Posted in Speeches
Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Convocation for the Class of 2026 | Keyser Quad
Thank you, Vice Provost Phillips.
Thank you, too, to all our speakers this evening for your words of welcome, and also to the Octopodes, Sirens, and the AllNighters for their stellar performances.
And thank you, of course, to the entire orientation team for doing such a phenomenal job at pulling off this incredible week of events!
Let’s give them a round of applause.
Now, without any further ado, let me welcome to Johns Hopkins University, the great class of 2026, along with all our fantastic transfer students!
We are truly delighted you are here. And we cannot help but be fortified and inspired by the energy, optimism, and enthusiasm that you have already brought to our community. From Drag Bingo to glow-in-the-dark Zumba and beyond, you have already started to distinguish yourselves!
Yet I also want to recognize that alongside your boundless enthusiasm, we understand you may be experiencing some twinges of apprehension.
This is understandable.
This experience is, after all, new to you. And you may have some questions for us.
Will you be able to tackle those probing first-year seminar topics, like, “What Does Music Do?” or that simple question, “What Everyone Should Know About Science?”
Can you actually be awake for that 8 a.m. class—Every. Single. Day?
What is in those strange steam tunnels by the rec center? Please, please don’t go to Reddit for the answers on that one. That’s only going to make you more nervous.
If you are having these thoughts, you are far from alone. I can well remember my own first week at university, in Toronto, finding myself in what I can only describe as being in a state of terrified exhilaration.
And the more I ruminated, the more I succumbed to the sense that college, at least for me, might very well be a mission … impossible.
[Theme song from the original Mission: Impossible TV show opening credits plays]
These are, of course, the opening credits to the—some might say classic, others might say cringe-worthy—Mission: Impossible television show of the 1960s.
I grew up on this show, but you are probably more familiar with Mission: Impossible from the long-running series of films starring Tom Cruise.
The longevity of the franchise is unsurprising.
It’s formulaic in the best way. With every new installment, we know what we’re going to get: astonishing secret agents preventing one global catastrophe after another through almost unimaginable intellectual and physical feats, aided by futuristic technology.
And yet, the missions were never truly impossible.
At the end of the day, the adversaries are always apprehended, and the threats are always thwarted, with the help of a familiar arsenal of tools … self-destructing eyeglasses, elaborate suspension gear, and most iconic of all: the synthetic, yet eerily life-like face mask.
Indeed, there is always a scene in the series where one of the characters rips off their face to reveal that they’ve been someone else all along.
There was the time when the corrupt scientist turned out to be…Tom Cruise.
[A clip from Mission: Impossible plays that shows Tom Cruise ripping off his mask]
Or the time when the wicked bureaucrat turned out to be…Tom Cruise.
[Another clip from Mission: Impossible plays that shows Tom Cruise ripping off his mask]
Or the time I really like, when CNN anchor and Hopkins alum Wolf Blitzer turned out to be … not Tom Cruise.
[A clip from Mission: Impossible plays that shows the actor Simon Pegg ripping off his mask]
You get my point. The list could go on. And on. Believe me. It does.
In the Mission: Impossible, or M.I. universe, masks are an essential tool of the trade. They allow agents to uncover plots, gain access to guarded compounds, and confound enemies.
Of course, the world we inhabit is not that of a well-paced, meticulously plotted (if occasionally far-fetched) Hollywood blockbuster.
Our world is much, much messier.
Our challenges do not get resolved neatly at the end of two hours. And although masks have become an indispensable part of our daily lives in the past two-and-a-half years of COVID, the masks that we don in life—whether we are in a pandemic or not—are more figurative in character.
Such masking is a form of self-concealment whose lure is especially strong when we find ourselves in uncharted territory. When we insecure and vulnerable. Like, for instance, when you start your university career.
Wearing a mask in these settings obscures our true identities from others. Perhaps we do this because we fear that if we were to reveal our authentic selves to the world, the world wouldn’t like what it would see.
And so, we conceal. We distort or muzzle ourselves to fit the perceived expectations of others as to what we should think and feel, to which causes or views we should be sympathetic, and even to whom we ought to be attracted.
This regrettable, albeit natural, instinct has always been so, and was so even in the dark ages when I was starting college. And I suspect that the pressures for conformity that trigger the impulse to mask are even more intense today. My generation never had to contend with the harsh consequences of being summarily censored or cancelled for daring to step outside of the arbitrary boundaries of what in the moment is deemed acceptable or right—as determined by the invisible denizens of social media.
Now, we know from mountains of psychological literature, that the personal psychic costs of masking are profound and devastating. This alone is reason enough to refuse the temptation to suppress sharing who you truly are with others.
But there is another reason for refusing to mask that emanates from the needs of our community. When you don a metaphorical mask or self-censor to reflect someone else’s image of the person they think you should be, you deprive this community—our university, of which you are now and forever a part—of being shaped by the vital contributions you—and you alone—can make to our collective life.
There is and will only ever be one you.
There is only one person on the face of this planet who has had the precise experiences you have had before coming here: the home you grew up in; the parents, relatives, friends, and even foes who have influenced you; the ideas you have gleaned from books, work, or your exposure to arts and culture; the body you inhabit; and all the joys and disappointments you have had. You come our way only once, and we are desperate to benefit from all that makes you—you.
So, trust us to accept the authentic you, and trust yourself to let us know and accept your true self.
Now, in urging you to eschew masking, I am not suggesting that you should avoid exploring new roles and identities during your four years here. In fact, just the opposite. You may be an engineer now and an English major in two years. As a first-year, you may fall asleep to episodes of Friends; as a junior, to episodes of The Office. There is scope for change here.
Or you may expand or change your political, social, or personal convictions to encompass those that are far from the ones you inhabit now. Today a progressive, tomorrow a conservative. Or vice versa. It happens. It’s natural. And that’s a wonderful part of being at a university.
University is a place to throw yourself fully into this process of discovery, in the spirit of staying true to yourself and without cutting the cloth of your identities according to the dictates of others.
So, Class of 2026, I urge you to resist the masks of conformity that our society too often demands of you, and indeed, of all of us.
We admitted you to Hopkins because in your applications you revealed to us who you truly are. You showed us your curiosity and your diligence; your failures and your triumphs; your most anguishing experiences and your most joyful ones.
In short, you showed us who you are now and who you are in the process of becoming.
As you engage in this process—more thrilling, I would argue, than any Mission: Impossible movie—my call, my entreaty to you, is this: Bring your truest self to everything you do—not only for you, but for us as well.
Be bold in sharing your ideas and your beliefs with others and expect and welcome that same boldness from each other.
Take a divergent view on some of our thorniest and complex challenges of our day—be it on how best to respond to climate change, justice reform, reproductive rights, or immigration policy – and allow those ideas to be tested, contested, and revised against the ideas and arguments of others, because that is the quintessence of what is a great academic experience.
Be the courageous leaders of a community of people that calls in everyone—even when we disagree—rather than canceling anyone out.
And call upon your faculty, and call upon me, to join you in this essential part of your college journey.
We will all be so much better for it.
This is your mission.
Johns Hopkins is so very lucky you have chosen to accept it.