Posted in Messages
Dear Johns Hopkins Community:
In January 2020, after a long hiatus from teaching, I decided to return to the classroom to teach an undergraduate Intersession course on the university and democracy. All the trepidation and anxieties I felt when I taught my first university class many years ago came rushing back. Would the flow work? Had I assigned the right texts? Would the students find the readings as compelling as I did? I remember walking across campus, looking for the correct room in Gilman Hall, and finally opening the door to the seminar room to take my place in the company of 20 undergraduates. For two intense weeks, we sat cheek by jowl discussing, interrogating, and debating the contemporary challenges confronting universities and how best to respond to them.
Two months later, that experience of intimate, in-person engagement literally vanished overnight for students and faculty as the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world online.
Clearly, the past two and a half years have shown us the power of technology to keep us connected against all odds. We have seen, too, the significant benefits of flexibility that have not only allowed us to weather the separations and disruptions of COVID but also made learning and collaboration more accessible for many in new and important ways.
Now, however, we are on the cusp of a new academic year in which we are at long last fully back in person. And I am reminded that there is no substitute for that moment of intellectual discovery that emerges organically when a community of people devoted to learning and ideas shares a physical space together. It is one we must be deliberate in preserving. To lose it risks losing the very character of our institution.
Such engagement is foundational to our university. From its earliest days, a Johns Hopkins University education has been built around the ideas of the lab and the seminar: professors and students gathering to conduct experiments, probe their findings or discuss hot-off-the-presses scholarship. In an 1884 article, Hopkins history Professor Herbert Baxter Adams perfectly captured this spirit: “A book or an essay,” he wrote, “is often only a fossil, a lifeless thing; but a student or teacher talking from a clear head is a fountain of living science.”
A fountain of living science.
This is the animating ethos of our academic community and speaks to its grand potential for discovery and insight. This spirit is manifest across our campuses. I see it in our new students, who are moving in with new roommates, attending the pop-up seminars at Democracy Day, presenting their first paper, or donning their white coats. I see it in our faculty, who are once again speaking and listening to one another and their students across seminar tables, in labs, and in practice rooms. And I see it in our staff, who have been here every step of the way organizing events, imagining the future of our university, and maintaining our facilities for every member of this community in pursuit of education, discovery, and service.
As you read in a recent message from Pierre Joanis, Laurent Heller, and Sunil Kumar, finding ways to restore more of our in-person experiences will be a commanding priority for our university in the coming months. I invite you to bring your creativity and insight to this process and to share with us your ideas for supporting each other and our Baltimore neighbors.
In this work, l believe that our place matters and being in close proximity to one another is our lifeblood. We must take seriously the idea that as much as we have accomplished in the virtual world over the course of the pandemic, there is still so much that we gain from being in person: the chance encounters, the casual conversations, the barely audible gasps of excitement or sighs of disapproval from across the seminar room or the lab that provokes further conversation, ignites the insights, and fuels the collaborations that are at the core of our mission.
I could not be more excited to be back—truly back—for another year among such exceptional students, faculty, and colleagues in this wonderful and wondrous place.