MIT’s 148th Commencement ceremony took place today under a cloudless blue sky, as a total of 990 undergraduate and 1,717 graduate students received their degrees before a gathering of some 11,000 guests in Killian Court.
Embracing a use of technology popular among today’s graduates, MIT President L. Rafael Reif injected a moment of spontaneous levity into the serious business of Commencement by posing, at the podium, for a “selfie” with senior class president Anika Gupta — with the entire graduating class as a backdrop — before beginning his charge to the graduates.
Gupta had just announced that the graduating class’s gift had set new records both for its participation rate and for the amount of money raised: a total of $21,207.50, donated by 86.5 percent of members of the Class of 2014. Gupta quipped that these records reflect dedicated work by volunteers, as well as “the fact that our class is the best that MIT has ever seen!”
Commencement speaker Ellen Kullman, CEO and chair of DuPont, pointed out that six of her company’s leaders, over its 211-year history, have come from MIT — and that the company’s very existence today can be credited to three DuPont cousins, all MIT alumni, who bought the company in 1902, when it was about to be sold off to a competitor.
Translate knowledge into solutions
“MIT is a hothouse of innovation,” Kullman said, comparing it to DuPont. Both, she said, “have a desire to push the boundaries of scientific discovery, and translate knowledge into solutions that touch every level of society.”
She told the graduates, “I hope you’ll discover that within every serious challenge or issue you face, there are seeds of a renewed and often better direction.”
Kullman credited her training as an engineer with giving her the systematic, analytical approach that has served her well in management. “At our core, engineers are problem-solvers,” she said. “In my case, I approach the problem like the engineer that I am. I think about how heat, light, and water can make a difference.”
She went on to explain that heat represents intensity and drive, citing a particularly challenging integration she managed of six different businesses into a cohesive unit. The successful implementation took an insistence on performance, and a drive for delivering results. “It took heat,” Kullman said. “Don’t be afraid of the heat.”
Light, she said, refers to transparency, as well as a willingness to look at issues from different perspectives. “Be open to new ideas,” Kullman said. “Embrace new experiences. Embrace the diversity of thought and of people.”
And water, Kullman said, symbolizes the resources and investment needed to nurture growth. “No innovative idea get started or succeeds without heat, light, and water,” she said. “They are the energy, the creativity, and the determination required.”
“None of us know the challenges we will face,” Kullman added. “My advice is, indulge yourself in constructive ways. Focus on the things that make you and the people you love fulfilled. That’s the real water in your life, and you can never get enough of it.”
“Many of tomorrow’s problems are going to be solved by you, as you pursue careers that draw on the talent, discipline, and way of looking at the world that brought you to MIT in the first place,” Kullman said.
Celebration of diversity
Caleb Waugh, president of the Graduate Student Council, urged the graduates to “take away an appreciation for diversity and celebration of culture … remember that it is the diversity of thought, and the multidimensional approach to problems, that helps us arrive at best solutions.”
Waugh added, “I hope we can be a little more grateful, a little more appreciative of what we have, that we can voice that appreciation to all the family members, teachers, advisors, mentors, and personal heroes, that they are just as responsible for us being here today as we are.”
In her remarks, Gupta, the senior class president, told her classmates that “helping the world isn’t just about inventing something or joining or starting a company. Being a loving family member, a loyal friend, or a reliable co-worker doesn’t require a diploma. We’ve all had examples in our lives of such individuals — otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”
As part of his charge to the new graduates, Reif provided playful advice, in “Q&A” form, to those who would interact with the Class of 2014, as employers, investors, partners, spouses, or friends. For example:
“Question: Is there any way to discourage my New MIT Graduate from working all night?”
“Answer: 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.”
Reif did offer some advice to the graduates themselves — although, he observed, “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.’”
“Hack the world”
“As you start out in life, it can seem that society runs itself,” Reif said. “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. But 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 toward important goals, and your wisdom to put the brakes on humanity’s most destructive forces,” he added. “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.”
“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,” Reif said. “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.”
In closing, the president said: “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."