President Reif's Charge to the Graduates 2014
As prepared for delivery
To the graduates of 2014: Congratulations! I know I am the last thing standing between you and your diplomas. So I feel a tremendous responsibility to be brief.
To everyone who has come here this morning to celebrate our graduates — welcome to MIT! And to the parents and families of today’s graduates — congratulations to you as well! For you, this day is the joyful result of years of serious effort, loving support, and sacrifice. Please accept our gratitude and admiration.
It is great to have you all here on Killian Court on this wonderful day, for this tremendously important occasion.
Before we let you graduate, I am expected to give our graduating class a “charge.” This is a fancy way of saying that I am supposed to give you some advice. Since you have gotten yourselves this far without my advice, it isn’t clear that you need any from me now. (Except perhaps: “Watch your step going down the ramp.”) Quite frankly, coming up with advice that would be useful for people as talented as you are is a big challenge. So I am going to distract you for a minute with some advice that was given to me, by some of your fellow MIT students.
When I took on the job of president two years ago, a group of students volunteered to advise me. They called themselves the “Presidential Transition Advisory Cabinet.” At the end of the first year, they decided they were so good at giving me advice they would just keep doing it. One of our meetings was last September. It was a great conversation. I did not want to leave it. But I told them that I had to end the meeting. They were surprised, and they teased me about it. “Why do you have to go?” they asked. “What could you possibly have to do that is more important than talking to us?”
I explained that I had to see some alumni who were members of the William Barton Rogers Society. I said, “These are graduates whose generosity makes it possible for you to be at MIT.” That impressed them. So I asked the students, “Is there anything you wish me to tell these important alumni?” After a moment, one of them replied, “Please tell them that MIT is a gift to the world.”
“MIT is a gift to the world.” I believe that is true. And I believe it more than ever, being here with all of you today. Because I know that you are a gift to the world.
I would also like to feel certain that the world is ready for you. So since I believe I know you pretty well, I think I should give the world some instructions for your care and feeding. I could write a letter. It might go something like this:
Congratulations on your recent decision to hire, invest-in, launch a start-up with, enroll, marry, date or befriend your New MIT Graduate.
MIT Graduates are fairly exotic: only around one hundred and thirty thousand of them exist in the wild. They vary widely in appearance, although over time, they do tend to acquire bright red jackets. But they all share certain powerful instincts.
Here are answers to some Frequently Asked Questions about handling your New MIT Graduate, to achieve the best results.
My company has a very competitive culture. But my New MIT Graduate insists on building collaborative teams. What am I doing wrong?
There is no way to stop this team-building behavior. And be careful: it spreads! Monitor your entire company for symptoms of increased creativity and profits.
Is there any way to discourage my New MIT Graduate from working all night?
MIT Graduates are naturally nocturnal, especially when they are chasing a fresh idea. You can try locking your New MIT Graduate inside a frustrating bureaucracy; for a short time, this will stun them. But they will quickly escape, and return to quantum leaping.
I have a group of New MIT Graduates. I recently fed them a huge quantity of raw data and unleashed them on an extremely hard problem. Now, how do I make them stop purring?
Warning: Do not tell them the problem is impossible, or critically important to the future of humankind! That will only make the purring worse! If you cannot stand their appetite for tough, meaningful challenges, consider trading them for New Graduates from… some other institution.
I want my New MIT Graduates to perform at the peak of their abilities. What can I use to motivate them?
You can try money. That works, up to a point. But if you really want to see how high your New MIT Graduates can jump — give them an opportunity to change the world.
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So that is my advice to help the world understand you. Now, let me complete my assignment and give you some advice.
As you start out in life, it can seem that society runs itself. You may feel that, for the most part, it proceeds according to forces outside the control of any individual — sort of like a driverless car. However, at least for now, we as a society still need our most thoughtful, inventive, compassionate people in the driver’s seat. We need your vision to steer around obstacles, your passion to accelerate our progress towards important goals and your wisdom to put the brakes on humanity’s most destructive forces. And, more often than you might think, we need you to get out of the car, open the hood, reach for your tools — and rebuild the engine of society until it delivers the kind of performance we expect from ourselves at MIT.
Whatever road you choose to travel, I want you to reject the idea that what you see in front of you is the best that we human beings can do. I want you to see the status quo as nothing more than the beta release —a place to start, because you know we can do better. In short (and I think some of you may know what’s coming) I want you to hack the world, until you make the world a little more like MIT. More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, playful and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous and more kind.
It is a big assignment. But I know you are ready, because you came to MIT with exceptional qualities of your own. And you leave us now equipped with a rare set of skills and steeped in this community’s deepest values: A commitment to excellence. Integrity. Meritocracy. Boldness. Humility. An open spirit of collaboration. A strong desire to make a positive impact. And a sense of responsibility to make the world a better place.
On this wonderful day, I am proud of all of you. So now go out there. Join the world. Find your calling. Solve the unsolvable. Shape the future. Drive society onto the high road. And you will continue to make your family, including your MIT family, proud.
To every one of the members of the graduating class of 2014: Please accept my best wishes for a happy and successful life and career. Congratulations!