Welcome remarks at a celebration of the life of President Emeritus Paul Gray

Thursday, November 30, 2017

As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon! I'm Rafael Reif - MIT's president Number 17. To all of Paul's friends and colleagues, to the Gray family and to our beloved Priscilla, it is an honor to open this celebration of Paul's remarkable life.

All of us gathered here because of Paul. But in a larger sense, I must point out that I am at MIT today because of him. (That may be true for many of you, too.)

For me, it’s because, in the 1980s, MIT was in a fierce competition with other top academic institutions for leadership in electrical engineering. As president, Paul understood that MIT urgently needed to create what we ended up calling “MTL,” the Microsystems Technology Laboratory. Launching MTL had the important effect of keeping MIT at the forefront of the field and incidentally, it kept me here on the faculty.

So I am the direct beneficiary of Paul’s clear vision and exceptional ability to get things done!


As you can see from your programs, our speakers today and the program itself, explore many dimensions of Paul’s life story. So I will not attempt to capture it myself.

Instead, I will reflect on a few lessons he taught us all, through the eloquence of his example.


We all know that Paul held just about every job at MIT including Chairman of the Corporation.

After that, he went back to the job he loved the most: teaching. Naturally, he returned to his home discipline: electrical engineering. At the time, the Associate Department head for electrical engineering was some microelectronics faculty from Venezuela named Rafael Reif.

Paul would always come to my office at the start of the semester – this MIT legend, president and then chairman! – and he would ask me what I wanted him to teach!

I would always say, “Paul, what would you like to teach?”

And he would always choose 6.002 Circuits and Electronics. That’s the first academic subject in electrical engineering. Paul used to say that it was like learning to play the scales, for a musician. It’s the foundation of everything!

But looking back now, I realize what I should have said.

I should have asked Paul to teach me how he managed to lead his life with such remarkable integrity.

Of course Paul was profoundly honest. He lived by the highest ethical and moral standards. 

But the integrity I mean went beyond that.

Paul was, as a person integrated, unified, of a piece, like an integrated circuit!  

There was a moral unity to his whole life, a unity of purpose and values. He knew who he was, down to the core.

That gave him deep personal confidence, in every situation. And it gave everyone else perfect confidence that he would always do the right thing – and he always did.


Over time, I had the opportunity to ask Paul for all kinds of advice.

To be a new provost or president here, facing your first big crisis, and to have his counsel, it was a gift. All of us who came after him in those jobs felt incredibly fortunate to know him.

And there may never have been a better manager of a university than Paul Gray! His memory on every issue and particularly his knowledge of the budget were humbling.

(I must tell you, though, that the best advice he ever gave me, about how to handle being president was Don’t eat dessert!)

I believe the most important thing Paul taught, by his example, was how to succeed in creating change.

At a place like MIT, with such a legacy of excellence, persuading people that things need to change is a non-trivial exercise. But Paul understood this community so well, he knew how to lead MIT to live up to its full potential. (He also had the patience for a lot of meetings!)

As a result, more than anyone I can think of, Paul shaped the MIT we know today.

When you think of the programs and progress he helped create, it’s impossible to imagine MIT without them.

  • Where would we be without our Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP?
  • How did first-year students ever manage without pass/no record?
  • Would MIT even be MIT if it did not welcome talented people of every background, and did not turn outward to engage the world?

Each of these developments represented, at the time, serious, startling change. But Paul helped our community see that each of these steps was the bright, open path to possibility.


I close with one final Paul Gray lesson.

As a white male who arrived when the Institute itself was overwhelmingly white and male, Paul was not an obvious candidate to lead MIT into a new era of diversity.

But as we will hear today, he certainly did.

And through that work, he proved something important: that in the life of a community, cultural change and moral growth are possible – and imperative.

In this complex, confusing time for our nation, and therefore for our community, may Paul be, as he always was, our guide to inventing a better future, for all.