Rising to the Challenge – San Francisco

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Four Seasons Hotel, San Francisco

Good afternoon! I’m thrilled to be back in San Francisco and am so pleased to see this diverse and distinguished audience, including our gracious host, Tony Coles, and our San Francisco Alumni Chapter President Neil Shea.

As our alumni might remember from their Baltimore days, Johns Hopkins is known for its unique definition of fun. I am thrilled to hear that the San Francisco alumni are keeping the tradition alive here.

I understand that several years ago this alumni chapter applied for and won a National Park Service lottery to spend a night on Alcatraz. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hopkins effort if it didn’t include service to the community: an afternoon of building and grounds maintenance, all accomplished before retiring to their cells in D-Block.

And like intrepid Johns Hopkins faculty, researchers, and students the world over, I hear you have applied to go back for more.

This spirit of adventure, creativity and commitment to our communities locally – and globally – is what fuels Johns Hopkins’ great enterprise.

Today, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about the path and the future of our wonderful university.

Hopkins-Nanjing Center

Let me start almost 40 years ago, in 1972. President Richard Nixon returned home from his landmark trip to China – what he called “the week that changed the world” – with the Shanghai Communiqué and promised to build a real relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. But Americans, steeped in Cold War perceptions, remained uneasy … even suspicious of the communist nation.

In short, after the handshakes and banquets, the path to real change was not at all clear. And the events of the turbulent decade – Nixon’s resignation, the fall of Saigon and persistent anxiety about China’s role in the world – made for a rocky relationship, even as America inched toward formal diplomatic ties.

In the midst of this clouded environment, Hopkins President Steve Muller decided, rather audaciously, that Johns Hopkins should be in China.

He was inspired by the rich history of the Bologna Center at SAIS, interested in establishing a similar experience in Asia, and not persuaded by requests to consider focusing on other parts of the continent.

At a time when China was insulated from the international community, stumbling its way onto the world stage after the Cultural Revolution, President Muller was envisioning a place where American and Chinese students would live together, cheek by jowl, while studying politics, history and economics. Unsurprisingly, this idea took some time to gain traction.

In fact, the catalyst to this story was the emergence of a similarly visionary Chinese counterpart – Nanjing University President Kuang Yaming, a man who had been confined to a cow’s pen just a few years earlier during the Cultural Revolution.

A supporter of Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policies, Guang led a delegation of Chinese university leaders to the U.S. in 1979. First stop: Baltimore.

The visit initiated a relationship that built steadily over time, and the two men signed an unprecedented joint agreement two years later. It took five years, and masterful diplomatic efforts to make the vision a reality, but when the Hopkins-Nanjing Center opened, it boasted not only a unique academic and residential program, but the first open-stack library in China – a citadel for academic freedom in a closed and highly controlled society.

Of course, Johns Hopkins was not alone in its forays into the Middle Kingdom.

Fulbright sent four Americans to Beijing in 1979, and dozens of U.S. universities forged language-study or research partnerships with Chinese counterparts in the early 1980s.

But nearly 25 years after it opened, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center continues to stand apart.

Established as an island of understanding, it weathered the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989 and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade a decade later. Today, the relationship has produced more than 2000 graduates – equally divided between China and the United States.

It is marked by an arresting and dramatic campus that contains a magnificent building and adjacent dormitories that bear the chiseled names of Johns Hopkins and Nanjing University.

Last fall, just three days after Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, I landed in China, and learned that Chinese and American students at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center were debating this award – with considerable passion – in their dorm rooms at night. However constrained debate may be elsewhere in China, there were no limitations on informed and open discussion at the Center.

And the same was true when the students explored other issues – the role and pace of market liberalization versus political liberalization, the comparatively high levels of gun violence in the United States, or the true foreign policy motivations and aspirations of each country.

These spirited conversations, as much as the center’s gleaming new building or storied history, stand as testament to the foresight of President Muller’s audacious vision.

And, this year, the relationship will evolve even further as the result of a $10 million gift that will allow us to support student exchanges, collaborative faculty research, and other activities involving every division of our University and our Nanjing counterparts.

To the extent that modern China now stands at the fulcrum of so many contemporary geopolitical, economic, managerial, and cultural debates, Johns Hopkins is enormously well placed to contribute to them.

Leadership Today

Whether in Nanjing or in Baltimore, in health care or the humanities, Johns Hopkins, as it is wont to do, can’t help but heed the call for intellectual leadership.

And I can’t help but see this trend continuing in the recent announcement by U.S. News & World Report that our School of Nursing is the number one nursing graduate program in the nation. Congratulations to our Dean, Martha Hill, who is with us today. Martha, will you please stand so we may recognize you?

This groundbreaking leadership has been true since our earliest days. Our founders’ vision of an institution that blurred the boundaries between graduate research and undergraduate education dramatically and unequivocally shifted the trajectory of the great American research university.

Time and again, our faculty, students and alumni have offered new ideas to advance our society’s collective pursuit of knowledge and understanding. This is as true today as it was at our founding.

Just next week, we will be inaugurating our new Environment, Energy, Sustainability and Health Institute or E2SHI. This new effort will marshal our expertise and efforts across disciplines and divisions to foster innovative research and teaching that addresses the challenges of our changing global environment.

Indeed, the quirky and creative vision that denotes the success of the Nanjing Center defines the approaches of the group we’ve brought to San Francisco today.

I know listening to Krieger School Dean Katherine Newman illuminate the lives of America’s working poor or SAIS Alumni Doug Woodring share his insights on reducing the environmental damage of the “trash vortex,” will ignite your imaginations.

And as you consider the great promise of individualized health – spurred by Provost Lloyd Minor and today’s panelists – I hope you will feel first-hand the rush, the ebullience, the elation of discovery tied to our greatest challenges that is, in truth, the hallmark of Johns Hopkins.


When President Muller’s wife, Jill McGovern, speaks of the founding of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, she remembers a constellation of people and moments that fell into place – sometimes astonishingly – at the just right time. She jokes: “If you can’t be good, be lucky.”

But, looking back, it’s clear that throughout its history, this university has been both good and graced with a serendipitous type of luck. We have been courageous and collaborative … visionary and deeply true to our own enduring values.

And we will continue to be so. We must be willing to continue taking the risks that empower our talented students, faculty and staff; that foster the interdisciplinary collaborations of our divisions; and that create the legacies that advance our society and our world.

We are here today because we’d like you to be part of the conversations that shape our vision.