President Hockfield’s Charge to the Graduates

Friday, June 6, 2008
Prepared remarks for MIT’s 142nd Commencement

Graduates of MIT: This day is for you. Here, in the stately embrace of Killian Court, we gather to celebrate your success. You have distinguished yourselves in courses of study that stand among the most demanding in the world. For all that you have accomplished, you have our deepest respect.

Of course, each of you has had a little help along the way. None of you would be here this morning without the love, support and inspiration of the family and friends who nurtured and cajoled you, and who guided and consoled you since childhood: the ones who watched your very earliest experiments – and mopped up afterward. The ones who embraced your dreams and believed in you, even when you had your doubts. This is day is for them, too. Graduates, I invite you please to rise, and to join me in thanking your family and friends.

There is another important group to acknowledge. Those who have observed your more recent experiments; those who have challenged you to achieve more than you believed you could; those who have taken you with them straight to the exhilarating edge of knowledge and discovery: The incomparable faculty of MIT. Let us thank them, too.

To those of you graduating today, I want to speak about the nature of our world at this moment, and what the world will ask of you. You have come of age at a moment of rare creative intensity. At the intersection of technology and society, the changes that erupted during your time at MIT have transformed our cultural landscape. Facebook and social networking have changed the structure and texture of friendship; they have transformed business and politics; and they have established entirely new networks of understanding. Blogging, wikis and the phenomenon of YouTube have unleashed incredible tides of candor, interaction and creativity. Each of you has played a role in that sea change, a role in inventing what Professor Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture.” Our society will never be the same. And now we are all experiencing a new world of creative connection.

During your years here at MIT, we have also witnessed a world frozen by uncertainty. It has been a time of war – many wars. It has been a time of incomprehensible human suffering at the hands of nature, from New Orleans to Sumatra. Yangon to Chengdu. It has been a time for acknowledging a volatile climate, and for adjusting to a wavering economy.

In this new world, it is impossible to deny our interconnection and easy to be overwhelmed by uncertainty. As you emerge from the more structured realm of studies into the fluid realm of your future, how should you face this new world? I believe we have heard the answer already this morning. Because the deepest lesson to be gained from Professor Muhammad Yunus is his optimism. It is not the optimism of naïveté or boosterism, but the optimism of the practical visionary. It is a kind of optimism that I think of as very MIT.

It is the kind of pragmatic inspiration that allowed William Barton Rogers to found a place as bold and as unusual as MIT, in the midst of the Civil War. With that same undaunted vigor, MIT President Karl Taylor Compton helped pioneer the venture capital industry, right here in Boston – when any enthusiasm for backing promising but risky ventures had run straight down the drain of the Great Depression and World War Two.

It is the practical, unwavering spirit that pushed MIT researchers and graduates through the immense technical problems of developing radar, and of guiding the first trip to the moon, and of turning AIDS from a death sentence to a treatable disease. It is the animating force behind all our most remarkable research, from implantable wafers that have revolutionized the treatment of cancer, to the daring, real-world analysis and prescriptions of our Jameel Poverty Action Lab. It is also the spirit behind the Laboratory for Sustainable Business at MIT Sloan, and behind all our efforts to design and engineer realistic, affordable green cities around the world.

In the end, it is the kind of do-something optimism that allows you to look at a problem as big and ancient and impossible as poverty, and make it yield to hard analysis and fresh ideas, as Professor Yunus dared to do. It is the kind of optimism that allows you to look at a problem as big and new and tangled as energy and climate change, and react not with fear, nor paralysis, but with the analytical curiosity and rigorous creativity of a community of disciplined minds.

It is also certainly the kind of practical, visionary optimism that all of you have shown, over and over, in your classrooms and your clubs, on the playing field, in the studio and on the stage; when you were working for a grade, and when the only one grading your performance was yourself.

In its tagline, one MIT student organization especially captures that optimism, and the spirit and promise of your entire generation: The Vehicle Design Summit. For those here who haven’t heard about it, the Vehicle Design Summit is the brainchild of two MIT engineering students, Anna Jaffe and Robyn Allen. Robyn graduates today.

Their goal is to create an affordable car that will achieve 200 miles to the gallon. The students are motivated by the energy and environmental problems that highlight most acutely our shared uncertainty and interconnectedness. They are tackling this challenge with your generation’s passion for creative connection. They have not only built a broad, interdisciplinary team of students at MIT, they have also knit together a huge network of inspired minds at dozens of universities around the world.

Their tag line? “We are the people that we have been waiting for.” Let me assure you: we have been waiting for you, too, all of you. Now is your moment to take the powers of analysis, the capacity for good old-fashioned hard work, the fearless creativity, the constructive irreverence, and the instincts for practical, visionary leadership that you have honed at MIT – and take that show on the road.

We will certainly miss you, but the world right now needs you. In this challenging moment, we celebrate your powers of creative connection. Congratulations on the great distances you have traveled while here at MIT. And the very best of success in your adventures ahead.