June 7, 2010

6,323 degrees in the sun

Johns Hopkins University celebrates its 134th annual commencement exercises Thursday morning

Before commencement day’s end, the Class of 2010 would hear many wise words of counsel on how to find a better way to do things, to seek the truth and to positively impact humanity. The day’s first, and perhaps most practical, lesson was more straightforward. Hydrate.

On a steamy Baltimore day that started in the 80s and crept into the 90s, President Ronald J. Daniels conferred degrees on 6,323 graduates at Johns Hopkins’ 134th universitywide commencement ceremony, held on May 27.


The morning ceremony marked the first of its kind, as the university this year fused the universitywide commencement ceremony with the Homewood undergraduate diploma ceremony for one grand graduation observance. The single ceremony summoned graduates from all divisions and campuses.

The result was a packed crowd on Homewood Field who employed myriad ways to keep cool. Some sat under umbrellas, some turned an unfolded graduation program into a hat, and others found whatever they could for fanning themselves. The graduates, many decked out in sunglasses, drank bottled water by the gallons. One graduate joked that she lost two pounds on her way to the stage.

Not in attendance were 13 graduating members of the high-flying Blue Jays baseball team, which earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division III College World Series, and one member of the men’s tennis team. The baseball team had left Baltimore to play sixth-ranked Heidelberg College in Appleton, Wis., and David Maldow had traveled to the NCAA singles and doubles tennis championship at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Not to be denied a proper send-off from Johns Hopkins, the university had hosted a special graduation ceremony on Tuesday in the Hodson Hall boardroom for the athletes and their families and friends.

On Thursday morning, the undergraduates from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering gathered on the Keyser Quadrangle to take a ceremonial “final walk” through campus, passing through the Freshman Quad, where their academic journey started, to reach Homewood Field. All other graduates entered from the Athletic Center.

In his address, Daniels quoted the words of Thomas Edison: “There’s a way to do it better. Find it.”

As an example, he cited John L. Cameron, former chair of the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins and a recognized master of general surgery. In 1969, Cameron began to dedicate himself to improving and perfecting the Whipple procedure, a complex abdominal surgery to remove diseased tissue that was once rarely performed because many patients failed to survive the procedure. A Whipple operation used to take nearly nine hours to complete, and the mortality rate exceeded 30 percent.

Over a span of decades, Cameron would go on to perfect the Whipple, managing not only to cut the length of the surgery in half but to have 99 percent of his patients survive.

Daniels said he appreciated Cameron’s doggedness. Last fall, Daniels underwent a successful Whipple surgery to access a mass next to his pancreas, a procedure performed by a team of Johns Hopkins surgeons led by Richard Schulick, the John L. Cameron Professor for Alimentary Tract Diseases in the School of Medicine.

“My good luck stems directly from Dr. Cameron’s relentlessness and persistence, surgery after surgery, year after year. Learning. Honing. Perfecting,” he said. “I hope that you, too, find your passion—whether in medicine, civil engineering, archaeology, poetry or business—and then pursue it with the same relentless discipline that has marked and defined Dr. Cameron’s career. Your patience and perseverance will save lives, rebuild cities, discover our history, affect humanity and enrich our existence.”

During the event, the thousands in attendance listened to an often-amusing address by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the businessman turned politician who graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1964.

Early in his talk, Bloomberg referenced his undergraduate days at Homewood and his not-so-stellar academic achievements.

“As I often like to say, I was the kind of student who made the top half of the class possible,” he said. “But I did have a lot of fun here, perhaps a bit too much. I’m only glad they didn’t have digital cameras to record it. I would have ended up on YouTube.”

He talked about the many changes at Johns Hopkins since “his day,” when tuition was just over $1,000, the undergraduate population was a fourth its present size, the Milton S. Eisenhower Library was just a hole in the ground, and the School of Public Health didn’t have “Bloomberg” in front of it.

“Also back then, our baseball team wasn’t playing in the College World Series. Go Jays!” Bloomberg exclaimed to hearty applause.

Striking a more serious tone, Bloomberg talked about how far America has come in the past 45 years—noting the civil rights movement, environmental protection, education reform, government accountability and crime reduction—thanks to the efforts of those on both the left and right of the political spectrum.

“Our history shows us that neither liberals nor conservatives have a monopoly on good ideas. No ideology has God on its side, or a choir of angels at its feet,” he said. “One of the things that never ceases to amaze me in government is how so many highly intelligent people are willing to accept the conventional wisdom without ever asking the hard questions. They follow ideology, special interests and the polls, instead of following the facts.”

He told the graduates to search for the truth, ask for the facts and then come to their own conclusions.

“That simple act is so basic yet so important and so painfully absent from so much of our political dialogue,” he said. “I would suggest one rule to you: No matter how old you get, never trust anyone who reflexively shoots down an idea just because it comes from a different party or ideology. That kind of narrow-mindedness gets in the way of issue after issue. You are entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts.”

Bloomberg said that whatever they choose to do, the education they received at Johns Hopkins puts them in an incredible position.

“The opportunities and possibilities before you are virtually endless,” he said. “And you will find success if you work hard, take risks, ask your own questions, seek your own answers, maintain an open mind—always—and never stop learning. Never compromise your integrity. And never let go of the American spirit of independence.”

As a parting goodbye, Bloomberg told the graduates to “grab one last Natty Boh at PJ’s [Pub], because tomorrow the hard work begins.” And, he said, “I want you to remember this piece of advice that I give to every person I hire: Don’t screw it up.”

Bloomberg’s work was not done at the conclusion of his speech, however, as he agreed to join President Daniels in shaking the hands of every graduate to walk across the stage.

Juhee Kim, a public health studies major in the School of Arts and Sciences, said that the opportunity to shake the mayor’s hand had a particular resonance. Kim said that to her, Bloomberg has been a “Daddy-Long-Legs,” referring to Jean Webster’s novel about a girl who is sent to college by an anonymous benefactor. Kim said she was able to attend Johns Hopkins thanks in large part to a Bloomberg Scholarship. She had written several thank-you letters to the mayor but never met him until today.

“When I heard he was actually coming to speak, I was like, this is it, my chance,” she said. “I grabbed his hand and could not stop shaking. I told him I had been waiting four years to say thank you in person. It was a good ending to the ceremony for me.”

Kim said she’ll remember that, and the heat.

So will Michael Gvozden, psychology major and goalie for the men’s lacrosse team. “It was so hot. It was miserable out there,” he said. “But now we’re done. It’s great. It’s very exciting. New stuff is coming our way.”

Several students expressed relief at no more exams and homework. Some said they had jobs already lined up; others wanted to take some time off to decide where to go and what to do next.

Parents, too, wondered what lies in store.

Patricia Russell, mother of economics major Brendan Russell, said that the day was very emotional, as Brendan is the last of her three children to finish college. “I’m very proud. I’m just overwhelmed with hope and optimism for him,” she said. “I would add that I loved Mayor Bloomberg’s speech. I just thought that was great.”

Like every graduation ceremony, the day was filled with loud cheers, screams and cries of graduates’ names.

Perhaps loudest were the parents of the graduating football players, who collectively decided to meet in the stands where they had sat for all the home games.

Mike Hennessey, whose son Sean earned a degree in political science, said that he was extremely proud of his new graduate, who played wide receiver. Hennessey said the heat couldn’t melt his high spirits. “It’s a great day, and [Sean] already has a job. He’s going to be working for a software company in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

After the ceremony, many of the families, friends and graduates headed to a reception on the Keyser Quadrangle, where they were greeted by President Daniels and his wife, Joanne Rosen. Many sought the shade of trees and more bottles of water, along with their sandwiches and cookies. Graduates gladly shed their robes, some to reveal the shorts and T-shirts they wore underneath. Now it was time to celebrate; tomorrow they would move on to the next phase of their lives.

For more coverage of the day’s events, go to www.jhu.edu/commencement.