2011 Commencement Ceremony
Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
May 26, 2011
To our honorary degree recipients and to the new members of the Society of Scholars, to our trustees and alumni, faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends, and most especially to our brand new graduates, welcome to the Johns Hopkins University Commencement for the Class of 2011.
So I have a confession to make.
This is not the speech that I intended to give today.
Indeed, as of 4:00 this morning, I had intended to use my time today to talk about a speech that Dwight Eisenhower gave some fifty years ago on the conclusion of his Presidency, and why the themes of that speech still resonate today.
President Eisenhower’s farewell speech was noteworthy for its humility.
At a time when America stood proud and dominant in the international order, President Eisenhower, a former five star general and supreme commander of the Allied Forces in the Second World War, imagined a world in which mutual respect and love, not raw power, would be the force that united different peoples.
Given the state of the world today, and your role in it, you can imagine why I was inclined to expound on this theme.
But two things caused me to re-think the appropriateness of that speech.
First, if anyone today should be publicly ruminating on the challenges of the global order that person should be our distinguished Commencement speaker, and acclaimed foreign policy expert, Dr. Fareed Zakaria.
And so, unless Dr. Zakaria feels a strong, uncontrollable compulsion to insist that I continue in this vein, I will look to him to cover the weighty, thoughtful part of today’s program, leaving me fancy free to talk about other themes.
Dr. Zakaria, I trust that I can proceed in another direction…
The second reason that I decided to shift the direction of my remarks reflected a growing sense that I didn’t need to impart advice to you.
I say this even though we are at an early part of our program, the field has not yet become intolerably hot, and I have your rapt attention.
I have deep confidence in you.
I know that after many months, or in most cases, many years of participation in this very special place, you “get us.”
You understand the special character of Johns Hopkins, its unique blend of excellence and humanity, and have incorporated its lessons, its values into your own selves.
How could you not? The relentless, irrepressible pursuit of excellence is so utterly and proudly evident on our campuses.
Where else could you find a student body that took such sheer, perhaps perverse, delight in the totally unreasonable workloads inflicted upon you by the faculty. And you recognized how that enterprise would make you better.
In my first day as President at Johns Hopkins, I was walking through campus. I happened upon a group of undergraduate students and I heard these students confiding to one another that the best part of their week was organic chemistry. And there was no hint of sarcasm.
Most remarkably, I am told, that while meeting these punishing academic demands, you were able to develop a social life. Play sports. Engage in cultural activities. Or cheer on the Jays from the nest.
Many of you have, while at Hopkins, first learned the “Soulja Boy” and now do the “Dougie.” I have no idea what I just said but I’m told it’s the truth.
And, most important, some of you may have even found your life partners. If so, mazel tov.
But you now know, as I do, that while Johns Hopkins is about excellence, it is also very much about humanity.
I have seen this first hand in the dizzying array of community activities that you did while you were here.
In the time you invested in mentoring under-privileged children, tutoring inmates, counseling addicts, and ministering to those suffering wrenching illness.
You understood and you embraced the idea that excellence without humanity, without decency is devoid of true and enduring meaning.
And in this way, you got us.
You understand what, at core, we are about.
Early this academic year, my wife Joanne and I had the experience that many of the parents will well remember when we dropped off the first of our twin boys to start university as a freshman.
The whole experience, as you might have imagined, was fraught with some anxiety on our part.
Although I hadn’t quite contemplated how we were going to say good-bye, we weren’t prepared for the moment in which we ended up sending him on his way.
He was to start classes on a Monday, and the night before, after a long day of carting boxes and unpacking his room, we, along with our son’s friends from back home and their families, went out for a “send off” dinner.
As luck would have it, the dinner went later than expected, and all of a sudden the kids jumped up and dashed for the door, realizing that they were late for their first orientation event.
We only had time for a simple, fleeting embrace.
Joanne was upset.
In her mind’s eye, our departure would be more languid. We would have been able to say more. To give one last dose of counsel and advice.
She wondered out loud if we should go back to the residence hall later that evening to say a more elaborate goodbye.
In what was, no doubt, one of the very few moments in my life when I was able to offer good perspective to my wife (rather than the other way round), I counseled against doing so.
After 18 years, after countless moments together, there was little more that we needed to tell our son. He knew our values. He knew what mattered to us.
And so too for you all today.
I know that you “get us.”
I am confident that the voice, the values of Johns Hopkins—excellence and humanity—are a part of you, and will echo in your minds and in your hearts for the rest of your lives.
Class of 2011, our work is done.
Yours is beginning.
I know that you will make us proud.