President Reif's Charge to the Class of 2021

Friday, June 4, 2021

Greetings to everyone watching, from around the world! A warm MIT welcome to all of you who are graduating and to your families and friends!

And Danny, thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing the story of how you got to MIT. 

Thanks to you, I believe we have set a new world record for the “number of penguins at an MIT Commencement!” May you, your colleagues and your penguin pals inspire us all with your infectious good cheer! 

To the MIT graduates of 2021… Congratulations!

On this day of such wonderful significance, my job as president is to deliver a “charge” to you, and I will get to that in a moment. But I begin with just a few observations.

You will have noticed that I am not speaking to you from Killian Court and I am not in front of a stage full of distinguished leaders in elaborate academic robes.

In fact, the background you see comes from the other side of the Great Dome.

This open space is tucked in by the MIT.nano building and it’s dedicated to one of our MIT giants, a pioneering scientist and engineer and an unforgettable teacher, the late Millie Dresselhaus. 

Born in 1930, Millie grew up in tough circumstances. Her parents were immigrants who struggled terribly through the Great Depression. And as a young woman passionate about science in the 1950s, she was distinctly out of step with society’s expectations. 

Yet, despite having the odds stacked against her, Millie went on to a brilliant career of discovery and invention – the kind of career that included two special trips to the White House, one for the National Medal of Science and one for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor.

Millie used to call her journey “improbable.” So in her honor, we named this space “The Improbability Walk.” 

Think back to when you started your time at MIT. If I had asked you then to assess the probability that the 15 months before your graduation would be transformed by the intense struggles and losses of a global pandemic, I expect you would have found expert sources predicting that it was possible.

But none of us would have called it likely. Which means that all of you are stepping out into the world with an “improbable journey” already under your belt!

Yet however improbable the events since last spring, you produced a result that was perfectly predictable: Through immense effort, self-discipline, creativity and compassion, you found a way to rise to the demands of this historic challenge…together.

And I emphasize “together,” because that’s how we do things at MIT.

For instance, “together” is exactly how dozens of MIT people created the spectacular music that opened this ceremony, with leadership from Fred Harris and other members of our music faculty, composed and arranged by Jhamshed Sharifi, Class of 1983, played and sung by dozens of student musicians, with dozens more students lending their beautiful voices to express the amazing lyrics, which were written entirely by Erica Funkhouser’s poetry students. And all of it captured for this online occasion by MIT Video Productions. All of them together making something delightful that none of them could have made alone.

​And “together” is how we take on even bigger challenges, too.

Once, not very long ago, an intrepid band of explorers set out to seek­ signs of life, in a world none of them had inhabited before. Their mission required zooming off to a harsh and challenging environment. And with magnificent Perseverance, breathtaking Ingenuity and just the right amount of Moxie, they overcame the odds, took flight, learned what they were made of and did what they set out to do.

This past spring, with a brilliant team that included 69 MIT graduates, all of that happened on the planet Mars.

But I think it is also a pretty good way of describing what all of you achieved here on Earth.

And I have every confidence that just like the Mars team, you have also found an ingenious way to transform an unfamiliar atmosphere into rocket fuel for future expeditions. 

And I cannot wait to see where you go next!

At MIT, Commencement is the very best day of the year, because it is a day when the entire purpose, meaning and mission of the Institute are embodied in our new graduates.

Today, although you are scattered across nearly every time zone, everything we value about MIT is embodied in you!

Physically, I cannot see any of you. But I would like you to know that in the deepest sense, I do see you

  • I see the extraordinary range of ways that you, and your families, have struggled and endured. 
  • I see your pain in having lost time on campus enjoying each other’s company. 
  • I see how you have supported and encouraged one another through all the dislocation and disruption. 
  • I see how hard you worked to recreate, remotely, what you love most about MIT. 
  • I see what you accomplished in the time before we knew the word “Covid” and through the long, difficult “improbable” year since then.

And I see, and feel, your hopes and your uncertainty about the future.

So it’s now time for me to deliver my “charge” to you.

I have always believed that, as members of the great global family of MIT, we must do everything in our power to help make a better world.  

In that spirit, I’m going to use a word that feels very comfortable at MIT – although I know it has taken on a troubling new meaning elsewhere. But I also know that our graduates will know what I mean.

As you begin your next chapter, I want to ask you to hack the world – until you make the world a little more like MIT: More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, inventive and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind.  

And because the people of MIT also like to fix things that are broken, as you strive to hack the world, please try to heal the world, too.  

Please help us respond to this ongoing global pandemic with wisdom, foresight, compassion and science

Help us do everything it takes to live up to Bryan Stevenson’s inspiring vision…to resist the narratives of hate and fear… and to address the deficit of justice.

Help us rebuild the habits of trust, empathy, patience, forgiveness, precise language and thoughtful listening so essential to a healthy society. And please help us all succeed in remembering our common humanity.

MIT is now sharing with the world thirty-three hundred new graduates who are ready for this timely and timeless problem set. 

You came to MIT with exceptional qualities of your own. And now, after years of focused and intense dedication, you leave us, equipped with a distinctive set of skills and steeped in our community’s deepest values and aspirations: A commitment to excellence. Integrity. Intellectual rigor. Boldness. Humility. Inclusion. An open spirit of collaboration. A strong desire to make a positive impact. And a sense of responsibility to make the world a better place.

So now, go out there. Join the world. Find your calling. Solve the unsolvable. Invent the future. Take the high road. And you will continue to make your family, including your MIT family, proud.

I have great appreciation for everyone who helped create this online version of Commencement. However, I sincerely hope it will remain one for the history books... unusual and not to be repeated! 

And I know we are all looking forward to next spring, when, with lots of colorful academic costumes – though probably with fewer penguins – we will welcome you back for a live, three-dimensional, in-person, champagne-and-strawberries celebration…right here at MIT.

And now, I must give you something much more important than my warm wishes or my advice: 

Your diplomas!

So… here goes:

By virtue of the authority delegated by the Corporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and on the recommendation of the Faculty, I am delighted to announce the awarding of degrees. 

For those of you who elected to receive a digital diploma, your degree has been delivered to the Blockcerts Wallet on your mobile device. 

And for all of you, the launch will commence in … 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – NOW!

  • Bachelor of Science in all Schools and departments
  • Master’s degrees in all programs
  • Doctoral degrees in all programs 

On this wonderful day, I am proud of all of you. To every one of the members of the graduating Class of 2021: Please accept my best wishes for a happy and successful life and career. Congratulations!