Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 3, 1996

Down to Business

On his first day as Hopkins' 13th president, William R. Brody took time to speak with The Gazette about his new job. Below are some highlights from that conversation, which ranged from international efforts to health-care reform to the university's role in the community.

Gazette: What does one do on the first official day as president?

Dr. Brody: Unpack. That's what Harry Truman said. Go around and meet people, I guess that's probably the most important thing. Try to get a sense of who's here and what people are doing. Although I spent a number of years here, and I think I know Hopkins reasonably well, there have been a lot of changes. Oftentimes what you find as the glaring problems are ones that everybody is focusing on and generally they get solved, one way or another. I want to get a sense of what are the critical things that people aren't thinking about? I don't know what those issues are likely to be.

Gazette: The average tenure of a president seems to keep shrinking while the job gets steadily more complex and difficult. Why would anyone want to be president of a major university such as Hopkins?

Dr. Brody: Because it is the most exciting job in America. If you look at other opportunities out there, there is no question that a university president has the most interesting and exciting job. It has the broadest range of challenges and requires the ability to meet and work with people of all walks of life. But it's like taking a drink of water from a fire hose. It's hard to turn off the spigot or get just a little bit.

Gazette: What do you perceive the public expects of its universities?

Dr. Brody: We're trying to walk a fine line between being more accountable to our constituents--preparing students for professional careers, providing a cost-effective education, and so forth--while we maintain our excellence in the pursuit of new knowledge. Hopkins and other major research universities are in the discovery business--we educate through research and we attempt to provide students with the tools that will equip them to pursue careers that have yet to be defined. That's a highly discontinuous, nonlinear--sometimes even irrational--process. The great discoveries have usually come from discontinuous thinking, and by going against the grain of accepted dogma at the time. If we are to educate the leaders of the next century, we must prepare them with the tools for lifelong learning and problem solving--and this is the essence of Hopkins as the quintessential research university. So although we do prepare students for professional careers, we shouldn't lose sight of the uniqueness of how we accomplish that goal.

Gazette: What is it that makes Hopkins unique and special?

Dr. Brody: What makes Hopkins special is the quality and commitment of our human resources: the faculty, the staff and the students. Excellence is the essential ingredient. What makes Johns Hopkins unique is that it has an academic footprint unlike any other university in the country. The broad assembly of talent in our divisions makes Hopkins as much an "enterprise" as a university. We are unrivaled in our ability to promote the integration of disciplines to meet new challenges in education and research. We have broad participation in nontraditional education, distance learning, international dimensions at a time when educational opportunities are increasingly no longer confined to the boundaries of a single geographic campus. With our entrepreneurial spirit, faculty within the Hopkins enterprise can come together to address important national and international strategic imperatives. That is one of the elements that makes Johns Hopkins such an exciting place to be.

Gazette: Do you see more international efforts and relationships on the horizon?

Dr. Brody: How Hopkins expands internationally is a question, but that we will expand internationally is a given. There is no question that education, research and health care are global opportunities. We need to figure how they may best be approached, if only to be sure our students can find their way in the world. They've got to have this exposure to international opportunities. I also think that probably more students abroad are going to take advantage of Hopkins education and research in ways that are different from what goes on today.

Gazette: How will your job work on a day-to-day basis?

Dr. Brody: The role of the president is to set direction for the university, to ask the questions that others haven't asked yet, to be thinking long-range and to help provide the resources for Johns Hopkins into the next century. We are blessed with outstanding leaders in academic and administrative positions, and much of the day-to-day operation of the university will continue to be effectively and ably managed by them.

Gazette: Speaking of the provost, how is the search for a new provost going?

Dr. Brody: We are in an evaluation process of what the options are going to be.

Gazette: Is C-21 going to stand as your manifesto of future change?

Dr. Brody: I think it's a respectable blueprint, and it's a good place to start. The overriding theme I see for Hopkins is collaboration. We have a series of disciplines, whether they are disciplines in the sense of mathematics or chemistry, or whether they're disciplines in the sense of schools or divisions within the university. Those divisions or disciplines are going to stand, as they have for many, many years. But the challenges and the opportunities, increasingly, are multidisciplinary, and I think we need to look at ways of putting things together better within the university, within divisions, within schools. Or with other universities or other partners in a way that makes us more effective and more efficient.

Gazette: You have chosen to live here on the Homewood campus, in Nichols House, once it has been renovated. Why?

Dr. Brody: One of the senses I've had about Hopkins, having been at a number of universities, is that I've never had the feeling that Homewood is as much of a university community as it could be. It's a wonderful campus, but you can drive by Hopkins and look at the neighborhood and never know there was a university here. If you go to almost any other university you'd find coffeehouses and bookstores and so forth. One of the things we would like to see happen is to try to make a transformation of Hopkins so that it's not only a community of scholars and a wonderful place in which to learn, but also a wonderful place in which to live. I think it's an important issue, and I want to get a sense of what the campus is like and what's happening.

Gazette: What about APL? Are you anticipating APL will be changing its relationship within the university?

Dr. Brody: The government has reaffirmed APL's role as a defense contractor with key critical centers of excellence. What I think still remains to be clarified are ways to maximize the impact of APL within the greater university. There are certainly some initiatives being undertaken to strengthen that. What are the ways we can get more impact from the extraordinary talent that exists at APL? As you know, APL contributes a lot to the graduate educational program in engineering. There have been a number of strategic ties to the medical school. The question is, Are there other ways we can leverage that expertise?

Gazette: What about the changes at the East Baltimore campus? Are they unique to Hopkins?

Dr. Brody: No. In fact, Hopkins has been relatively sheltered in the managed care upheaval. But it won't remain as sheltered as it has been. It's going on all around the country. And I think this is exactly the same kind of thing that is going to affect higher education later: the sort of attitude that the public appreciates academic health centers--when someone is really sick that's where they want to go--but they don't want to pay for the added costs of research and education. We're being asked to function as though we weren't doing research and education, as if we were just producing health care and nothing else. That's the real challenge: How do you balance the academic mission with the need to be cost effective and market competitive?

Gazette: So how does it feel? When you walked into your office this morning and the door closed behind you, did you say to yourself, "Now what?"

Dr. Brody: Having responsibility for the stewardship of such a precious national and international resource as Johns Hopkins carries with it great personal concern about how to preserve our mission in light of many challenges we are facing. Universities have been notoriously resilient through the centuries and, therefore, relatively immune to change. Now that our external environment is changing so rapidly, universities are no longer protected as they have been in the past. It is incumbent upon us to adapt in new ways, but to do so in a way that will allow us to maintain our mission as a premier research university. How we steer a course into the 21st century will, in many ways, define our future success for many decades to come.

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