On the Soul of Johns Hopkins

Dear Faculty, Students and Staff,

Two years ago today, I joined the Johns Hopkins community as your president. While the precise date may be memorable to only a small handful of people — most of them related to me by blood or marriage — it was a momentous event in my life.

On the day that I started at Johns Hopkins, I wrote to you to express my commitment to learning the soul of this great university. Since then, I have gained a better sense of our various campuses, our organizational structure, our finances, and a deeper appreciation for the history that knits together our university. But more importantly, I have had the great pleasure of uncovering the extraordinary qualities that define this institution and make it stand apart.

In laboratories, operating rooms, conference halls and coffee bars, faculty members have patiently tutored me in their disciplines. In conversation after conversation, they have shared how they came to their chosen disciplines, often in completely unexpected ways, and how they have relished the privilege of membership in our community, its driving commitment to excellence, its collegiality and warmth, and its humanity.

In the past several weeks alone, colleagues have shared with me their passion for exploring the origins of the universe, for devising more effective means to manage water shortages in the developing world, for illuminating the role that epigenetics plays in human disease, for explaining the enduring greatness of literary works by Henry Roth and Ralph Ellison, and for understanding the complex sensory patterns required to create more lifelike artificial limbs. And this is, in truth, but a small sampling of the dazzling breadth and depth of our scholarly enterprise.

It is no surprise that our faculty members regularly garner significant external recognition for their work — a Nobel Prize, or fellowships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine or the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But as significant as these accomplishments are, they don’t do justice to the ways in which our faculty members anchor, electrify and inspire our campuses. To me, that’s the soul of Johns Hopkins.

The same electrifying force characterizes our student body.

One of the first Johns Hopkins students I met in 2009 was Sarah Hemminger, a PhD candidate in the School of Medicine. Sarah started the Incentive Mentoring Program, a wildly successful volunteer effort that supports and empowers at-risk high school kids. She dreamed up IMP while driving past Dunbar High School every morning on her way to class, and wondering about the students inside. Ninety-four percent of the students in IMP — selected because they were failing academically and facing tough challenges outside of school — have gone on to college, and the program expanded this year to a second city high school (ACCE) that is located close to the Homewood campus.

This remarkable commitment to community engagement is a hallmark of a student body that manages, often with dizzying dexterity, the daunting high-wire act of balancing academic, social and service pursuits. I am moved and inspired by the zeal that our students express for research opportunities, whether in our East Baltimore labs or in East Africa field placements; by the passion with which they take Homewood Field or take the stage at Merrick Barn or Friedberg Hall; and by the momentum that has animated efforts like the President’s Day of Service for the past two years. To me, that’s the soul of Johns Hopkins.

Of course, our tradition of excellence would not be possible without the bedrock foundation of our staff. In the past two years, at events like the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, I have handed awards to staff members who are quietly changing their communities without any expectation of reward or acclaim. I have saluted the bravery of hospital personnel who rallied their patients and each other when faced with news of a tragic and senseless shooting. And I have basked in the laughter and applause that came after we “spontaneously” broke out in song in our year-end videos that went viral, or poked fun at ourselves in an online April Fool’s spoof — though all credit was due to our creative staff.

I think about the people I met during the blizzards of 2010. This included the grounds crews who took on the colossal task of clearing campus roads and paths — just in time for the next snowstorm — and the hospital workers starting yet another shift to cover for snowbound colleagues. I expected to see exhaustion, frustration and mild despair. Instead, I was greeted by people with a tireless and fervent pride in their work and this institution. To me, that’s the soul of Johns Hopkins.

Finally, in the past two years, I have been astonished by countless multi-disciplinary collaborations occurring across our campuses, from Homewood and East Baltimore to Bologna and Nanjing. For instance, last summer, I traveled to Uganda, Ethiopia and Zambia, where close and enduring collaborations between our researchers and local doctors and scientists are uncovering new ways to arrest the spread of HIV and malaria and to care for those who are afflicted with these diseases. And, last fall, I was privileged to attend an extraordinary event hosted by the Brain Sciences Institute. Colleagues from across the university, including neuroscientists, educators and musicians, collaborated with visual and performing artists from Baltimore and beyond and engaged in paradigm-bending conversations about the “creative brain,” examining issues ranging from creating the ideal structure of K-12 curricula to repairing the damage wreaked by neurodegenerative diseases. To me, that’s the soul of Johns Hopkins.

For all these reasons, I simply want to thank you for the privilege of being able to serve as your president, to live and work amongst you, and for the opportunity to continue to support and nurture this great shared endeavor that is The Johns Hopkins University.

Warm regards,

Ronald J. Daniels