President Reif's Charge to the Graduates 2015

Friday, June 5, 2015

As prepared for delivery

To the graduates of 2015:  Congratulations! To honor your extraordinary achievements, I would like to take this opportunity to be thoughtful, reflective and wise. But, seeing the look on your faces right now, perhaps I should just try 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, a huge congratulations to you as well!  For you, this day is the joyful result of years of loving support and sacrifice. Please accept our deep gratitude and admiration.

It is great to have all of you here on Killian Court, on this wonderful day, for this tremendously important occasion. My job today is to deliver a “charge” to the graduates, and I will get to that in a minute. But first, I have a question: How many of you are graduating seniors? Raise your hands! Make your presence known!

Before we start, I have to talk mainly with you for a moment. Last week, the Registrar came to me with some bad news. She told me that when you first got to campus in 2011, you were supposed to have your freshman convocation on August 28th, the same day Boston got hit with Hurricane Irene. The Governor declared a State of Emergency, and your Freshman Convocation had to be cancelled completely! It was never rescheduled.  And so, technically, in the eyes of the Registrar, you never really started to be freshmen: You are still pre-frosh!

So the Registrar said, she is sorry, but no convocation, no diploma!

As you would expect, I bravely advocated on your behalf.  So I asked, “Is there any way to fix this? What if I gave the class some advice that would have been really helpful four years ago, something like, ‘I think you should invest in this strange little company called Uber’”? Well, I was able to persuade her, and she agreed that, if I delivered any part of your Freshman Convocation speech today she would give you credit for the full four years. So, here we go. Now everybody, you are welcome to listen.

That cancelled speech featured a quote from an MIT graduate: Tom Scholz, Class of 1969, Course 2. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he was the creative force and technical brains behind a classic rock band called “Boston” (some of the parents here may remember them), and he believes his MIT education had a huge impact on his career.

But even more important has been the impact on his everyday life.  In his words, what he learned at MIT has “affected the way I drive, the way I work out, how I do things around the house, and how I fly an airplane. It has enabled me to build unique equipment of all sorts, to deal with physical disabilities, to protect myself from injury, and to understand things in the physical world around me that are a mystery to most people. Even more valuable, MIT left me with the confidence to attempt innovation and…the desire to learn.”

That’s it! “The confidence to attempt innovation and the desire to learn.”
Your whole MIT education in the space of a Tweet! So at last, to the Class of 2015: Welcome to MIT!        

Tom Scholz did not mention a single course number or academic discipline. Yet he explained the most important thing we offer at MIT, something that will serve you well, whatever path you follow, from rock star to rocket scientist. And it’s just as valuable now as it was in 1969, because what MIT really offers is a worldview.

It’s the worldview of an institute that, between 1944 and 2013, won 80 football games and earned 80 Nobel prizes. And at MIT, we think that’s about the right balance. The only problem, of course, is that last year, in 2014, the MIT football team had a record-breaking season: ten more wins! Not to mention the 17 other MIT teams in the N.C.A.A. championships. So, to maintain that right balance, our Nobel Prize team better pick up the pace.

The MIT worldview combines a profound humility with the confidence that no problem is too big, with the right people on the job -- whether you aim to launch a game-changing company, or cure Alzheimer’s, or educate a billion people, or invent a way to provide fresh water for the world. The MIT worldview inspires us to make a serious impact on important challenges, and it fosters a healthy disregard for the conventional wisdom. As the Media Lab’s Joi Ito says, “You don't get a Nobel Prize for doing what you’re told.”

Intense curiosity and a commitment to excellence. The humility – and the confidence – to face hard problems. And a bold willingness to disrupt the status quo, to make the world a better place. It is this MIT worldview that gives me the confidence to deliver my charge to you. Because after you leave us today, I want to ask you to hack the world, until you make the world a little more like MIT. More daring and more passionate. More humble, more respectful, more generous and more kind. More rigorous, inventive, and ambitious.

When Megan Smith brought us “Google Earth” – that was definitely hacking the world. But you don’t have to start with a project as big as the planet. You can start in your own backyard. And there are examples, right here, all around us:

Like the students, faculty and staff who created our Collier Memorial, transforming the tragedy that began with the Boston Marathon into a feat of engineering and a spectacular work of art. That’s hacking the world! Or like the students who took the spirit of “Black Lives Matter” one step further by reaching out and meeting with the MIT and Cambridge Police, so they could learn from one another. That’s hacking the world! Or like the students of Fossil Free MIT, who inspired a community conversation about how MIT can lead in solving the challenge of climate change. That is certainly hacking the world – the whole world.

One of my favorite examples, though, may be the simplest of all: the student who responded to the terrible losses we experienced this year by making these wristbands: They say T.M.A.Y.D. It stands for “Tell Me About Your Day.” She created them to give each of us a way to show that we are willing to listen when others need to talk, a way to break down the barriers of busy-ness, embarrassment and shyness, so that together, we can make visible the great invisible network of kindness and understanding that supports us all. That is beautiful, and it is definitely hacking the world.

So to the MIT graduates of 2015: Let me tell you about my day! This morning, I see 2,700 new graduates of extraordinary energy and skill. People with intense curiosity and a commitment to excellence.  With the humility – and the confidence – to face hard problems. And with a bold willingness to disrupt the status quo, if that’s what it takes to make the world a better place. I see 2,700 people with a certain worldview.

And beyond you, I see a world that urgently needs everything that you have to offer.

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. Invent the future. Take 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 2015: Please accept my best wishes for a happy and successful life and career. Congratulations!