Bringing Johns Hopkins to New York Alumni Gathering

New York Historical Society

I am delighted to gather with you all in a place that celebrates the people and events that made New York the extraordinary metropolis it is.

Exactly two weeks ago, the Johns Hopkins class of 2019 crossed the stage at their commencement in Baltimore to join ranks with so many of you in this room—our wonderful alumni!

As is tradition, they were joined by an exceptional group of men and women who received Johns Hopkins’ highest recognition—our honorary degree. One of them, Sid Lerner, is with us this evening. Sid was one of the original Mad Men, a legendary advertising executive and now chairman of the global Meatless Monday campaign.

This group of outstanding honorees ran the gamut from Sid to a pioneering geneticist to the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, to the first refugee to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court of Canada, Rosalie Abella.

Justice Abella also spoke at the Krieger School’s master’s graduation. As graduation speakers do, she urged our students to use the knowledge and wisdom they had gained to do good in the world. But her words carried a special poignancy and imperative. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors and someone who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in the aftermath of the war, she knew what the world could become.

She reminded our students that they were graduating on the cusp of an historic anniversary.

The one we mark today: D-Day.

As you know, roughly 18 hours and 75 years ago, more than 150,000 Allied troops began the attack on the beaches of Normandy, a sacrifice of epic proportions that not only tipped the scales of the war, but changed the arc of history.

The achievement of D-Day and all it represented gave rise to, as Justice Abella put it, a luminous moral consensus around core democratic values that led to the great alliances and unparalleled prosperity that defined the post-war world.

However, she worried, as I do, that that consensus, once so strong and seemingly unbreakable, appears to be dissolving, as intolerance, inequality, and disinformation have rendered democracies across the world more fragile than they have been in seven decades.

So, I shared Justice Abella’s sense of urgency when she asked our students, rhetorically, why we are all not daily invoking and embodying the values that landed along with the forces on those beaches 75 years ago?

I cannot speak for all of us, but I was able to answer unequivocally on behalf of Johns Hopkins: We are.

Indeed, at the core of our university lies a commitment to individual flourishing and the advancement of the common good. A devotion to tolerance and freedom for people and for the ideas they pursue. And an unwavering belief that reason and truth should form the bedrock of a good and decent society and serve as the guides of human behavior.

And in remarkable ways in just the past year alone, we have dedicated ourselves to realizing the principles enshrined in the history of this university and called to mind by this landmark anniversary.

Among these is the belief—a cornerstone of the American Dream and grounded in the data—that colleges and universities have the power to transform lives and that a world-class education should be available to all meritorious students regardless of their families’ financial means.

This year, thanks to a great New Yorker who happens to be a Hopkins alum, Michael Bloomberg, we received the single largest philanthropic gift in the history of higher education: $1.8 billion to endow undergraduate financial aid in perpetuity.

With this staggering gift, we now join the pantheon of great universities who are not only need-blind, but loan-free. And because we did not want to make our students wait even a New York minute to feel the effects of this gift, we immediately replaced all future federal loans for our current students on financial aid with grants.

And we will be thrilled to welcome all the students now able to attend Hopkins loan-free into a community that is committed to enhancing the public discourse and debate necessary for democratic societies to thrive.

Our SNF Agora Institute was built to do just this. Launched with the support of a $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and modeled after the ancient Athenian Agora, this institute aims to investigate the stresses imperiling democracy and to advance workable solutions to reinvigorate it for the 21st century.

And it is already making an impact.

In the past six months, the Institute has gathered three sitting governors from across the ideological spectrum to share insights on how they work with opposition-controlled legislatures; it has convened an international conference on the restoration of democracy with journalists, scholars, and politicians from both sides of the aisle; and it has hosted a dialogue on the impact of technology on democracy that itself was interrupted by student protest—a great example of living our belief in the centrality of free expression!

But undergirding our concern for the future of democracy lies, fundamentally, an abiding concern for people. And at Hopkins, we are daily putting into practice our belief in the dignity of every person and the importance of pursuing truth in the service of health and well-being. Our researchers have devised a single blood test capable of early detection of more than 60 deadly cancers. They have exposed the racial disparities that affect the quality of patient care in our communities, and delivered low-cost, low-tech healthcare to mothers and children across the developing world. They are daily improving the quality of life in Baltimore and around the world.

And indeed, we are carrying all these values into the future and, as you may have heard, directly into the heart of our nation’s capital thanks to our recent acquisition of the iconic Newseum building. This unique space will be a new home for our DC programs that will not only be a citadel dedicated to facts, reason, and open debate, but also a platform to ensure that the insights and discoveries of Hopkins researchers and scholars from all of our schools will shape the national and global dialogue for generations to come.

Five months after D-Day, President Franklin Roosevelt was already looking beyond the military successes just past. He was imagining the world that would be created after the war and the institutions that would build it. Universities, he knew, must be among these.

In a letter dated November 1944, he wrote: “New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war, we can create … a fuller and more fruitful life.”

Thank you all for being part of an institution that has – not only for the last 75 years, but for almost 150 years—pioneered new frontiers of the mind in order to build a fuller, safer, more just future for all.

We are thrilled you are here and so very grateful for your support of our remarkable university.