President Hockfield's Charge to the Graduates

Friday, June 4, 2010
Prepared remarks for MIT's 144th Commencement

Today's graduates of MIT: This day is, truly, 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, we congratulate you.

In the midst of celebrating your achievements, our joy would be incomplete if we did not recognize two groups of people who helped bring you to this moment: First, your families and friends, many of whom join us today, with justifiable pride and with joy. We welcome them, knowing full well that none of you would be here, clothed in solemn academic regalia, without the constant confidence of family members and friends who embraced your dreams and lighted your paths. This is their day, too. Graduates, I invite you to rise, and to join me in thanking your families and friends. The second group to thank includes your many teachers and mentors here at MIT. Our remarkable faculty have devoted their lives to exploring and explaining the unknown. And they welcomed you to join them in the race to the frontiers of human understanding. Let's take a moment to thank the women and men who shared their discoveries, ignited your enthusiasm with their own, and taught you the infinitely useful discipline of mind and hand.

Speaking for the faculty, one of the great pleasures of MIT's academic community is that we are all teachers, and we are all students, all the time. And so today, though it is technically my job to offer a charge to you, our graduates, I want to start by explaining how much my generation can learn from yours. I will skip past the things that we will probably never learn, like the proper way to "unfriend" someone or how to talk about using Twitter, with a straight face, and move on to a few qualities that seem to shine out in everything you do, and that the world needs now more than ever.

My generation endured, and sometimes incited, struggles that threatened to tear this nation apart. Those struggles, while accelerating change in many dimensions, often produced more noise than effect, and they left cracks in some of the pillars of community, especially in the idea of responsibility to the larger community beyond the self. When Bill Gates came to campus this spring, he encouraged you, as he said, to "make sure that our brightest minds are working on [humanity's] most important problems." But with so many of you already devoting your creativity, time and passion to tackling the world's most pressing challenges, he spoke here not merely to an audience inclined to follow his advice, but to those already leading the way.

Yet your generation wears its commitment to the greater good quite lightly. You use your skills to help repair a broken world, however, you see nothing remarkable about it; you simply expect it of each other, and of yourselves. Over the past decade, the number of students who volunteer through MIT's Public Service Center has grown somewhat, but the real difference lies in the depth and ambition of their engagement, which has blossomed from interest in volunteering in the neighborhood now and again, to a deep culture of service that has inspired members of the Class of 2010 to launch a free summer camp for the children of local cancer patients, to bring battery-enhanced electricity to remote villages in Tanzania, and to design wheelchairs for people in developing nations around the world. At the same time, MBA students in MIT Sloan's wildly popular Global Lab program, or G-lab, have used their newfound business skills to magnify the power of fledgling enterprises, like developing a scalable business model for food carts that deliver nutritious meals to children in Indonesia's poorest neighborhoods. And you have also put your shoulders to the wheel that accelerates economic growth, by launching the kind of innovation-based businesses that drive our nation's economy and the world's. This year's MIT Sloan graduates alone are rolling out 35 start-up companies, as we speak, seven of them built on new technologies invented at MIT.

You have surely inherited one thing from my generation: a copious stockpile of jargon. Jargon that attempts to capture and control some of the untamed conditions of our world by affixing a name to them: Globalization. Diversity. Work-Life Balance. You, quite properly, treat our jargon as quaintly obsolete: You swap the conflicted notion of globalization for the bright conviction that you can work anywhere and you should. You don't fret about diversity, you simply choose the people with whom you live and work based on interests and talents that transcend yesterday's 20th century boundaries. And why would you let your life and your work get out of balance anyway? Just launch a company that values both as much as you do.

You have also transformed one jargon-heavy platitude into the great challenge of your generation. Today, we all look out on a world riddled with manifestly unsustainable systems, from the environment to the global economy; from healthcare to transportation; from water, to cities, to energy – ailing systems whose remedies will call on the core strengths of MIT. It is that call on MIT's intellectual resources that brought President Obama to our campus in October, to highlight the critical need to develop clean energy technologies, at great speed, and on a prodigious scale. He urged you to defy the easy complacency of pessimism, reminded you that we are "heirs to a legacy of innovation," and challenged you to help invent our clean energy future.

I am extremely proud that you are answering that call and expanding its challenge by insisting on and inventing ambitiously sustainable systems:

Some of you are inventing sustainable practices through engineering and entrepreneurship: The students who won this year's $100K Competition proposed a start-up that will bring the world a nanoengineered cement, stronger than any existing version and promising to cut the torrent of CO2 generated during standard concrete production in half. Some of you are pursuing sustainability by rethinking the systems that society depends on, like the Aeronautics and Astronautics students who worked with Professor Mark Drela and others to envision a new plane that consumes 70% less fuel, or the doctoral candidate who analyzed how to balance the rising demand for air travel with improving air quality and climate impacts, and helped shape new international rules governing commercial aviation.

Some of you create sustainable solutions by applying new technology to old problems, like providing basic, affordable healthcare for everyone. In this year's IDEAS competition, one winning student team invented PerfectSight, an extremely affordable system for diagnosing nearsightedness and farsightedness – using a cell phone. And some of you are pursuing sustainability through policy change: Last week in Congress, Senator Jeff Bingaman introduced an important new energy bill that aims to deliver dramatic gains in energy efficiency from our complex energy supply chains, a supremely MIT idea that he first learned about through our graduate student-led Energy Club.

Whatever field you choose, I hope and I fully expect that you will advance the cause of "sustainability." But I anticipate that you will push us even further, beyond the cliché, because simple sustainability is not enough; it is necessary but not sufficient. By itself, sustainability resembles the medical principle, "First, do no harm," a guardrail to protect us from a precipice. But with the particular strengths of your generation, the ingenuity and practicality you learned at MIT, and an appreciation of the distant ramifications of present action, I believe you have the power to set us a more ambitious goal, to move from "sustainability" to a far-reaching kind of healing, from "doing no harm" to doing a great deal of good.

Graduates of MIT: Today is your day, and now is your moment to take all you have learned at MIT – the power of analysis; the capacity for good old-fashioned hard work; the fearless creativity; and the commitment to restoring an unsustainable world – and put them to work around the globe. In person and on-line, through the Alumni Association and through your friends, I encourage you to stay connected to MIT for the rest of your lives. For all that you have created, discovered, invented, explored and mastered at MIT – Congratulations MIT graduates of 2010.