Each summer as I anticipate speaking to the freshman class, I am filled with a tinge of apprehension.
What can I do to frame the Convocation address in a way that speaks to the distinct circumstances in which a particular class of students finds itself?
This year, however, the choice of topic was obvious.
With so much intense debate over the role of free expression in and outside of the university community, and its connection to broader debates in this and other countries over fake news, political polarization, heightened ideological conformity, and growing populism, the subject was obvious.
This topic is especially important for a university whose motto, "Veritas vos Liberabit" ("Truth will set you free"), was adopted by the university's board of trustees in 1885.
I have often referred to the research university as a "place apart" in society.
Universities stand apart from other institutions in so many respects, but none more so than our core dedication to knowledge creation and dissemination. Other social institutions can choose to define themselves around an idea, dogma, or doctrine. But not us.
At America's first research university, we believe that the steady advancement of knowledge and truth is essential for a healthy society. Undergirding this belief is our commitment to free expression—here an imperfect shorthand for several related topics, from academic freedom in the university to open civic discourse.
And we've spent a lot of time thinking about the role of the university in teaching and modeling the practices that will sustain our society in the most challenging of moments.
That's why the topic was the thrust of my Convocation speech to the class of 2021. That is also why it was featured prominently in our first year–student orientation, when Provost Sunil Kumar led a faculty panel on what academic freedom is and is not, and how it will impact their pursuit of discovery at Hopkins. That is also why we are calling on students to come up with new ideas for how we can foster the free and open debate that is our lifeblood.
Now, with the academic year in full swing, our faculty, students, and staff are rising to the challenge, brimming with ideas on how to amplify debates ignited by visiting thinkers through student-led dialogues, to take advantage of this year's JHU IdeaLab challenge grant—our own Kickstarter—to develop programming around this topic, and to consider new ways they can embody the constructive problem-solving so needed here at Hopkins and beyond.
At the close of my Convocation speech, I set a high bar for our students. To carry these skills forward, as they join all of you in the real world, and work together to make our world better.
Ronald J. Daniels