Yunus Chosen as ’08 Class Speaker

685 commencement
Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, will be the 2008 Commencement speaker.
MIT News Office

Muhammad Yunus, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microlending and alleviating global poverty, is MIT’s 2008 Commencement speaker.

“This is a wonderful choice,” said W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80, chair of the Commencement Committee. “Yunus is known for using technical innovation to impact the world.”

Yunus’s development of microlending, through which credit is offered collateral-free to the impoverished for starting small businesses, has a repayment rate of 98 percent. In 1983, Yunus founded Grameen Bank, which has provided credit to 7.3 million poor people in Bangladesh, 97 percent of them women.

Yunus exemplifies MIT’s motto, “Mens et Manus” (or “Mind and Hand”), Undergraduate Association President Martin F. Holmes ’08 said. “Muhammad Yunus is a person who is a problem-solver,” he said. “He looked at an extremely challenging and complicated problem and came up with a very creative and ingenious way of solving it. His life is in line with the goals, missions, and values of MIT.”

This year’s selection procedures differed from the past in that the selection subcommittee met in the spring as opposed to the beginning of the fall term, Grimson said. In the past, by the time the list of potential speakers was submitted to the president, many of the speakers had already been booked for the date of commencement.

After a list of roughly 150 suggested names was compiled from faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. It was filtered down to a list of approximately 10 names by a subcommittee of the Commencement Committee in late May based on factors such as likelihood of accepting, previous MIT history, and fit with the MIT community, Holmes said.

“We don’t really have explicit criteria,” Grimson said. “We’re generally looking for people we think have a message that will resonate with MIT.”

Among the graduate students, Graduate Student Council Vice President Johnna D. Powell G said that popular picks were Apple CEO Steve Jobs, comedian John Stewart, environmentalist Al Gore, and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Though the rest of the names on the list remains confidential to members of the Commencement Committee, Holmes said that the other nine candidates were “all excellent people, and [he] would have been excited to have any of them.”

The list of 10 was then submitted to Hockfield.

How the final selection is made is unknown to everyone but Hockfield, according to Gayle M. Gallagher, executive officer for Commencement, who said that the decision is entirely out of the Commencement Committee’s hands. The selection subcommittee “is strictly advisory” and has no say on the final decision, she said.

Feedback from the MIT community has generally been positive. “People have been very excited, and they’re looking forward to seeing him speak at graduation,” said Class of 2008 President Phi T. Ho ’08. Faculty feedback has been promising as well, Grimson said.

“Yunus has shown himself to be a leader who has managed to translate visions into practical action for the benefit of millions of people, not only in Bangladesh, but also in many other countries,” the Nobel Committee commented when awarding the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Yunus. “Loans to poor people without any financial security had appeared to be an impossible idea. From modest beginnings three decades ago, Yunus has, first and foremost through Grameen bank, developed micro-credit into an ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty.”

Yunus has also received other international awards, including the Sydney Peace Prize, Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, and the Simon Bolivar Prize.

“Like so many members of the MIT community itself, Dr. Yunus is a practical visionary,” President Susan Hockfield told the MIT News Office. “Our graduates will be inspired to hear how social entrepreneurship and technical expertise can, together, change the world. I can think of no better choice for our 2008 MIT Commencement speaker.”