2013 Freshman Convocation

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Convocation 2013
Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center

Thank you, David. And welcome to the great Class of 2017!

I also want to thank Gilbert Pasquale, the Orientation Executive Chair, and the entire orientation committee and staff, who did a phenomenal job with this year’s program.

Thanks finally to the Archipelago Project for helping our procession, and to the Sirens and the All Nighters for their stirring rendition of the national anthem.

I am thrilled to be here with our university leaders and faculty – including our wonderful new provost, Rob Lieberman; our dynamic new Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Kevin Shollenberger; and several members of the University’s Board of Trustees – to greet the newest members of the Johns Hopkins community.

I want to start by invoking a seminal moment in modern American history. It’s October 1974 – 20 years before most of you were born. A 27-year-old film director is suffering a major anxiety attack in a Boston hotel room. It isn’t pretty. His second major feature film is in dire straits. Not only is the film 300 percent over budget, but it has also taken more than two and a half times longer than anticipated to film. He is sure this colossal failure will end his career, and that he will never work again in Hollywood.

The director? Steven Spielberg. The film? His classic thriller: Jaws.

For all of you who are not familiar with great films of the 70s, think of Jaws as the movie you’d get if you combined the director of Lincoln with … Sharknado. Honestly, it’s a classic.

But let’s get back to the Boston hotel room. At that dark moment in the young Spielberg’s budding career, it was clear the filming of this now legendary movie had gone horrifically wrong. The mechanical shark wouldn’t swim. Indeed, it wasn’t clear that it would float.

On its maiden voyage, the wanna-be menace from the depths of the seas unceremoniously began to sink. The film crew struggled in choppy seas and drifting currents to shoot the scenes. A filming accident caused one of the boats to take in water and submerge – along with all of the equipment on board. And every night, Spielberg found himself furiously finishing parts of the script or re-writing it to account for the unforeseen disasters. Nearly three decades later, after dozens of films, he still talks about the Jaws shoot as among the darkest, most difficult days of his career.

What the 27-year-old Spielberg didn’t (or, couldn’t) know in those lonely moments in that Boston hotel room was that Jaws would become one of the first films to gross more than $100 million at the box office, and launch one of the most important directorial careers in modern times. Jaws would change in fundamental and irrevocable ways the whole movie industry.

Let me pause here for a moment to explain why I am talking about Hollywood anxieties and summer blockbusters at this solemn ceremony marking the start of your university career. This past summer, I had the chance to read Jeremy Adelman’s recently published and quite magisterial biography of Albert Hirschman. Hirschman was a brilliant and unorthodox economist, whose insights addressed phenomena ranging from the challenges of developing countries to the role of happiness in collective behavior. He has long been an intellectual inspiration for me. Among his more provocative ideas was that of the Hiding Hand.

In broad terms, the idea was gleaned from Hirschman’s many years of field-work in the developing world. In embarking on major infrastructure projects – say, the establishment of a pulp and paper mill on the upper reaches of the Karnaphuli River in East Pakistan or the construction of a large-scale irrigation program in Peru – Hirschman noticed that the planners behind these projects would time and time again fail to anticipate many of the future risks, complexities and set-backs, that would jeopardize the success of these ventures. But interestingly, despite these unanticipated challenges, many of these projects ultimately succeeded, and greatly benefited the communities affected by them. For Hirschman this observation presented a puzzle because if the planners understood the true and daunting magnitude of the risks before them, they might never take on these socially desirable projects.

So why do these projects ever get off the ground? Hirschman’s interesting insight is that while we are not good at anticipating future risks and challenges, we are equally ill-equipped at anticipating the many ways in which dazzling acts of human creativity will find novel and workable solutions to those same risks and challenges, and ensure project success. Or, framed another way: Necessity is the mother of invention. Hirschman believed that the Hiding Hand of unanticipated creativity was critical in understanding so many acts of monumental human achievement.

Consider this idea in terms of the Jaws experience. After all, when the mechanical shark broke down again and again, it caused many people on set to panic, wondering if this shark-based movie was, in fact, even possible. But Spielberg happened upon a simple and simply terrifying device – he deleted the mechanical shark from the scene. The horrific thrill of Jaws would now emanate from what you can’t see … a deadly hunter lurking right beneath a group of vulnerable young swimmers, silently stalking its prey.

And, rather than pulling the plug after learning about the budget overruns, studio executives eventually decided to invest heavily in costly TV spots, and to open the film in wide release – two approaches rarely used in Hollywood to that point. The result was a stunning financial return, a revolution in movie marketing and the birth of the summer blockbuster.

This year, Iron Man 3… Despicable Me 2… and World War Z… all have a defective mechanical shark to thank for their success.

Of course, the Hiding Hand steers more than the work of Hollywood directors. Earlier this summer, NASA honored a Johns Hopkins astronomer, Holland Ford, with the Distinguished Public Service Medal, one of the agency’s highest recognitions.

Professor Ford’s service was linked to a moment of seeming catastrophe – scientists had discovered that the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most important instruments ever lofted into our solar system, had a fundamental flaw in its primary mirror. Still reeling from the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger a few years earlier, NASA’s reputation was flagging, and the public was beginning to lose confidence in the agency’s mission. Professor Ford, who had been involved with one of Hubble’s first-generation instruments, led a panel that was asked to find a way to improve the telescope’s performance.

Obviously, you know how this story turns out. In the years since, some of the most profound discoveries of our universe have stemmed from Hubble’s observations, and the telescope continues to transmit extraordinary, inspiring images to this day. And, by the way, the Space Telescope Institute, which is housed on this campus, has played an indispensable role in supporting this discovery.

Tomorrow, when classes begin, you will get an early taste of the academic challenges before you. At times over the next four years, you will wonder if you’ve taken on too much or grossly mis-gauged the task at hand. You may have. But don’t fear. This is exactly when Hirschman would tell you that unexpected creativity will help you devise revolutionary responses to impossible problems – the kind of solutions that may upend the film industry, expose the wonders of our universe … or allow you to contribute to the world of ideas here at Hopkins.

I want to assure you that you’ve come to a place where you will rarely have your back against a wall. Not because the work will be easy, but because this community will shower you with lifelines in your moments of angst and self-doubt. These lifelines will come in the form of professors who offer a sounding board for your thinking … roommates who hand you a coffee, a joke or an idea when you need it most … RAs who host taco night at just the right time … sports teams, dance troupes, service trips or even pick-up games of quidditch that clear your thinking, broaden your community, and illuminate new ideas.

Here, when your shark breaks down – metaphorically, I hope – your sources of creative inspiration will come from every corner – within you and outside of you. That is the magic of this place, and of the people who inhabit it.

We are delighted that you decided to join us here, and wish you all the best on the promising journey ahead! Bon voyage.