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An Uncommon Celebration

In her inauguration speech, Susan Hockfield called upon MIT to capitalize on its strengths and become a leader in the life sciences, announced a new initiative focused on energy and the environment, and pledged to continue improving MIT’s sense of community.

On a cool May afternoon that threatened rain but didn’t deliver, an estimated 2,300 members of the MIT community crowded into a tent in Killian Court to witness the inauguration of Susan Hockfield as MIT’s 16th president. The ceremony was the high point of a week of activities that celebrated MIT. Standing as many as four rows deep, the audience heard music composed by four faculty members in honor of the inauguration and observed an academic tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Scholars from 61 universities around the world, along with MIT faculty, alumni, and staff, donned their academic regalia in a seldom-seen display of pageantry to honor the investiture of Hockfield as the Institute’s first woman president. But as steeped in tradition as the ceremony and the robes and hoods that signify academic achievement may be, the messages of the day were all about the future.

Alison Richard, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who delivered greetings from the world’s academic community, noted that to solve global problems, universities will need to shed some of their prized independence. “The great challenges facing the world, from the control of infectious disease to climate change, demand constant collaboration between nations,” she said, “but many of the scientific innovations, the policy advances, and cultural insights informing that collaboration will come from universities who are bold enough and willing enough to work together.”

Hockfield stressed collaboration in her inaugural address and urged her MIT colleagues to “tackle humanity’s most urgent problems” by working across boundaries within the Institute and with “other institutions in the public and private sectors.” But she also made clear that MIT must strengthen its own community and make the Institute an even more inspiring place in which to live and work.

The following are excerpts from her speech. To read the entire text, go to

On MIT’s Character: “The MIT you have shared with me is also a place of deep personal integrity, and a place of striking practicality. That essential practicality points to one more crucial factor that can’t be seen from the outside: the wonderful way that engineering, not just as a discipline, but as a worldview, infuses every aspect of life and thinking here. The values of engineering–the rigor; the implacable curiosity; the disciplined creativity; the appetite for good, old-fashioned hard work; the passionate, enthusiastic, can-do, hands-on, fix-it-now attitude–are and always will be the values of MIT….

“It is a complex institution, but with a single mission and with a single, unwavering standard of excellence in all of our departments, and across the spectrum, from the most basic, curiosity-driven research to the most intensely practical applications. That uniform excellence makes possible uncommon collaborations–the kind that push the boundaries. And that common purpose is our greatest strength, because all of us, together, are engaged in service to the great human family.”

On Openess: “We will capitalize on our spirit of openness to create productive collaborations across our own schools and departments, and with other institutions in the public and private sectors. We will work toward intellectual openness around the world, and to preserve the vital flow of international students and scholars, who contribute so much to our universities and to our society as a whole.”

On Neuroscience: “At MIT, we have a gift for learning from one another. Combining our historic strength in engineering and our newer strengths in biology and the brain and cognitive sciences, we are already opening unprecedented opportunities for educational innovation, invention, and discovery. Geographically and intellectually, we are bringing together our computer scientists and life scientists, our linguists, philosophers, and engineers. We are already seeing a torrent of new collaborations, insights, and results. Just as MIT has led in those disciplines that define the Information Age, MIT can and must lead in this essential new field-of-all-fields.”

On Energy and the Environment: “A second great opportunity, and a great obligation, is our institutional responsibility to address the challenges of energy and the environment….Tackling the problems that energy and the environment present will require contributions from all of our departments and schools. Many MIT faculty are working already on new routes to renewable and sustainable energy. We need to advance this scientific and engineering work, while focusing our efforts, and magnifying their impact, through our world-class expertise in economics, architecture and urban planning, political science, and management.

“To this end, we have begun working with the faculty to develop a major new Institute-wide initiative on energy. This initiative will foster new research in science and technology aimed at increasing the energy supply and bringing scientists, engineers, and social scientists together to envision the best energy policies for the future. We will seed this initiative with resources for new interdisciplinary faculty positions.”

On MIT Community: “For MIT to help build a better world, we must be able to build on the strength of our own community. We need to do everything we can to make sure that MIT becomes an even more inspiring, welcoming, and enriching place to work and to live….We also need to sustain our rich diversity of ideas and cultures by building a powerful pipeline of young women and underrepresented-minority students, eager to pursue advanced degrees and academic careers….

“But beyond those practical challenges, we need to do something less tangible but just as important. We need to recognize in ourselves a serious hunger for a richer sense of connection, community, and joyfulness.

“But even with the astonishing pace and pressure, this campus is dotted with the bright sails of wonderfully vibrant smaller communities–the fraternities, sororities, independent living groups, and residence halls; the staggering array of cocurricular activities; and the enormous number of athletic teams and clubs. Our challenge now is to create a broad, welcoming harbor that has room for every boat.”

On Inspiring Children: “MIT’s light is still somewhat under a bushel. Especially here in the United States, there is too little understanding of what we do at MIT, much less of how well we do it.

“Our task together is to make our light shine out brightly enough to inspire in the next generation the same love and passion for truth and discovery, for creativity and problem-solving, that brought us all here. We need to help America fall in love all over again with the marvelous possibilities and promise of engineering, science, and technology.”

1. Alison Richard, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge in England, brought greetings to President Hockfield from her colleagues in the international academic community.

2. Delegates from 61 universities processed from Walker Memorial to Killian Court for the inauguration.

3. Three of MIT’s past presidents–Howard Johnson HM; Paul Gray ‘54, SM ‘55, ScD ‘60; and Charles M. Vest HM–joined President Hockfield at Gray House, the president’s residence, shortly before the inauguration ceremony.
4. Shirley Jackson ‘68, PhD ‘73, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, shared a moment with President Hockfield following the inauguration.

5. Lawrence Summers ‘75, president of Harvard University, was one of six alumni attending the inauguration as university presidents. He is followed by Richard Levin, president of Yale University (right) and Josef Machacek of the Czech Technical University in Prague.

6. Before the inauguration processional, President Hockfield spent a moment with her husband, Thomas Byrne, and their daughter, Elizabeth Byrne.

7. Hackers signaled their approval of President Hockfield with a banner hung from the Great Dome on the morning of the inauguration.

1. Inauguration-week festivities opened on Kresge Oval on Monday, May 2, with the installation White Noise/White Light, created by architecture assistant professor J. Meejin Yoon for the city of Athens, which commissioned the work for the 2004 Olympics. Chest-high fiber-optic stalks light up and emit soft sounds as visitors walk among them.

2. At the inauguration, members of Rambax, an MIT student ensemble dedicated to the drum tradition of Senegal, took part in the performance of an original composition by music professor Evan Ziporyn. Gamelan Galak Tika (not shown), a student group that performs Balinese music, also participated.

3. Student tap dancers performed to jazz at the opening celebration.

4. Robots ruled one afternoon of inauguration week, which included a sneak preview of the 2.007 contest and the results of a new class, robotics science and systems. Graduate student Aaron Tan showed President Hockfield how to use light to direct the movements of a robot designed to help build shelters on Mars.

5. President Hockfield walked across a “Bridge of Doom” at the K-12 midway, which showcased 20 programs that provide innovative methods or technologies for teaching secondary-school students. Participants built a similar bridge during an outreach program at the MIT Museum.

6. Howard Kellogg ‘08 created a Jenga puzzle at the neighborhood block party that closed inauguration-week festivities.

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