(Following is the text of President Charles M. Vest's speech and charge to the Class of 1999.)
Once again we are gathered in Killian Court to celebrate accomplishment, heritage and passage.
We are surrounded by parents, family, friends, spouses and children who have supported and sustained you through the years. You will recognize them today by their smiles, brought about by their great pride in your accomplishments... and, 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 join in your Commencement ceremony. Will you, the graduates, please rise, turn to your audience, and give them the applause they so richly deserve.
I want to tell you a story about an incident in the career of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the great electrical engineer.
In the early years of this century, Steinmetz was brought to General Electric's facilities in Schenectady, New York. GE had encountered a performance problem with one of their huge electrical generators and had been absolutely unable to correct it. Steinmetz, a genius in his understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, was brought in as a consultant -- not a very common occurrence in those days, as it would be now.
Steinmetz also found the problem difficult to diagnose, but for some days he closeted himself with the generator, its engineering drawings, paper and pencil. At the end of this period, he emerged, confident that he knew how to correct the problem.
After he departed, GE's engineers found a large "X" marked with chalk on the side of the generator casing. There also was a note instructing them to cut the casing open at that location and remove so many turns of wire from the stator. The generator would then function properly.
And indeed it did.
Steinmetz was asked what his fee would be. Having no idea in the world what was appropriate, he replied with the absolutely unheard-of answer that his fee was $1,000.
Stunned, the GE bureaucracy then required him to submit a formally itemized invoice.
They soon received it. It included two items:
1. Marking chalk X on side of generator: $1.
2. Knowing where to mark chalk X: $999.
Thus Steinmetz left his mark in more ways than one in early 20th century technology and business. You will do the same in the early 21st century.
Because you too will know where to put the X.
But Steinmetz lived in the age of iron machines. Your careers will play out in the age of knowledge and information.
Fifteen years ago, shortly before his untimely death, the author Italo Calvino wrote Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In his memo entitled "Lightness," he put it simply:
"I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears. Today, every branch of science seems intent on demonstrating that the world is supported by the most minute entities... The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits."
The iron machines obey the bits.
Indeed... your millennium will be quite different from ours. It already is clear that 21st century business, enterprise and other activities will be knowledge-based, global, fast-paced and often entrepreneurially spawned.
MIT has prepared you to be leaders in this time. What will be required for leadership in the early 21st century? In some dimensions, leadership will have new imperatives -- in particular, a much higher level of technological literacy and adeptness than in the past. It will require an unprecedented level of agility and willingness to change. It will require a new level of understanding of -- and commitment to -- stewardship of the earth's environment and of our energy and material resources.
It will require a new level of understanding of cultures around the world and the significance of technological advances to these cultures.
And, I believe, it will require an ability to analyze and confront moral and ethical issues associated with the advancement and deployment of new scientific and technological knowledge -- knowledge that is growing at a revolutionary pace, especially in the life sciences.
But at the end of the day, 21st-century leadership will require the age-old attributes of traditional leadership as well -- respect for one's fellow human beings, recognition of their potential, and understanding of their personal joys, triumphs and tragedies.
It will still require an understanding of the lessons of history, and the intellectual passion and insights of writers and humanistic scholars. It will still require the change of perspective and the challenge, beauty, recognition and shock created and transmitted by the artist. And it always will require a good dose of the humor that keeps things in perspective.
The setting of today's ceremony is an icon of the ingredients of 21st-century leadership. Look about you: Art and continuity are represented by the massive curves and volume of Henry Moore's great sculpture -- juxtaposed with the strong rectilinear lines of this great center of science and engineering -- all representing aspects of discovery, change and invention.
And within this setting sit the remarkable members of the Class of 1949 -- leaders of the generation that shaped the world in the secondhalf of the 20th century.
But our future will be shaped by those of you who graduate today -- you have joined us from all over this nation and from throughout the world. You are the hand and mind -- and face -- of the future.
It has been said that leaders are those who take us elsewhere. You will take us elsewhere.
A CONCERN FOR THE WHOLE
I want to leave you with a related matter to ponder. It is the tension between the individual and the society.
Modern history has taught us time and again that centralized, planned economies and governments do not work. They have crumbled, leaving behind much damage and lost potential. It has been freedom and individual action and incentive that have thrived and progressed.
The new jobs in this nation are created by entrepreneurs, and many boats have risen on the tide they have produced. I believe that this will remain the case in the future. And it is marvelous to behold.
But there are functions that must be undertaken on behalf of the whole. Those who succeed and accumulate wealth in the purported "new economy" must shoulder certain responsibilities in order to improve the lives of those who have not fared as well.
There are responsibilities that require collective commitment and action -- whether accomplished in the private or public sectors. The world must be fed. The spirit must be nurtured. New knowledge must be generated. Peace must be maintained. Health must be advanced. The environment must be sustained. The young must be taught.
I ask you to think about these responsibilities and incorporate them in your lives as you exercise your leadership in the gifted age before us.
This age will be gifted by science -- and its advances will be made by the work of the engineer, the manager, the architect, the artist and the scholar.
Many have borrowed the term "This Gifted Age" from Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not the least of those who has done so is my friend Jack Gibbons. Until recently, Jack was science advisor to the President of the United States. He took this phrase as the title of a book on his life in science. It is an altogether fitting title for such a treatise. For here is what she wrote:
Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind --
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts... they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric; undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.
Put more simply, and far less poetically, this is what we are asking of you: Look beyond facts for meaning... and ground your actions in concern for consequences and care for the whole.
CHARGE TO THE GRADUATES
As you leave these halls, consider what we ask of you as leaders in the 21st century. Our request, and my charge to you, is this:
Take us elsewhere. Leave the facts of science neither unquestioned nor uncombined. Weave them into fabric and imbue it with wisdom. Ponder the unthinkable. Question the status quo. Live in the world as well as in your own nation. Welcome the immigrant to our shores and our lives. Dream of a better future, but contribute to the present. Share your talents. Be competent friends and bold companions. Address the truly important issues of your times. Be honest in all that you do.
Do this, and you will serve yourself and your society beyond measure.
Men and women of MIT, I wish you godspeed and the very best of good fortune.
A version of this
article appeared in the
June 9, 1999
issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume