Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
Faculty members welcomed 206 graduates into the doctoral ranks in a family-friendly hooding ceremony in Johnson Athletics Center last Thursday.
The annual Investiture of Doctoral Degree Hoods ceremony mixes formal ritual with relaxed good humor, as the faculty acknowledges the students' attainment of the highest degree offered by academia and pokes fun at academic ritual at the same time.
Chancellor Lawrence Bacow, the master of ceremonies, called the investiture "a time of celebration to recognize in a special way those of our students who have achieved the highest honors in our academic community." He also told the joke about a student who said to his professor: "If I had only one hour left to live, I'd want to spend it in your classroom -- because you make an hour feel like a lifetime."
President Charles M. Vest congratulated the graduates for having completed the long haul of academia, telling them that whether it was a "lonely, single-minded pursuit" or a team effort, "I want you to know each and every one of us is pleased with your achievements." Then he gave "official presidential dispensation to any child under the age of 10" who wished to comment publicly on the proceedings.
Before hoods were awarded, the faculty first gave a short fashion show of their academic finery, displaying the bright colors and odd hats and robes belonging to another age. As Chancellor Bacow called out faculty members' names, they stood and displayed their garb.
Steve Lerman modeled the MIT robe of silver gray with cardinal red detail, and Dr. Vest modeled his special version with 15 red stripes down the front, one for each MIT president.
Mark Spearing wore the plump red hat of Cambridge University and Professor John Guttag showed the University of Toronto's black robe with yellow trim. Jay Keyser modeled Yale University's blue gown and was savvy enough to open the gown while doing it, displaying the lining as he turned from side to side. Three faculty members -- Rafael Bras, Tomaso Poggio and Paola Rizzoli -- displayed the Italian academic's fondness for luxury. Details on those caps and gowns included frilly lace collar and fur cape.
Finally, the fashion show out of the way, the mood turned only sightly more sober as the faculty prepared to award the hoods.
Professor Keyser, who read the graduates' names after asking the correct pronounciation of each, prefaced the actual hooding with this comment. The ceremony is "informal," he said, "but we will not sacrifice excellence. So I will turn my cell phone on and if any of you want to make comments, call me. The ushers have the number."
And so the graduates' names were called, the colored hoods (black and blue for the PhD, black and yellow for the ScD) were draped around their necks, and the newly hooded doctors walked to the back of the room along the path laid out for them. No whoops and hollers were emitted by the grads; no leaps, high-fives or hugs burst from them spontaneously. In fact, the Commencement marshall, Professor Charles Leiserson, walked along with the graduates, asking them to hold their pace to 1mph. "Do you know how fast that is?" he asked.
But no one minded when a graduate's infant, also dressed in cap and gown, was put into his arms. And no one complained as a little girl wearing yellow gingham check (and others like her) refused to be quieted by the books and baubles her parents offered. This audience of proud family members and friends reveled in the warm fuzzy side of academic life.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 13, 2001.