President Hockfield’s Charge to the Graduates

Friday, June 5, 2009
Prepared remarks for MIT’s 143rd Commencement

I share something important with the undergraduate Class of 2009: we were freshmen together. You started your first full academic year at MIT when I started mine. Over these four years, we have all learned lessons, great and small, starting with the mysterious way we number our buildings and our courses, the numerical “secret handshake” of the MIT family. While you mastered the art of the problem set, I have begun to understand how to balance MIT’s myriad engagements and responsibilities, from those that line the Infinite Corridor to those that take us to countries around the world. And all of us have gained lessons in humility and in the awesome power of this vast intellectual enterprise, whose influence pervades almost every corner of modern life.

Our Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science – or EECS, known in the numerical code as Course 6 – has an informal tagline that hints at the fundamental discoveries and inventions its graduates and faculty have given the world, they say “EECS is everywhere.” EECS is indeed everywhere, and so is MIT.

Whenever we send e-mail or run a Google search, we can thank Turing Award-winner Barbara Liskov for the fundamental protocols that make those tasks possible, safe and swift. MIT talent brought us the microchip; the guidance systems that took us to the moon; weapons that keep the nation safe; and the wireless technology that drives a third of the cell phones on the planet. MIT insights pervade the GPS on our dashboards, the gas engines in our cars, and the batteries that will replace them. And we should all be grateful to MIT professor Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, who really did invent the World Wide Web.

MIT insights help preserve our food, color our fabrics and shape the fabric of our cities. MIT people invented the MRI in every hospital and the stents that help keep heart patients alive. They mapped the molecular defects that enabled the first targeted therapies for cancer, and they are testing drugs that treat autism. MIT talent bursts through the special effects in “Star Wars” and has expanded our deep understanding of the stars themselves. MIT also hums in the music of John Harbison and in the high-performance speakers we use to play it, in the indelible words of Junot Diaz, and in the dominant theory of language itself. And today, companies launched by MIT entrepreneurs provide jobs for 3.3 million people around the world.

In these and many other ways, the people of MIT have been busy. They have indeed given us a lot to live up to. Fortunately, they have left some big problems for you, this year’s graduates. So here is my charge to each of you: that you embrace those challenges with every strength that you have gained at MIT.

I have no doubt that in your time here, you have learned to work hard – very hard. I know that you have absorbed the Institute’s unbending standards of excellence, integrity and rigor, and you’ve made them your own. You, quite likely, have grown accustomed to the creative intensity and fearless collaboration that electrify this campus, so let me break it to you now: you are not going to find those things everywhere. I have great confidence that you have also absorbed another, vital aspect of MIT culture, a principle that has set the Institute apart from other great universities since our founding in 1861: it’s our commitment to service, to use the talents we brought to MIT, strengthened in MIT’s furnace of high expectations, to better the human condition around the world.

Why do I reinforce this mission of service, as you prepare to leave MIT? Well, your time here has borne a heavy stamp of history. The day that I addressed the Freshman Convocation of this undergraduate class – August 29, 2005, a day when the threatening rain here in Cambridge drove that ceremony indoors – that was the very day Hurricane Katrina crushed a great American city. Last year, nature dealt a terrible blow to China’s Chengdu province. Throughout these four years, wars scoured the world, and still do. The global community has begun to grasp the pressing threat of climate change. And financial turmoil has upended economic structures worldwide.

This last fact, particularly, might lead you to wish that you could be graduating in simpler, sunnier times. But I want to make sure that you see, in all this complication and uncertainty, that the world needs you now as it has rarely needed any set of graduates from MIT, and that this era’s call to service, to you, calls on a group of graduates exceptionally well prepared for the task. This world may not be dispensing easy rewards, but in its urgent call for your intelligence, inventiveness, passion and drive, it offers you an extraordinary gift.

Let me explain: Last year’s historic presidential election opened a remarkable new chapter in America’s history. Regardless of political background, we have all seen incontrovertibly that our new President shares certain views best sung in the key of “MIT.” On Inauguration Day, hundreds of people here at MIT watched the coverage in our lecture halls. And when President Obama declared, “We will restore science to its rightful place,” they leapt as one to their feet to applaud. There aren’t too many places in America like that.

Our new President understands that America’s future depends on its investments in science and engineering. To successfully battle the great problems of the day – from climate change to computer security, from healthcare to hunger, and from energy to the economy – will take extraordinary feats of science and discovery, engineering and invention. It will take precisely the kind of innovations and innovators that the world has come to expect from MIT.

Our new President has called the nation to action, and that call resonates nowhere more potently than here. This is MIT’s moment to shine in service, and it is yours. You will leave here prepared; prepared to serve as engineers and scientists, architects and planners, economists and entrepreneurs. The future may feel like an uncharted new country, but you already speak its language.

By service, I do not mean that we foresee a government assignment for every one of you, although the current Administration does swarm with brilliant minds from MIT. By service, I do not mean that we expect a universal vow of poverty, or that only big, headline-grabbing problems are worth working on, though they could surely benefit from your creativity, intensity and courage. By service, I mean that in submitting yourselves to the transformative powers of this Institute, you have given yourself and the world a great resource, and I believe you have a responsibility to use it.

Whatever your career or profession, you serve the world whenever you refuse to accept a conclusion until you understand the data; whenever you insist on higher standards of inquiry and analysis; and whenever you face a daunting problem, undaunted. You serve when you invent a product that solves an important problem, launch a company that creates rewarding jobs or generate new knowledge at the forefront of your field. You serve when you communicate complex findings so that non-experts can grasp them and wisely act. You serve when you insist that your organization achieves excellence and inclusion, and you certainly serve when you inspire children to love science, math, engineering and numbers just as much as you do. As you shoulder responsibility for inventing the future, you can take courage in knowing that you will be advancing the most profound traditions of MIT.

Graduates of MIT: Now is your moment – your moment to take the power of analysis; the capacity for good old-fashioned hard work; the fearless creativity; and the instincts for practical, visionary leadership that you have honed at MIT – and put them to work in the world. In person and online, through the Alumni Association and through your friends, I encourage you to stay connected to MIT for the rest of your lives. Of course, we are really going to miss you here – but the world needs you right now. For all that you have created, discovered, invented, explored and mastered at MIT – congratulations. I join with our faculty, staff, alumni and students in wishing you the very best of success in your adventures ahead. Congratulations Class of 2009.