Convocation for the Class of 2025

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Convocation for the Class of 2025 | Keyser Quad
August 29, 2021

Thank you, Vice Provost Phillips.

Thank you, too, to Kai, Mehak, and Trustee Mittal for your words, and also to the Octopodes, Sirens, and the AllNighters for their stellar performance.

And thanks, of course, to the entire orientation team for doing such a phenomenal job at pulling off this event under truly extraordinary circumstances!

Now, without further ado, let me welcome – live and in person! – the great class of 2025, along with all our excellent transfer students, to Johns Hopkins University!

This is a special moment. We are here, on campus, together. And I am so, so delighted!

This evening marks your formal entrance into an academic community devoted to the relentless pursuit of knowledge and truth.

So, it is only fitting that my remarks to you this evening will be about . . . UFOs.

Yes, UFOs.

If you’ve been reading the news this summer, you know the question of whether extraterrestrials are among us is no longer the sole remit of Hollywood screenwriters and Reddit threads.

This June, the Pentagon released a report about their investigation into 143 encounters between US Navy pilots and what they now call unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs.

Now, the report was inconclusive, but it didn’t rule out extraterrestrial technology as one explanation for the mysterious encounters.

Which means that it is entirely possible that visitors from other solar systems are walking, or rather flying, among us.

I immediately wondered, like so many before me, what will they be like?

Are we talking Gremlins or Grogu or, if we’re very lucky, my new puppy Barney.

And, most important, would we be able to communicate effectively and productively with them across what would almost certainly be vast differences of experience, language, and biology?

To think through such questions, I have found myself turning to some of the great works of philosophy and psychology. Like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. And, of course . . .

[Theme song from The Twilight Zone plays]

. . . Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

For those of you who didn’t grow up watching the show, as I did, The Twilight Zone was a touchstone for philosophical inquiry, giving viewers weekly half hour thought experiments that, to put it colloquially, blew our minds. Think The Good Place, but in black and white and inflected by the paranoia and suspicion of the Cold War we were living through back then.

Alien visitations were a common trope in the show.

One particularly resonant episode begins when a quiet suburban neighborhood collectively witnesses an unexplainable flash in the sky, which they dismiss as a meteor.

[A clip from The Twilight Zone plays showing neighbors reacting to a strange apparition in the sky.]

Suddenly, their cars won’t start and the power goes out.

A local kid blames creatures from outer space and suggests that one of the families on the block might, in fact, be extraterrestrials in disguise.

The neighbors stay calm for a few minutes, but then strange phenomena begin to mount.

Machines turn on and off.

Lights in some houses come on while others stay dark.

The neighbors start to doubt and mistrust each other.

Then they begin to turn on one another.

They suspect that the aliens are among them. Violence erupts, and by the end of the night the entire neighborhood descends into chaos and anarchy.

[A clip from The Twilight Zone plays showing chaos on the suburban street.]

As the episode ends, we see a real flying saucer and the two actual extraterrestrial visitors who had orchestrated the power outages as a way to test their theory that humans are always on the verge of turning against rather than towards one another.

When faced with a few perceptual inconsistencies and a little misinformation, the humans play to type. Or as the two aliens say. . .

[Clip from The Twilight Zone of extraterrestrials saying, “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves. All we need to do is sit back and watch.”] 

The most dangerous enemy is themselves.

Although this episode aired in 1960, it feels very relevant to 2021. And, frankly, we don’t seem to need alien invaders to nudge us along the path of distrust – with potentially disastrous consequences.

The data don’t lie. Surveys show that the number of Americans who believe that “most people can be trusted” is at its lowest point in decades. Moreover, our political and cultural identities have become so hardened that researchers have found that all of us – no matter how informed we are – instinctively dismiss facts that don’t accord with what our group is supposed to believe.

And when we hear viewpoints that are different or opposed to our own, we are ever more likely to attack the people making them rather than arguing with the ideas being expressed.

We are reaching a point where not only do we not see eye to eye with our neighbors, but we in fact occupy two entirely different realities. We are alien to each other, and at serious risk of living in a Twilight Zone of our own making.

But I believe our version – the JHU version – of the Twilight Zone episode doesn’t have to end this way.

We can, together, write a different story – and we are counting on you and what you learn and do here at Hopkins to help!

Tonight, you officially enter an academic community devoted to pursuing truth through fact-based research, reason, and vigorous, open-minded debate. A community that believes we can access a shared conception of reality through the combined, cumulative efforts of a vast network of scholars working in tandem around the world. A community that understands that creating knowledge is not a solo endeavor, but a communal one.

And this is also a community that welcomes – nay, insists upon – critique and insight from people whose backgrounds, beliefs, and fields of study differ from our own in order to arrive at a common understanding of the world we inhabit.

A community that one early Hopkins professor and leading philosopher of the nineteenth century declared is, and I quote, “capable of a definite increase of knowledge” because it is a community “without definite limits.” 

Now, imagine, if you will, what would happen if that Twilight Zone episode occurred here in this community, on Homewood campus, in 2021.

One evening, on a late summer day like this one, strange things start to…happen. Lights go off. And on again.

[Lights on Keyser Quad turn off and on.] 

The Gilman tower bell rings in the middle of the night.

[The Gilman Hall bell tolls.]

And our Chief Risk Officer confirms that there is no logical explanation. Right, Jon?

[Video clip of Chief Risk Officer Jon Links saying, “President Daniels, it defies explanation.”]

But, unlike in the episode, our community doesn’t respond with distrust and suspicion. Instead of the AMRs turning on McCoy, you get together with your peers to investigate the strange phenomena, compare notes with your FYMs and RAs, and test your hypotheses with faculty.

I have faith that you would have been able to discover what’s behind these events in no time and, in so doing, demonstrate that The Twilight Zone’s dim view of human nature was severely misguided.

So, Class of 2025, my call to you is this: Speak openly and freely with one another, and also listen intently and generously. Challenge ideas you disagree with, and invite others to challenge your ideas. And do so in a manner that calls people in rather than calling some people out.

And if the next Pentagon report finally does reveal that UFOs are already among us, I hope you’ll invite the extra terrestrials into the conversation too.

Bon voyage!