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A Sesquicentennial Fete

Looking back—and forward—at a “revolutionary” institution

William Barton Rogers founded MIT 150 years ago on principles that President Susan Hockfield calls “revolutionary in his day.” Espousing a whole new philosophy of education, ­Rogers stressed that actually working with one’s hands and building things was as important as knowledge gained from books. He sought to “make science more useful, and the ‘useful arts,’ technology and engineering, more scientific,” Hockfield told a crowd of nearly 8,000 members of the extended MIT family who gathered on April 10 to mark the 150th anniversary of the day MIT was chartered. The convocation, held in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, both reflected on the Institute’s accomplishments and mapped the road ahead, celebrating the century and a half of achievement that sprang from the charter Rogers won from the Massachusetts legislature in 1861.

Rogers “forged a new kind of institution that became a new kind of innovation machine,” Hockfield said. It was an institution that had “a commitment to meritocracy and hard work.” Those qualities have persisted through the Institute’s history, she said, and now it is time to take the tools that he provided and “sharpen them for the great tasks of our own day.”

In addition to talks that reflected the Institute’s history, music and poetry created and performed by MIT students and faculty featured prominently in the two-hour gathering, which opened with a rousing drumming performance by the Rambax MIT Senegalese Drum Ensemble.

Institute Professor and Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp said that “MIT’s mission is to create the future,” and he echoed the idea that MIT has long been a true meritocracy based on actions: “The contributions of a new student are as welcome as those of a senior professor,” he said.

David Mindell, PhD ‘96, director of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, said that when Rogers “put the T in MIT,” the word “technology” was still new and little used, and he “brought the word, and the very idea, into the American imagination.”

“Our founders intended to create something new,” said Philip Clay, PhD ‘75, a professor of city planning and senior advisor to President Hockfield who recently stepped down as MIT’s chancellor. And in doing so, “what they in fact did was create an institution that would be relevant beyond a time they could imagine.” From the beginning, MIT was committed to “the recognition of excellence and merit,” he said, looking for “talent, not legacy” when admitting students and hiring faculty.

Institute Professor Robert Langer, ScD ‘74, recounted how when he first attempted to use the techniques of chemical engineering to improve drug delivery—at the time, an unheard-of experiment in crossing disciplinary boundaries—many people told him not to bother. “People will tell you that it’s impossible, that it will never work,” he said. “That’s rarely true. I think if you really believe in yourself, if you are persistent and work hard, there is very little that is truly impossible.”

In that spirit, Hockfield said, “I believe we have a responsibility to turn our founder’s tools to the tasks of today.” In particular, she said, “we must apply our skills in interdisciplinary problem solving to the looming problems of the planet—clean energy and climate change, poverty and famine, the health of our oceans and the future of our cities.”

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