Morning Commencement Speech

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels

To our honorary degree recipients and our 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’s Commencement celebration for the Class of 2009.

As at each commencement, we gather this morning with three goals: to honor the past, to revel in the present, and to toast the future.

Along with a measure of advice, these goals are as normal and expected here as the tossing of your graduation mortarboards.

Yet, in some ways, things feel just a little different.

Today, the air is charged. You are excited and relieved and elated and nervous because today marks both an ending and a beginning. The “ending” part is easy.

You have done the work. You have attended countless lectures; debated issues with professors, physicians and researchers; asked questions during tutorials and labs; and spent endless hours in the library, hospital, classroom and lab.

You have taken midterms and exams and written papers and lab reports. You have painstakingly drafted and re-drafted chapter after chapter of your thesis, and then defended your masterpiece in response to the rat-a-tat questioning of an all too engaged thesis committee.

You have more than satisfied the requirements needed to earn your degrees from Johns Hopkins.

So, we all understand the “ending” part of graduation. It’s the beginning that follows the ending that is the challenge. You have no doubt received all kinds of advice about your future over the last few months, perhaps even some of it welcome!

I know exactly how you feel.

As you prepare to launch yourselves out of this tremendous place, I launch myself into it. And, I suspect we are all experiencing some butterflies at the prospect of what lies ahead for each of us.

You are painfully aware, as I am, that you are entering the world at a time of deep uncertainty and anxiety. Our country continues to be engaged in two difficult wars; we are in the midst of the most serious economic crisis in a generation; and we witness daily the fall-out from this crisis in human terms: unemployment, foreclosures, and bankruptcies.

While we may lament the loss of security, the tremendous uncertainty and the hardship experienced by so many among us, we must nevertheless recognize that we face a unique opportunity now to restore our integrity, our ideals, and our worth.

You, and we, have the opportunity to examine the kind of society we have become, to reassert what and who we want to be, and to devise anew the institutions and expectations that will shape our lives and our futures.

This is a time of choice and decision. We have arrived at a crossroads—not just economically and politically, but a social and ethical crossroads as well. Believe it or not, this is an exciting time. We’ve come to the end of one era – that of prosperity, yes, but also of debt and indulgence and recklessness and maybe even arrogance. And, we stand on the cusp of a new one. It is a time of choice and decision.
Let me share an example of choice and decision that is not far from home.

In 1888, a mere 12 years after its brave creation as the nation’s first research university, Johns Hopkins teetered on the precipice of financial ruin. The endowment was heavily invested in the stock of the B&O railroad. More than 60% of the university’s yearly operating income of $225,000–came from annual dividends of that stock – and was now gone.

Would the university be forced to close? Would it merge with another Baltimore school? Would it turn into a mechanic’s school – one of the proposals actually brought forth? The future looked grim.
But as is so often the case, with adversity came unique opportunities for renewal.

In 1888 President Gilman and the trustees recommitted themselves to the ideal of a world-class research university in Baltimore, and appealed to the city’s leading citizens for an emergency fund of $100,000. By the following May they were able to announce the fund was oversubscribed.

Gifts came in from individuals whose names still reverberate on these campuses: Turnball and Donovan, Levering and McCoy. President Gilman declared 1889 as the beginning of “the era of great gifts.”

But the greatest of all was the one least expected. Mary Elizabeth Garrett–and a group of young feminists–offered the university $100,000 to open its long-dreamed-of School of Medicine.

It was a gift, however, with conditions: the school must be organized along the latest scientific theories–and it must admit women freely and equally along with men. This was a radical notion in 1889, and it is safe to say in ordinary times the trustees would have refused. But strapped for cash, the university had no choice but to accept.

From that unlooked-for opportunity came a revolution in medical education and the transformation of medical practice into a science-based discipline, with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Hospital leading the way. Abraham Flexner would later describe the Johns Hopkins approach as the “model for medical education” insuring that the changes Mary Elizabeth Garrett helped initiate would be universally adopted throughout the United States and Canada.

Sometimes a crisis is what is needed to focus one’s moral sense.

For Johns Hopkins University, the crisis of 1889 was an opportunity to re-think, re-imagine and re-commit to our fundamental mission.

Lincoln understood this in the darkest days of the Civil War when he wrote, “As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.”

It is not, he said, “Can any of us imagine better?” but “Can we all do better?”

There is so much for you to do.

How, for instance can we mend America’s health care system, where in a rich nation millions cannot afford to insure themselves and their families for adequate medical care? This is the only industrial democracy that has not come to terms with the profound inequity of a medical system that allocates resources not to where they are needed most, but rather to where people are able to pay the most.

And how too will we address the pressing and urgent call to environmental stewardship? For far too long we have imagined better but not necessarily done better — conserving when the price of gas is high, and buying Hummers when a global oil glut sends prices tumbling. Absent has been a focused, sustained, science-based policy initiative that bespeaks both a seriousness of intent and a moral vision of our obligations to future generations.

And what of the longstanding disparity in the levels of health, education, prosperity and freedom enjoyed by citizens around the world? It is a well known and very depressing fact that more than 1.3 billion people in the world today live on less than a dollar a day. How do we ensure that societies in the developing world are able to leapfrog the long, painful evolution that we in the west have experienced, and more quickly realize the full benefits of development?

These are the great challenges and great prospects for your generation. You will have the choice to do better than we have. And in doing so, you ought not to be governed by the lack of resolve or the failure of vision of those who came before you. You need not be encumbered by the assumptions of the previous generations.

Crisis provides the opportunity to think anew and the obligation to act anew.

The challenges are great, but the opportunity for genuine change–the possibility to move beyond tired debates, to renew leadership at every level of American society, and to recommit ourselves to the values that have sustained us for more than two centuries–is an opportunity too valuable to be missed.

With a deepened sense of humility about our accomplishments, a new appreciation of the strength of our ideals, and a reinvigorated commitment to the public good, I commend the graduates of 2009 to the task ahead. Yours is a once-in-decades chance to begin anew.

Remember today that you receive these diplomas from a proud institution with a glorious history of discovery, service, and educating great leaders. You are the newest generation in this storied tradition.

Members of the Classes of 2009: The world is yours to make better. And I know we are in good hands. We are immensely proud of what you have done, and even more, of who you will soon become.
Godspeed graduates, and may all of you fare well on the journey ahead.

Thank you.