On sunlit Killian Court, surrounded by colorful rhododendron and solemn Secret Service agents, 2,009 MIT seniors and graduate students created a festive -- even prankish -- mood as they received their degrees last Friday at the Institute's 130th commencement. About 8,000 relatives and guests attended the outdoor exercises in Killian Court and a few of them, children of graduates, even went on stage with their parents.
The Secret Service agents and a large contingent of Campus, Cambridge and State Police, were on hand to protect the commencement speaker, Vice President Albert Gore.
But they were powerless to prevent the Class of 1996's final hack, the distribution of "Al Gore Buzzword Bingo" boards as the graduates arrived at Commencement. Because Mr. Gore had asked students to submit e-mail suggestions for his speech -- he said he received more than 100 replies -- the hackers correctly surmised, apparently, that a central theme of his speech would be "distributed intelligence."
"We will greet him with a Distributed Hack," their instructions read. "Like any good distributed system, there will be no single point of failure, no single person whom the Campus Police or the Secret Service can stop." The instructions spoke of "the tendency of non-technical people to use buzzwords when discussing technical issues." They added, "The Vice President, although more technically correct than most of his colleagues, is sure to use this technique in his speech."
As in regular bingo, there were many variations of the 25-square cards, but instead of numbers were such "buzzwords" as critical technology, information marketplace, global information structure, modeling and user-centered.
The students were told to listen for buzzwords in Mr. Gore's speech and cross them off their boards. If they got five in a row, the instructions said, "Instead of shouting `Bingo!' (which would be rude and potentially upset the men with wires in their ears and guns all over the place) hold up your cards so that other side ["Buzzword Bingo" in large type] faces the podium and the Vice President can see that you have won."
As best as could be determined -- and probably, as one journalist pointed out, to Mr. Gore's credit -- no one actually won, although students later showed cards with a number of crossouts.
The Vice President apparently was in on the joke. When a cheer went up from Sloan School graduates early in his speech after he mentioned the management school, he paused and asked, "Did I say a buzzword?"
In his speech, Mr. Gore used the term "distributed intelligence," as in massively parallel computers, as a metaphor "to better understand society and better understand the relationship between science and technology and our society."
As an example, he said, it offered "a nice explanation for why our representative democracy is superior to a governmental system run by a dictator or a king. Where totalitarian regimes rely on a central processor to dictate all commands, representative democracies depend on the power and insight of people spread throughout society, each located adjacent to the part of society in which he or she is most interested."
In concluding his speech, Mr. Gore told the graduates not to rely on new technologies as a substitute for reflective thought in the face of an ever-growing "flood of information on every subject.
"The most important breakthrough and advances in understanding can only come when we take the time to look beyond the surface of the problems we face and focus on what is most important in our lives. Nor can you understand your life in isolation from its context: your family, your community, your nation, your world and the fabric of existence of which you are a part." (see text starting on this page).
In the morning, prior to the exercises, the MIT Corporation, the Institute's board of trustees, elected four life members and nine term members at its quarterly meeting (see page 9).
In the afternoon, a commissioning ceremony was held for 21 graduating cadets and midshipmen in MIT's Army, Air Force and Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) units under the masts of the historic frigate USS Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard Historical Park.
The formal commencement activities began with the traditional academic procession, led by the chief marshal, Karen W. Arenson, an education writer for The New York Times and 1995-96 president of the MIT Association of Alumni and Alumnae.
Dr. Paul E. Gray, chairman of the MIT Corporation, presided at the exercises, which were opened by a stirring rendition of the National Anthem sung by Pamela Wood, lecturer in music.
The invocation was given by Sr. Mary Karen Powers, MIT Catholic chaplain (see page 7).
Barbara J. Souter, president of the Graduate Student Council, delivered a salute to MIT from the graduate student body.
Matthew J. Turner, president of the Class of 1996, then presented the senior class gift to President Charles M. Vest of more than $21,000 -- with a goal of $69,600 by the end of the pledge period, to match the class' graduation date of 6/96 -- as a fund to support the Public Service Center, through which MIT students reach out to the Cambridge public schools and community in a variety of programs. President Vest responded that the fund "will help students develop a sense of service and caring for the larger community of which we are a part." He added, "I hope your vision and generosity will serve as a model to other classes."
President Vest then gave his charge to the graduates, in which he urged them to "return to a boldness of spirit, thought and action" and be "open to new ideas.
"Openness and meritocracy are what have made MIT great, and you must continue that spirit and philosophy in your life endeavors," he said. "Bring the boldness of thought and accomplishment to science, technology and society that you have brought to your MIT research projects. Make our environment healthy. Prevent and cure disease. Rebuild our cities and renew our sense of community. Continue the great adventure of understanding the world around us" (see text, page 7).
For the awarding of degrees, Dr. Vest presented diplomas to the bachelor of science degree recipients and also those receiving both bachelor of science and master of science degrees, while Provost Joel Moses gave out advanced degrees. The two lines of students approached the stage simultaneously, and their names were announced in an alternating pattern as the degrees were handed out.
Those receiving their doctoral degrees had been hooded in a special ceremony on the day before commencement.
Following the Commencement program, President Vest held a reception for graduates and their guests at several locations in or near McDermott Court.
A matter of degrees
Because some students received more than one degree, the total number of degrees awarded at commencement -- 2,290 -- exceeded the number of students -- 2,009 -- receiving them.
Altogether, 1,077 bachelor of science degrees and 1,213 advanced degrees were awarded. The advanced degrees included 261 doctorates, 934 master of science degrees and 18 engineer degrees, a professional degree somewhat beyond a master's degree.
The School of Engineering awarded the most degrees, 1,190, followed by the School of Management, 425; School of Science, 415; School of Architecture and Planning, 126; School of Humanities and Social Science, 122; and the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology, 12.
The degree recipients included 563 women and 531 members of American minority groups.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 1996.