1916 move to Cambridge. Those selected – from Archimedes and Aristotle to Darwin and Pasteur – were all great seekers after truth, and catalysts for human progress. Of course, this list reflects the knowledge and attitudes of its era. For example, there are no women listed here – even though by the time these buildings went up Marie Curie had already won the Nobel Prize – twice! So this list is not complete. But its absences should not detract from our appreciation of what the men whose names ring this courtyard accomplished. They continue to offer us inspiring models.

One name in the frieze has particular temporal relevance: Benjamin Franklin, whose 300th birthday we mark this year. Franklin resides in MIT's pantheon as a scientist, inventor, and engineer, but his life's work extended beyond science and technology. Franklin was a protean figure. His scientific work reached from geology to oceanography; and his inventions extended from the bifocal lens to the energy-efficient Franklin stove.

The scientific work for which Franklin is best known – his fundamental studies of electricity – came in the early days of modern research in physics. And they illustrate, as one recent historian has put it, "how fundamental, curiosity-driven research can lead to significant practical benefits," in this case, the adoption of the lightning rod as a protection against fire. MIT today makes the same kind of contributions. Consider, for example, the work of MIT Professor Richard R. Schrock, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for his work in the development of a chemical reaction known as metathesis. That work began as pure, curiosity-driven science, but metathesis is now used for the safer and faster production of pharmaceuticals and fuels.

While we often associate Benjamin Franklin with Philadelphia, he was actually born less than three miles from here, on Milk Street in downtown Boston. Now, three centuries since his birth, he still has lessons for us – and for you as you embark on your MIT undergraduate experience.

Franklin's Lessons
The first lesson Franklin offers is about the importance of "hard work, perseverance, and self-discipline," qualities that his biographers agree marked his entire life. His electrical experiments in the 1740s were exceptionally demanding, as serious study of any kind always is. In the midst of them, he reported that he had "little leisure for any thing else."

You will quickly discover that you have never before experienced any place like MIT. No matter how demanding your high school was, MIT is not simply high school on steroids. The curiosity and passion of the people who work and study here make MIT a uniquely intense environment. Our history demonstrates again and again that when our nation or the world confronts a major challenge, they look to MIT to solve it. I will just mention one example, among many: Radar, which played a crucial role in the Allied victory in World War II and was, arguably, the "war-winning technology." Approximately one-half of all the radar technologies used by the Allies were developed here at MIT's Radiation Laboratory, which pioneered interdisciplinary research linking the physical sciences with engineering. Eight of the researchers who worked at the Rad Lab during the War went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Today, you become a part of MIT’s remarkable history.

You each had your own reasons for choosing us. But let me explain why we chose you. MIT chose you because we believe that you can excel in our 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 exceptional achievement that are the essence of MIT. In other words, we know you can succeed here. But that is not to say that it will be easy. MIT will challenge and test you just as it inspires you. As a result, you will accomplish things you never thought possible. You will raise the bar for yourselves.

At the same time, you will also raise the bar for each other, because a true education is not a solitary endeavor or challenge. It is a collaborative and communal enterprise. Benjamin Franklin's experience makes this point. He had only two years of formal schooling. But when he was 21 he established a club known as the Junto – a group of young workingmen who met weekly to discuss the topics of the day in a spirit of mutual self-improvement. To provide access to books they could not afford individually, they founded the first public library in the colonies.

You, like Franklin and his friends, will educate each other. Collaboration is an important part of the MIT culture. While we're known for innovative competitions, it is important to remember that an event such as the annual $100K business plan contest is really all about teamwork. In that spirit of collaboration, you will push yourselves and one another to meet MIT's and the world's challenges.

You will also recognize, in new ways, how important it is to be open to diverse experiences and people. Franklin was a successful nation-builder and diplomat because he worked well with people of varied backgrounds. At a time when most people's experiences were local, his youthful apprenticeship in London, and his life engaging people in the work of building the cosmopolitan environment of Philadelphia, taught him how to collaborate effectively with colleagues from other regions and nations. Franklin was the consummate leader-collaborator, advancing goals for the common good through his hands-on work with others. These are exactly the skills that all of you will need – and want – in today’s increasingly globalized world.

MIT is a community that embraces and learns from differences. In the late 19th century, we pioneered coeducation in science and technology. Ellen Swallow Richards, our first woman student, graduate and instructor, received an S.B. in Chemistry in 1873. When she arrived at MIT in 1871, she was the first woman to study at an American scientific school. Even before she graduated, Swallow's work testing drinking water supplies and water contaminants had made her a pre-eminent water scientist, and she went on to pioneer major advances in public health, including the delivery of clean water supplies to industrial cities. For most of the 20th century, women represented only a small fraction of MIT students, but you join an undergraduate student body that now includes 44 percent women. The number of women on our faculty has doubled since 1990, but we are still at work to ensure that MIT's faculty and students draw fully from our world's diverse talent pool.

As you look around at your class, you will see the world: you come from 49 states, two American territories, and the District of Columbia, and from 51 other countries. You are scholars, to be sure, but you are also musicians and athletes and mathematicians and entrepreneurs. This wonderful array of different histories and different interests will furnish an important component of your MIT curriculum.

Benjamin Franklin's life also provides an important reminder about the links between what you will study here at MIT and the world you will enter when you graduate. Franklin was committed to enhancing the public understanding of science, through lecture-demonstrations, publications, and the force of his remarkable example. Today, the connections between science, technology, and public life are more important than they have ever been before. We face challenges such as rapidly increasing demands for energy, as-yet unconquered diseases, and nuclear proliferation.

The MIT environment encourages faculty and students to make a difference in the world. That is why so many in our community have contributed to the work of MIT's Energy Initiative. It is also why so many people from our community have engaged their talents and expertise on the problems of rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We are helping to solve complex problems of urban planning at the same time we are advancing the fundamental science behind hurricanes. As MIT students and graduates, you have a unique opportunity to make a difference by bridging the distance between science and public life, and by bringing scientific and technological knowledge to bear on our era's greatest challenges.

The final lesson I draw from Franklin's exemplary life has to do with the importance of service to the nation and the world—the kind of service exemplified by so many MIT faculty and graduates, past and present. Franklin himself said that education should help students develop "an inclination, joined with an ability, to serve mankind." Throughout his own life, Franklin put his talents to work for the good of man. And he did this – as I hope you will – for his local community, for his country, and for the world.

In his adopted city of Philadelphia, he established institutions to spread learning and improve the public health and welfare, including the first public hospital in the colonies. He served his country as a political leader and diplomat, from the colonial period, through the Revolution, at the Constitutional Convention, and then as president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. And he served the cause of liberty around the world, as an eloquent advocate for the promise of free institutions.

Hold Benjamin Franklin as one of your examples; you will find many others, from whose lives and contributions you will weave your own contributions to the world. You have remarkable 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. Blessed with the great gifts of an able mind and a willing hand, each of you now takes up MIT’s motto, "Mens et Manus," mind and hand. Today, MIT’s legacy of invention, discovery and public service has become yours. Embrace it, reflect upon it, and discover how you will weave your own thread into this rich tapestry.

Welcome to MIT!