3,511 degrees awarded at commencement ceremony

MIT’s 2016 commencement ceremony took place Friday, June 3. The Institute awarded 1,111 bachelor’s degrees, 1,744 master’s degrees, 10 Engineer degrees, and 646 doctoral degrees.

Actor Matt Damon, who has starred in movies such as The Martian and Good Will Hunting, was the guest speaker for the event. In his speech, he urged the graduates to “turn towards” the world’s most pressing problems. He discussed his activism in the cause of providing clean water across the globe.

Anish D. Punjabi ’16, president of the senior class, presented the senior class gift to MIT president L. Rafael Reif. The gift once again set records this year for participation and amount raised — 87.7 percent of the senior class, or 914 people, donated in order to raise a total of $22,141.75. Steve Kaufman ’63 and Debby Sharpe ’76 provided the challenge grants for this year’s senior gift challenge.

1,076 undergraduates and 1,780 graduates were present in Killian Court to receive their diplomas. They processed all the way from the Z Center and across Mass Ave onto the lawn in Killian, led by alumni from the class of 1966 and MIT faculty.

The 1966 alumni looked dapper in red jackets and straw hats. Many wore red-and-gray striped ties or bowties. One man with a bushy silver beard sported a Santa suit. When he sat down, he took off his jacket, revealing the stuffed backpack he was wearing on his stomach.

The faculty wore the usual array of colorful doctoral regalia. There were blues and browns, purples and blacks, oranges and indigos, and, of course, grays and reds.

MIT Corporation members, sitting stage right on the commencement stage, wore dark gray robes. Chairman Robert B. Millard ’73 led the opening of the commencement exercises and introduced guest speaker Matt Damon.

During his address, Matt Damon recalled growing up in Cambridge with fellow actor Ben Affleck, saying that their teenage impression of the Institute was that “MIT was kind of The Man ... This big, impressive, impersonal force.”

While his speech was both serious and politically charged at times, it was also humorous. Damon poked fun at himself for attending two fake graduations in his hometown. Damon attended Harvard from 1988 to 1992, and while he did not receive a degree, he walked during the commencement ceremony.

He recalled visiting MIT with his brother Kyle, an artist, who inspired parts of Damon’s film Good Will Hunting which is set at MIT. Damon’s brother wrote a fake, though impressive-looking, equation on a chalkboard he found in a hallway.

“Because these kids are so smart they just need to, you know, drop everything and solve problems!” Damon said, explaining why he thought that chalkboards lined MIT hallways.

Damon went on to discuss simulation theory — the theory that our entire universe is merely one of trillions of simulations run on a computer by a more advanced civilization.

“If there are multiple simulations, how come we’re in the one where Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee? Can we, like, transfer to a different one?” Damon quipped, one of several political remarks he made throughout his address.

While the jury is out regarding simulation theory for scientists and philosophers, Damon says that whether or not this world is real or just a simulation, what we do matters. “This world has some problems we need you to drop everything and solve.”

He invited graduates to take their pick from the “world’s worst buffet,” including climate change, refugee crises, institutional racism, pandemics, and more.

Damon’s most pointed remarks of the morning included a brief tirade on the investment bankers who committed “the biggest heist in history.”

“It was theft and you knew it. It was fraud and you knew it ... I don’t know if justice is coming for you in this life or the next. But if justice does come for you in this life ... her name is Elizabeth Warren,” Damon said to laughter in the audience.

Damon discussed his humanitarian efforts around the globe, particularly his efforts to provide clean water to impoverished areas lacking this basic but essential need.

As he neared the end of his address, Damon told the graduates to keep in mind that failure is inevitable at times, but it is also an opportunity. He implored graduates to keep listening and learning, telling them that despite it being graduation day, it's “not the day you switch from ‘receive’ to ‘transmit.’”

“The truth is, we can’t science the shit out of every problem,” he said, making a reference to a line his character delivered in The Martian. “There is not always a freaking app for that.”

He comes back to water, saying the problem is too complex for a quick scientific fix. “We need to be just as innovative in public policy, just as innovative in our financial models.”

Throughout the speech, Damon made a few jokes about “fake graduating” and not having a degree, so of course, MIT couldn't let Damon leave campus empty-handed. MIT has does not grant honorary degrees, but President Reif presented Damon with the next best thing: an honorary pirate’s license.

Reif cited how Matt Damon’s character in The Martian referred to himself as a “space pirate” when he had to cross Mars, which counts as ‘international waters’, in order to commandeer a spaceship. The Institute president said Damon’s influence has done a lot to further a “swashbuckling appreciation of science, engineering, and space exploration.”

Reif delivered the traditional charge to the graduates, referencing the MIT team that won SpaceX’s Hyperloop challenge, Random Acts of Kindness week, and Lydia A. Krasilnikova ’14’s blog post that analyzed data about the underwear of MIT students.

The class of 2016 was the first class that Reif saw all the way through the Institute as president. (He began his tenure in 2012, the same year the class of 2016 arrived on campus.)

He called them “magnificent company,” recalling a 2013 snowball fight in Killian Court that he participated in. More solemnly, he described how, over the past four years, the community dealt with “tragic losses,” “faced hard facts” about itself, and “worked together to make things better.”

He charged the graduates to go out and “make the world a little more like MIT” and urged them to use not only mind and hand but also heart: “[H]eart is what makes the hard problems worth solving. Heart is what makes the data sing with meaning. Heart is your best blueprint as you invent the future.”