Convocation for the Class of 2027

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Convocation for the Class of 2027 | Keyser Quad | August 27, 2023

[As delivered]

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 AllNighters for their exceptional performance.

And a shout out to our entire orientation team for pulling together all of this week’s events!

Let’s give them a round of applause.

Now, without further ado, it is my great privilege to welcome to Johns Hopkins University the great, great Class of 2027, and all of our incredible transfer students!

We are so delighted to have you here and to have you join our academic community.

Now, I know, as new members of this community, you have been confronted with a vast array of unfamiliar norms and conventions.

You may be unsure whether it is appropriate to stay at Brody past midnight. It is, but never on a Friday or Saturday. Don’t do that.

Or whether you can absorb a lecture on organic chemistry while taking a nap. You can’t.

Or when the Hopkins Café will serve their ultimate grilled cheese. Tomorrow!

Or whether you are permitted to stand in the middle of Gilman Hall and . . . let loose.

[Video clip of dancing from Footloose]

This is not, I’m sorry to report, live footage from the Eras tour, but rather a clip from the 1984 cinematic classic Footloose. . . I am using the term “classic” very, very loosely here.

Now, I acknowledge that your familiarity with this movie may be confined to a handful of references in Stranger Things. Bear with me.

But I think this film is worth revisiting – and not just for the killer dance moves and the impeccable fashion.

I believe it has something to tell us about the polarized world we live in and, in particular, the journey you are about to embark on.

Let me set the scene.

It is the early 1980s.

In the fictional town of Bomont, Utah – population 700.

A new kid moves to town. A new kid who happens to be played by Kevin Bacon and who loves to dance.

The only problem is . . . dancing is illegal in Bomont. Yes, illegal.

The town is bitterly divided over the issue.

On the one side are the adults, led by a fiery preacher who has lost a son to a drunk driving accident and who believes that dancing and rock and roll are gateway drugs to a host of truly sordid activities.

[Video clip of John Lithgow preaching from Footloose]

On the other side are the teens – spearheaded by Kevin Bacon’s character, Ren – who believe that dancing is not only a genuine social good, but, in fact, their inalienable right . . .

[Video clip of Kevin Bacon dancing from Footloose]

The town is polarized – and your president is trapped in the ‘80s.

Both sides have strong reasons for their beliefs, and neither is willing to budge in order to understand the other. What the kids see as a wholesome rite of passage, the adults see as a slippery slope.

This is not just Hollywood fantasy, either.

This exact fight actually happened in Elmore City, Oklahoma in 1980 when a group of local high schoolers petitioned their community’s leaders to overturn a law from the 1800s that had, in fact, banned dancing.

In both cases – whether we are talking about the fictional Footloosers or the real teens of Elmore City – both sides of the issue suffered from a phenomenon that legal scholar Dan Kahan calls “identity-protective cognition.”

This refers to a proven tendency in people to trust only information and experts that reinforce the beliefs of their own cultural groups.

Indeed, no matter where we hail from, studies show that our cultural identities actually predispose us to privilege evidence that confirms what we already think to be true – from whether dancing leads to promiscuity to whether climate change is a myth and exaggerated.

So how do we overcome this all-too-human tendency to disregard facts and information that run contrary to our own firmly held beliefs and to separate into bitterly-divided camps?

How, in other words, do we understand the opposing positions of others, inhabit their viewpoints, and speak productively and respectfully across difference in order to achieve understanding, empathy, compromise, and maybe even consensus?

We have to recognize, first, that our interlocutors are fellow humans with rich, interior lives and experiences of their own.

And we should seek, wherever possible, to understand their values and inhabit their worldviews. . .

Worldviews shaped by everything from political affiliation to birthplace to socioeconomic class to field of study to religious belief.

Indeed, this is exactly what happens in Footloose when Ren, the Kevin Bacon character, uses the Bible to convince the town council that dancing should be legalized.

[Video clip of Kevin Bacon reading a passage from the Bible to town leaders]

Through such means we can begin to arrive at forms of mutual understanding and compromise that balance our own convictions with the concerns of those on the opposite side of the aisle . . .

As when the teens of Footloose secure a barn just outside Bomont city limits to host an experimental prom – thus avoiding the antiquated legislation and also providing a concrete proof of concept that is endorsed by many of the town’s leaders.

The end result? A dance!

[Video clip of high school students not dancing]

Wait, that’s not right.

[Video clip of high school students dancing enthusiastically]

Of course, in this instance, a dance is more than just a dance.

It is a tangible sign that it is possible to overcome our differences of perspective and experience in ways that truly bear fruit.

And so, Class of 2027, as you prepare to start your academic journey at Hopkins, we are going to ask something similar of you, too.

In your classrooms and practice halls, in locker rooms and labs, you will come up, almost certainly, against viewpoints and opinions that are dramatically different from your own.

I urge you to listen to those opposing perspectives and grapple with new evidence; to have your ideas changed by the views and experiences of others; and to allow your experiences and views to inform those of your peers.

Here at Hopkins, you will not have to advocate for the right to dance. That is a right, I assure you, that is entirely secure.

However, you may find – and I hope you do – that you have moments of vigorous, and sometimes painful, disagreement with others. . . perhaps even university leadership! That is essential to a vibrant academic community. And in those moments of disagreement and discomfort, you should not retreat into echo chambers but lean in with a desire to truly comprehend the worldview and position of others.

Perhaps you will persuade them. Perhaps they will persuade you. Perhaps you will both arrive at a new position you could not have even imagined. Or perhaps you will simply agree to disagree, which is just truly okay in a university community.

The more you do this, the more likely you are to overcome the polarizing effects of our society (and our own minds), and to arrive at places of mutual respect and understanding that will help you chart new ways forward. And doing this should not occur at the expense of your own deepest beliefs, but in the spirit of testing, examining, and enlarging the scope of those beliefs alongside others and in light of the best available evidence.

As a result, you might find yourself moving out of your comfort zone.

As I did . . . almost a decade ago . . . when I was asked – persuaded – by members of our Hopkins Bollywood fusion dance team to join them in a live performance. . .

How could I say no?

[Video clip of President Daniels dancing with Hopkins students]

It took a lot of editing and photoshopping to have even a semblance of rhythm in my moves. But they did it.

Class of 2027, we are so glad you are here and we cannot wait to see what steps you will take, where those steps will lead you and us, and the directions in which we’ll all go together.