Vest evokes Wiesner's memory in charge to graduates


(Following is President Charles M. Vest's Charge to the Graduates at Commencement Exercises on Friday June 9. He began his remarks in response to presentation of the Class gift by Mehran Islam, president of the Class of 1995.)

Thank you, Mr. Islam. It is a moving experience to receive a gift from the class at a moment like this-after all we've put you through in the last four years. It's very good of you. There are some who ask whether good teaching and research can go hand in hand. Your gift, a UROP scholarship, clearly states the answer: Indeed they do!

I very much hope your vision and generosity will serve as a model to other classes which will follow. Thank you very much. There can be no more useful gift to the institution.

Once again we are gathered in Killian Court-the Great Court of MIT-to celebrate accomplishment, heritage and passage. It may seem a bit odd that a community so dedicated to the future would come together on this occasion dressed in strange and colorful medieval regalia. But indeed it is fitting, and seemingly fulfilling of some deep human need, that such rituals take place. They remind us of our role in an unbroken, centuries-old chain of discovery, learning and accomplishment- achievements of the mind and of the spirit.

But above all, this ceremony celebrates your accomplishments during your student years. This is not to say that you have accomplished this remarkable feat of graduating from MIT all on your own, however!

We are surrounded today by parents, family, friends, spouses and children who have supported and sustained you throughout the years. You will recognize them today by their smiles, brought about by their great pride in your accomplishments. and, also no doubt, by a sense of great relief to their bank accounts. Let us then express our deep appreciation to all who have come to Cambridge today to celebrate your commencement ceremony. Will you, the graduates, please rise, turn to your audience and give them the applause they so richly deserve. Thank you.

It is also especially wonderful to see the babies and small children who come to see their mothers and fathers graduate. They too are welcome. And as this ceremony stretches onward, I give them special presidential approval to comment upon the proceedings. at any time and in any manner they see fit.

I would like to take a moment to recognize some other special graduates of MIT who are with us today. They are the members of the Class of 1945-the 50-year class-and the Class of 1970, celebrating their 25th reunion. You will recognize them by the red or gray jackets they are wearing-along with a certain look of wonder that time has somehow passed so quickly since they were in your shoes.

Time has passed quickly-and it has brought extraordinary change along with it.

Fifty years ago, we were emerging from the Second World War. a period when MIT was called to national service. Our scientists and engineers helped to develop radar. students moved through here in double time. and many took up arms in defense of freedom and democracy. It was a time of crisis for the country and for the world, and the people of MIT responded.

Twenty-five years ago, we faced difficult times of a different sort. The country-and this campus-were divided over the Vietnam War. It was a time of great strain, but the true gift of our society is that, even in moments of highest crisis, we not only tolerate, we protect the voices of dissent. Some serve by bearing arms, others by forcing a look at the hard questions. In each of these generations, the men and women of MIT answered the call in their own way.

Now, as you look to the future and ponder the world you are entering, my wish for each of you is a life well-lived.

And how does this wish for a life well-lived relate to the intense, rigorous, analytically based education that you have received here at MIT?

And how does it relate to the Class of 1945 who join you today, and who 50 years ago brought science, technology and personal valor to bear in the defeat of the undisputed evil of Nazism?

And how does it relate to the Class of 1970, which struggled with the moral, intellectual and political dilemmas of the Vietnam War and its meaning for American society?

And most important, how does this wish for a life well-lived relate to the world we face today? Ours is a world of contrasts. We are coming to understand the common stake in the global environment and the global economy. Yet there is a terrifying resurgence of nationalist and ethnic conflict across the world, and there are truly incredible levels of violence and purposelessness in our own nation. It is a world that is experiencing both scientific progress and economic advancement at the same time that there is growing stratification of wealth and divisions among peoples. It is a world permeated with both hope and despair. How, indeed, does a wish for a life well-lived relate to this world?

In searching for answers, we can do no better than to reflect on the life of a great person who shared this platform with us for many years. He is with us no more. Former MIT president Jerome Wiesner died last fall. You must know about him.

Jerry Wiesner showed us all a life well-lived-one that took form from, and gave form to, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His was a life that drew deeply on science and engineering, but also encompassed humanism, educational leadership, artistic sensibilities and statecraft.

Jerry Wiesner was of MIT. The Research Laboratory of Electronics, the Department of Electrical Engineering, the School of Science, and the entire Institute were led by him at one time or another. He promoted the growth of the humanities, the arts and the social sciences in our midst. He led us in bringing women and minorities into this academy. He maintained an international perspective and world view in all that he did. He looked to the future, he co-founded the Media Laboratory. He reveled in discourse with everyone at MIT-students, trustees, staff, faculty, alumni and alumnae-all of our community.

Jerry was a citizen of the world. He was Science Advisor to two US Presidents. He convened informal and impassioned dialogue among government officials and student protesters. During the Cold War, he was a guiding light of the Pugwash Conference and movement that sustained discussion across national and political boundaries. He worked tirelessly to awaken the world from the nightmare of nuclear standoff. He played a key role in obtaining the release of Soviet scientist and dissident, Andre Sakarov. He shaped major corporations and foundations through his service on their boards.

Yet throughout this life on the world stage, he lived quietly and simply with his beloved wife Laya in Watertown and on the Vineyard.

And through it all. he spoke his mind. Listen to what-in part-America's great poet Archibald MacLeish said of Jerry Wiesner:

A good man! Look at him there against the time!

He saunters along to his place in the world's weather,

lights his pipe and hitches his pants,

talks back to accepted opinion.

Congressional Committees hear him say:

"Not what you think: what you haven't thought of."

He addresses Presidents. He says:

"Governments even now still have to govern:

no one is going to invent a self-governing holocaust."

The Pentagon receives his views:

"Science" he says, "is no substitute for thought.

Miracle drugs perhaps: not miracle wars."

Advisor to Presidents, the papers call him.

Advisor, I say, to the young.

It's the young who need competent friends, bold companions,

honest men who will not run out,

won't write off mankind, sell up the country,

quit the venture, jibe the ship.

How does that life relate to MIT? We-all of us-are MIT. We must nurture, support, love and build this institution for the future as he did.

How does Jerry's life relate to us and the Class of 1945? We-like they-must turn our talents to the greater good and be prepared to sacrifice in the effort when the times demand it.

How does it relate to us and the Class of 1970? We-like they-must boldly address the profound dilemmas which the world presents to us.

And how does it relate to the world you face, which you as the Class of 1995 will soon shape and lead?

You must keep alive the joy, excitement, beauty , rationality and creativity of science and technology, deeply understood. Yet you must understand the power and potential of science and technology to enable great good, but also evil. In other words, you must never cease to consider the context in which its powers are applied and its ability to shape the world for better or worse. You must strive to understand complexity and to contemplate the world from a systems perspective. Strive to integrate the understandings of humanists and artists with those of scientists, engineers, managers, architects, planners and social scientists.

Live your lives well. Ponder the unthinkable. Question the status quo. Live in the world as well as your own nation. Dream of a better future and contribute to the present. Share your talents. Be competent friends and bold companions of the young. Address the really important issues of your times. Be honest and do not run out.

But back to today and our celebration of your commencement. As you prepare to receive your diplomas and a hearty handshake from the president or provost, ponder one more lesson from Jerry Wiesner:

Some years ago, a man came up to Jerry long after he had retired as MIT's president. He said "Dr. Wiesner, do you remember me? You shook my hand at graduation 20 years ago."

Jerry reluctantly admitted that he wasn't sure that he exactly remembered him.

The man said to him, "But you said something to me as I came through the line to receive my diploma that changed my life. It was the secret of my successful career."

"Well, my goodness," Jerry said, "what did I say?"

"Dr. Wiesner, you said `Keep on moving; keep on moving!'"

Men and women of MIT, keep on moving. Live your lives well. I wish you godspeed and the best of good fortune.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 21, 1995.


Topics: Administration, Commencement, MIT presidency

Comments

Back to the top