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Transitions

Working in cambridge, adjacent to mit, i have been fortunate to observe firsthand the rhythms and transitions of MIT life. Recently, this proximity allowed me to attend three remarkable events: the MIT commencement, the dedication of the Ray and Maria Stata Center, and Technology Daythe last Technology Day Chuck Vest will moderate as president of MIT. Each event marked a transition: the annual turnover of students, the longer cycles of change that govern the evolution of the physical campus, and the succession of Institute presidents.

Commencement is a time-honored tradition, of course. This year the Institute granted degrees to 2,160 people of whom 32 percent were women and 9 percent underrepresented minorities. But diversity was also evident in the degrees awarded, in subjects such as environmental engineering science, aerospace science with information technology, archaeology and materials, comparative media studies, mathematics with computer science, medical informatics, biomedical engineering, and science writing. The continuing evolution of degree programs points to an ongoing transformation in academia, namely the growing role of working across traditional disciplines. MITs recognition of this transformation will ensure its continuing leadership among universities.

Meanwhile, a new crop of freshmen and first-year graduate students arrived on campus a few weeks ago. Based on the admission statistics of the admitted students, the Class of 2008 will number close to 1,100, the result of a record yield of 66 percent. Of those admitted, 46 percent will be women, and 17 percent will be underrepresented minorities. As the Office of Admissions proudly notes, 42 percent are valedictorians and 62 percent scored 800 on at least one SAT I exam. This impressive yield was helped by the participation of more than 2,000 alumni as educational counselors. With each new class of students, the Institutes commitment to excellence continues to be fulfilled.

My proximity to campus also afforded me a front-row seat for the physical transformation of the campus, especially Vassar Street. From a former office, I could track the demolition of Building 20, the excavation for the foundation and parking garage beneath the Stata Center, and the growth of its superstructure. I could also see the rise of the McGovern Institute and Picower Center, the new brain and cognitive science center, being built just across the street from the new Stata Center.

I was also fortunate to attend the dedication of the Stata Center. You have undoubtedly seen photos, but this is a structure to be experienced. It is a visually stimulating, synesthetic experience where unexpected views and juxtapositions of form, material, and color yield tactile and emotional responses. A building like that grows into itself and its occupants, much as the celebrated intellectual endeavors in Building 20 grew into its old timbers over the years. (Many alumni will be happy to know that Building 20s spirit is celebrated in a special exhibit inside the Stata Center.) The mass, shape, and audacity of the Stata Center create a new gateway to MIT that is not to be underestimated: it literally transforms the back of the campus. Like any grand endeavor, this project has invited controversy. But for any alumnus visiting campus, the Stata Center is a must-see.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are witnessing the transition to a new MIT presidency. As MIT bids farewell to Chuck Vest, the transitions noted in the Institutes degree programs and physical profile are important cornerstones of his legacy. He has been the longest-serving MIT president save for one, and the Institute bears the stamp of his remarkable leadership in many ways. While other observers of Chucks tenure rightfully cite his integrity, the descriptor that comes to my mind is resolute. It was no surprise to me that at Technology Day this past June, the MIT Alumni Association announced that Chuck and Becky had been awarded the Bronze Beaver, the Associations highest award for outstanding service.

By the time you read this, a new MIT president may have been named. He or she, scientist or engineer, insider or outsider, alumnus or notthe next president will embody the leadership qualities of his or her predecessors, and like them the next president will need to preserve the Institutes core values while meeting the need for change.

It is a source of some pride to me that the Institutes core values support change. I submit the following thumbnail description of our core values:

  • A culture of intellect, integrity, intensity, and irreverence
  • A focus on the future, the unknown, and the interstices
  • An output of excellence, innovation, and service
  • All with a global reach and a global perspective

As individuals and as an association, we alumni will welcome the new president and engage him or her to set the direction of the Institute in these challenging times. In the midst of all of these transitions and those to come, communications between alumni and all aspects of the Institute will play a critical role in deciding its future. Luckily, our modern tools of e-mail and the Web make the task a lot easier. I look forward to using those tools to hone the message and sharpen the dialogue, and to build recognition of MIT alumni as the collaborating partner we are to this remarkable institution. -Linda C. Sharpe 69

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