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Matt Damon urges MIT grads to ‘turn toward’ world’s problems

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In addition to speaking at MIT’s 2016 commencement ceremony, the Cambridge native was issued an honorary pirate certificate.
In addition to speaking at MIT’s 2016 commencement ceremony, the Cambridge native was issued an honorary pirate certificate.

CAMBRIDGE — The list of past commencement speakers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is suitably impressive — Nobel Prize winners and past presidents, governors and senators among them.

"And who did you get?" Matt Damon joked Friday morning during his address to the class of 2016. "A guy who did the voice for a cartoon horse."

The Cambridge native has done much more than mediocre animation, of course. As one of Hollywood's marquee stars, he has anchored award-winning films including "The Martian," "The Departed," and of particular note to the MIT community, 1997's "Good Will Hunting," in which he plays a janitor at the school who happens to be a math genius.


He also nearly graduated from another local school, Harvard, though he left before completing his course load as his acting career ramped up. He attended graduation, but didn't receive a diploma: He "fake graduated," he said.

Sadly, MIT, unlike many universities, does not confer honorary degrees.

"Yes, for the second time in my life I'm fake-graduating from a college in my hometown," he said, drawing laughs from almost 3,000 graduates on Killian Court, overlooking the Charles River.

Damon's presence at MIT's commencement was due in large part to his philanthropic commitment to providing clean water for disadvantaged populations around the world. Building on that experience, he spoke with emotion about the global problems this year's graduates might attack, including poverty, pandemic, climate change, and "fear-driven brains working overtime."

There's "more at stake today than any story ever told," he said.

"There's a lot of trouble out there, MIT," Damon added. "But there's a lot of beauty, too, and I hope you see both."

In addition to all those black caps and gowns, the yard featured a small sea of red — a section devoted to the class of 1966, all of them wearing traditional matching red jackets. On an overcast day, some of the friends and family members seated on the edges of the courtyard wrapped themselves in silver space blankets.


Damon took the opportunity to score a few political points. Noting his current fascination with simulation theory, which hypothesizes multiple realities, he asked, "How come we have to be in the one where Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee?"

He also took jabs at sensationalist media, a Congress focused on short-term gains, and a banking system "that steals people's money."

"Let me say this to the bankers — specifically the ones that brought you the biggest heist in history," Damon said. "It was theft, and you knew it. It was fraud, and you knew it. And you know what else? We know that you knew it."

"I don't know if justice is coming for you in this life or the next," he continued. "But if it does come in this life, her name will be Elizabeth Warren."

Then he urged the graduates to put their brilliant minds to use to solve big problems. Water.org, the clean-water initiative he cofounded, has been "without a doubt the coolest thing I've been part of. What are you going to be part of?"

He imparted advice that he said President Bill Clinton passed along to him a decade ago.

"Turn toward the problems that you see," he said. "You have to engage."

The president of the class of 2016, Anish Punjabi, followed Damon with a star turn of his own. He praised his classmates for the various ways they supported each other, and he delivered one of the day's more memorable lines: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." (He also rapped.)


University president L. Rafael Reif reminded the graduates that he arrived at MIT the same year they did, in 2012. Together they endured the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent shooting of MIT police Officer Sean Collier.

While the MIT community may love data, he said, he urged the students to follow their hearts.

"Heart is what makes the hard problems worth solving," he said. "Heart is what makes the data sing with meaning."

He challenged graduates to "hack the world" and make it a little more like their university: more daring, inventive and ambitious, yes, but also more humble, respectful, generous, and kind.


Matt Damon: Justice’s name is Elizabeth Warren

Matt Damon: Justice’s name is Elizabeth Warren

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.