2009 Freshman Convocation

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Decker Quadrangle

[Introduction by Pam Flaherty.]

Thank you Pam for joining us today, for your kind introduction, and most of all for the visionary leadership you provide to all of Johns Hopkins in your role as Chair of our governing body, the Board of Trustees.

Welcome to the Class of 2013!

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that you are an exceptionally diverse and accomplished class. There are about 1,400 of you, drawn from an applicant pool of nearly 17,000–our largest number of applicants ever.

You are not only one of the most selective classes we’ve ever welcomed, you are by far the most cosmopolitan and global.

You hail from 50 states and 41 foreign countries – from as far away as China, Chile and even my native Canada, and as close at hand as the Baltimore neighborhoods of Remington and Wyman Park.

But these are just data points. What really defines you is the incredible focus you bring to everything you do–and you do a lot!

Among this class there is a two-time national champion in dragon boat racing, an internationally-ranked Irish Step Dancer, a national Scrabble Tournament master, and the founder of Americans for Madison, an organization devoted to honoring the memory of the man called “the father of the Constitution,” to name only a few of your many achievements.

That, in a general way, gives a sense of who you are. Now let me take a moment to tell you who we are.

Joining me today are more than 40 deans, senior leaders and faculty members representing every academic department in our schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and the Peabody Institute.

To all of my colleagues, I would like to express my gratitude and personal thanks to each of you for coming here today to help welcome the newest members of our academic community. Thank you.

To the newest members of the Johns Hopkins community, a word about our dress: as university president, I wear the official colors of Johns Hopkins University: gold and sable.

The robes worn by others seated with me signify where each obtained his or her highest degree.

But these robes we wear also signify something much more profound.

As of today you join a community that is much larger than Johns Hopkins, and much older than the 134 years this university has been operating.

After Socrates’ death his most famous student, Plato, purchased an enclosed grove of trees outside the walls of Athens to create his Academy, a school for advanced philosophical study. No one knew what to make of it–a place where grownups congregated all day long, and in the end nothing was produced? Plato’s critic Aristophanes invented a mocking word to describe it: phrontisterion (frahn-te steer ion) a “thinkery”–a place where thoughts were made.

But Plato had the last laugh–his Academy opened in 385 B.C. and operated until it was closed by Byzantine emperor Justinian more than 900 years later. And the idea of a school for adults, a place where thoughts are made, continues to this day in the form of the modern university.

Think for a moment what this means. Imagine how many empires came and went, how many walled fortifications were built and destroyed, in those 900 years of Plato’s Academy. Aristophanes derided the idea of an academic grove that was a sanctuary for thinking: how silly, he suggested; how superfluous and how self-indulgent.

But perhaps what he should have said was “how dangerous.” Universities are the birthing places of ideas, and ideas can so often be dangerous–to the established order, to the conventional ways of thinking, to the hierarchies of proclaimed truth. Recall how individuals with a powerful idea—Galileo and Newton, Darwin and Einstein—shook the very foundations of their worlds.

Ideas have the capacity to move, alter, and sometimes utterly reshape society.

So although universities are in one sense symbols of permanence, they are – owing to their devotion to ideas — paradoxically incredible engines of change. They change science and art, history and philosophy – even our understanding of what it means to be human – by the ideas they generate.

And the thing that is going to change most in the next four years is you.

Earlier, I briefly described this Class of 2013, noting your energy, your habit of knowing what you want, and your accomplished record of achieving your goals. You have mastered the skills of direction, drive, and discipline. But there is a new skill I urge you to add to your repertoire: daring.

Starting today, your challenge is to engage in risky behavior: intellectually, socially, and philosophically. You have to tangle with those dangerous new ideas.

Be prepared to end up in places you didn’t expect.

Consider Luke Kelly-Clyne, who is a senior this year majoring in political science.

Luke is not headed off to law school or graduate studies next year as he thought he would be when he first arrived at Johns Hopkins. As a volunteer tutor Luke saw that the high school students he worked with were typically fascinated with money–and usually knew nothing about it. This, he thought, was a place where he could make a difference.

With the help of professors Ken Yook and Kwang Soo Cheong in our Carey Business School he created a course of study in financial literacy aimed at young people.

He named this new project Save the Future.

This year, as the project heads into its third successful semester, Luke is looking at taking his model beyond Hopkins to a national audience–and devoting himself full time to the project after he graduates in May.

Or consider Nicole Angeli’s frogs. Amphibians were not on Nicole’s mind when she came to Johns Hopkins three years ago.

But in her freshman year she thought she’d risk looking outside her anthropology major. So she took a class in animal behavior where she learned that frog and other amphibian populations are declining all over the world. At current rates of decline, most may be extinct in another 50 years. It was in this context that Kelly learned something about herself–she cared passionately about the environment, and she wanted to work to try to stop species extinction.

Since then, as part of her studies here at Hopkins, she’s been on four continents–in places like Australia and Ecuador, Zanzibar and Tanzania–conducting research in the decline in amphibian populations under the guidance of brain sciences professor Peter Holland. She plans to continue those efforts in graduate school next year–heading off in a direction she never imagined when she arrived here three years ago.

Luke and Nicole risked change by departing from the paths they had intended to pursue—and discovered their passion along the way.

Four years from now, I hope each of you will have a similar story of your own to tell.

Johns Hopkins University has always focused on stretching human understanding. From the very start we have been dedicated to expanding knowledge through discovery.

This is one of the things that sets us apart today, and it accounts for the astonishing breadth of the Hopkins endeavor. It also means you have the best possible guides on hand to help: the faculty, who are world-class risk-takers, daring themselves and others to rethink the world on the basis of the discoveries they make. Get to know them; visit their offices; talk to them every chance you get—they will open new worlds to you, I promise.

Discovery–and the pursuit of ideas–takes the intellectually curious and able-minded in surprising and unexpected new directions. For that reason there has always been an expectation here that as students you will plot your own course, find your own passions, and ultimately dig deep into a field that inspires and excites your interest. This is the challenge that awaits you: dare to discover your passion. It’s the best possible risk to take.

And finally, I have one more request. While you are here, I urge you to spend some time helping our neighbors in Baltimore less fortunate–less lucky– than we are. I hope you will do this not just during the Freshman Day of Service, but regularly, and often, throughout the next four years. Service to our community is a tradition I hope we can all embrace.

As you know, I am new here too, having only arrived in March. That makes me the oldest member of the freshman class. But I am the proudest member as well. Fellow members of the Class of 2013: we are going to have a wonderful and exciting and yes, challenging four years together. On behalf of the faculty and students and all of Johns Hopkins, I am pleased to welcome you, honored to be one of you, and eager to get started.
Let’s make every day together count.

Thank you.

[Student Orientation Executive Chair Stephanie Shiau joins President Daniels onstage to present the class flags.]

Thank you, Stephanie; I accept these banners with great anticipation and expectation of the tremendous achievements that will be made by this exceptional class. We will display them proudly here on campus in the Eisenhower Library, and prominently on the Peabody campus as a constant reminder of the important contributions this class and each of its members will be making in coming years.

Each of your schools—the Kreiger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering and the Peabody Institute—is named for a great benefactor. And each school has its own important traditions and legacies. Moreover, each of your schools has a leader. Here on the Homewood campus the Kreiger and Whiting schools are led by deans; on the Mount Vernon campus the Peabody institute is led by a director.

We will now hear from each of those leaders, who will play an important role in ensuring you receive the absolute finest education, with the best possible faculty and every necessary resource. We will begin by hearing from Arts and Sciences dean Adam Falk, followed by Engineering dean Nick Jones, and then from Peabody director Jeff Sharkey.