Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 22, 1995

On The President: Looking Back

     Before he departs for his new role as head of the Kellogg
Foundation, President William C. Richardson spoke to The Gazette
about his five years at Hopkins and the state of higher

Gazette: Why don't we start with a question many have been
wondering since a major university president's recent
self-imposed leave of absence: "Is it impossible to be a college
president today?" 

WCR: Absolutely not. It's a challenging, wonderful job. I have
always viewed it as being a high cost, high reward kind of job.
You certainly pay a price in terms of personal time and freedom
and ability to pursue your own interests. 
     I don't downplay for a minute the pressures of the job. But
on the other hand, it has tremendous rewards.  The reward of
seeing something not happen that could have happened, that would
have hurt us, or conversely getting something to happen that
helps us would be an example. 

Gazette: Is there a management style that best suits the variety
of responsibilities demanded of a modern research university

WCR: I think it's a matter of being organized properly, having a
flat enough organization that you are able to delegate. 
     Probably the linchpin to the whole thing is having the right
people in place. We have, I think, one of the best groups of vice
presidents and deans of any university I know. I'm absolutely
convinced that our senior people are the best in the country in
whatever field it is. They're just really outstanding
individuals. And that means you can have productive conversations
with them on what strategies are going to work best to make good
things happen. 
     If you're spending your time sort of helping them limp along
or trying to figure out how you're going to replace them or
trying to keep them from going at each other's throats, then
you've got wasted time, in which you could be doing something
productive for the university. 
     Hopkins, I think, right now is just an exceptionally
well-functioning, healthy organization. We're not paranoid. We're
not neurotic. We don't have faculty members who are overly
suspicious. And we don't have central administrators or deans who
are anything but committed to what Hopkins is all about, which is
doing everything that we can to provide support to our faculty
and students. That is, after all, the only justification for the
administration to exist. We're just here to help make sure that
people have a productive setting within which they can pursue
their work. And that's what we have, I think.

Gazette: Many people have an idea that if you're a president you
exert some sort of dictatorial power in that you can just say,
"I'm president therefore we are going to do this." What's the

WCR: The reality is not what you just described except in some
very minor things; few enough that I could count them on the
fingers of my hand. You need the help of those around you and of
the governing board and of the faculty, to be able to look out,
figuring out where the university should be and what kinds of
things you need to be alert to. 
     And the key is being ahead of the curve as much as you can.
You've got to persuade other people of where the university
should be going, of what areas need shoring up, or what changes
need to be made, or where more attention needs to be paid. You
have to envision where the university should be in five to 10
years and then persuade people that that's where we should be.
     When I first came, the things I talked most about were not
resting on our laurels but revamping the curriculum, doing
something proactively with respect to interdivisional programs
and collaborations, taking advantage of the international
reputation of the university by really focusing on international
programs in all the divisions. And then making sure that we have
a human climate that is supportive of women and minorities, to
put it in the simplest terms. And those are all things where I
think we've made tremendous headway.

The Hopkins Way

Gazette: One fundamental aspect of the university is its lack of
central control. All the various aspects are autonomous. 

WCR: It's a dream organization.

Gazette: Does it work?

WCR: You bet it works. If you look at the idealized model in the
management literature, in the popular literature, the dream model
is this flat decentralized organization with layers taken out
between leadership and the people on the ground. 
     Now the one drawback is the issue of central funds to move
around from time to time. You need enough money for innovative
investment, capital investment and human capital investment in
new programs. But we don't have any trouble doing most of that.
For example, we have a fund for moving money around to support
central services, central activities and information systems that
works very, very well. The only problem with it is that sometimes
sources of funds get smaller at a time when the needs for the
funds get bigger.

Gazette: What about the prospect of a central curriculum?

WCR: We do everything a college aspires to do, and then some. We
do a lot more in terms of providing a very rich environment for
our students to go off and explore on their own. If we don't give
them time to explore or the freedom to design their own
curriculum, then they are not going to be able to take advantage
of the full university. 
     I do think that the School of Arts and Sciences is wise in
moving toward a greatly relaxed expectation of students knowing
what they want to do when they come in. I think that is really
helpful to give them more flexibility. 
     Now if we went to the next step and said that we were going
to have a core curriculum or a standard body of knowledge that we
expect all students to know as some places do, then I get very
uneasy. It's completely contrary to my notion of what it is that
is going to turn a student on to a field in which he or she is
going to get really excited and become excellent. I mean really
turned on. And I think that is what an undergraduate education is
all about. It's not pouring your mind full of information; it's
turning it on for the rest of your life.

Gazette:  Are you content with where 
we've come during your administration?

WCR: I think we're heading in the right direction. We are not as
far along as I would have hoped because we've had a lot of
detours along the way, the recession being the most conspicuous
     I would like to have seen, for example, a more fully
developed set of interdisciplinary programs with more money to
students and faculty to move back and forth between divisions. We
just haven't been able to do that. 
     I would like to have seen more fully and quickly developed
curricular changes that would have been, in a sense, funded by
additional resources that we simply haven't gotten because of the
slowness of the economic recovery. While the campaign has been
going well, the actual flow of dollars into the general endowment
has not been as fast as I would have liked. It's just a matter of
taking longer to get that done. We have commitments but we just
don't yet have the money in the bank. So that means we're moving
more slowly on our new majors for example, or our interdivisional
programs that I would like to see pursued. It's not anybody's
fault. Perhaps I'm an impatient person despite what seems a
patient personality.

Embracing The 
Information Age

Gazette: It seems that on every social and cultural front, the
role of the information superhighway is both anticipated and
debated. How is this still-emerging information age going to
affect how students are taught?

WCR:  It will radically change the way students are taught, I
think. First of all, this university now has more than half of
its students as adult part-time learners. Our delivery systems to
those students are still fairly traditional. 
     But the experiments that are going on in doing it in
non-traditional ways are growing year by year. In fact we just
set up a special fund for further experimentation. Does that mean
we are going to lose human community? No, I don't think so. I
think it means we're just going to use human community in
different ways. We're not going to use it to do the nuts and
bolts, which we'll do in more efficient ways. We'll use it more
for either problem solving or working through different people's
ideas and resolving them, teaching people how to interact more

Reflecting On The Future

Gazette: Hopkins, and higher education in general, has faced a
lot of critical attention recently, both from legislators and the
public. What are the threats or danger? There must be some
lurking out there.

WCR:  There are lots of them. The threat that worries me the most
is what I see as the breakdown in an understanding of the
importance of investing in the future--not only for our children-
-but for our society and our economy through basic research and
education. I think certain things should be set aside and
protected that have long-term consequences. 
     Those are two areas. National defense is another. We have a
highway system that I feel should be a protected investment; it
is much more important than people realize to the success of the
economy. We should cut on the consumption side, not on the
investment side. But I think there has been a breakdown and it's
all gotten blurred. Anything people want to spend money on they
call an investment, whether it is or isn't.

Gazette: Do you have a fear that over the next 10 or 12 years
there is going to be a wide divide between those students who can
get a quality education and those who simply can't because of the

WCR:  I believe in markets and the power of markets.
     I think that inexorably we'll find universities and colleges
will have to respond to market forces and will have to become
more efficient and more cost effective. That's one of the great
things about Hopkins, that we have put most of our resources into
our programs and not so much into the administrative
     We know, for example, that our central administrative costs
are not only among the lowest of any major university in the
country, but they're half the average of major universities. And
that isn't by accident, it's because of the way we've organized
ourselves and cut away the layers that some places have. Other
places are just going to have to deal with that. 
     Second, I don't think we can continue to increase our costs
and therefore our charges at a rate any faster than the growth of
family income. We just can't. We're subject to the same laws of
economics that anybody else is. 
     Another question that  is really important, I think, is, Are
we going to go back where we were in the 20s and 30s? Then it
really was something for the elite. It was relatively rare for a
low income person to get access, and when a person did, it was
through scholarships. We do the same thing today except in a much
more organized way that requires our being able to use general
funds to support families that don't have the resources to send
their sons or daughters to a place like Hopkins. I think that's
the greatest threat, even greater than the growth of cost which
we just have to control. The system of pooling the dollars we get
and allocating them in such a way that we develop a balanced
class with regard to geography, gender, ethnic and racial
diversity, economic diversity and so on is under stress.
     The thing that worries me about the debate over affirmative
action is it really becomes a debate over redistribution and
who's worthy and who isn't. I think we've had a pretty good
system for assuring access by a whole range of people,
economically and geographically, racially and by gender and so
on. I don't want to see that undercut. 
     And yet I see tremendous pressure coming from those who are
paying the full amount, raising the question of why they should
be bearing the burden when it could be spread more generally
across the society. The problem is, at the same time this
question is being raised all across society, which means taxes
are under pressure as well. So, yes, I see this as a danger.

Gazette:  Do you have any suggestions?

WCR:  I think we just have to make as good a case as we can for
the importance of having student bodies who are representative of
the society and having programmatic initiatives that enable
student bodies to take advantage of that diversity by learning
from each other. And I think Hopkins has been exemplary in both
respects in the last few years.

Considering Hopkins

Gazette:  You must have had an impression of Hopkins when you
were first approached about the presidency. How has that
impression changed after five years at the helm?

WCR:  I had a vague notion that it was an excellent school. And I
didn't really understand why in the way that I do today. Today my
sense of Hopkins is of even greater admiration than I had before
I came here and a much more vivid understanding of what it is
that makes Hopkins great.
     Fundamentally--and to a greater degree than any place I've
ever seen--Hopkins is extremely careful in who it brings into the
faculty and how it provides for the faculty's advancement. Then
it's also careful about assessing satisfactory progress of the
faculty and how it manages to separate those who are without much
question going to be on the leading edge and those who aren't. 
     Hopkins by one means or another encourages people to move on
to other places who are not going to be in that premiere spot 15
years from now. They do it more effectively than any place I've
seen so that by the time it gets to a tenure decision, there
aren't many people left. 
     So I think that one factor--that is, the quality of the
faculty and the traditions and standards of the faculty for
excellence--is probably paramount in my understanding of why this
Hopkins delivers the way it delivers. 
     Very closely related is that, going way back to the
beginning, the faculty is very, very supportive of each other.
They don't have the idea that it's a zero sum game, but rather
have the idea that it's an expanding universe, if you will, and
that the more they help each other, the more they are going to
     It's a wonderful view of the world and you see it all the
time here. It makes the place a pleasure, as far as I'm

Peabody And Other 
Success Stories

Gazette: Looking back, Peabody Institute must be personally
satisfying because you came at a time when it was floundering.

WCR:  It was just about to go down. I am just delighted with it.
I was down there for a performance on Saturday night that I
thought was sensational, really catching the spirit of how
vibrant it is in terms of the faculty and the students.

Gazette:  What other things have 
been particularly gratifying to you?

WCR: Among the most gratifying is the degree to which the Hopkins
student body particularly undergraduate student body are really
learning from each other and benefiting from each other in so
many different ways. I attribute some of that to the students
     But I give a lot of credit as well to the student services
people on all the campuses, and especially Dean Benedict and his
people, in making it work. 
     I've visited a lot of campuses over the last five years and
have had a chance to really look at what some other places are
like. And when I see how our undergraduate students relate to
each other and how they benefit from each other and compare it to
what I've seen at other places, it's terrific.
     The other satisfaction that I've had is the degree to which
some of the programs enhanced in the '80s--for example, SAIS,
astronomy, molecular genetics and biophysics--have really paid
off, for example, with Hubble working and with Hopkins
Ultraviolet Telescope having been in space twice. 
     The human genome database has been not only been financially
important, it also makes Hopkins the world hub for all the
information on this work. And the same is true for the
     The effect of our humanities departments collaborating has
been to break down barriers between departments and take
advantage of what is a superb group of faculty to the benefit of
all the students, whether they are in literature or in history or
     Those are exciting things and we've recruited sensational
faculty to do it and have lost very few when others have come
knocking at our door.

Gazette:  Has this job changed you 
fundamentally or in any other way?

WCR:  I hope not. One of the things I've always tried to do is to
know who I am, what my values are, what my beliefs are, what I
really care about and then apply that to whatever I'm doing as my
current life's work but not the other way around.
     I've always tried to conduct my life in a way so that if I
suddenly had to give up teaching or suddenly had to give up my
research in the old days or suddenly had to give up being
president, it wouldn't be that big a deal. 
     I know a lot of people who define themselves by the job that
they are in and therefore when it comes time to retire or they
have to step down they are just crushed by it because that's the
way they define their life. I try never to do that.
     So that on any given day I could step away from it. Not that
I wouldn't regret it or miss it, but it would not fundamentally
alter who I am, why I'm here, what I believe and what I think my
life's all about.

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