When William R. Brody
became president of The Johns Hopkins University, he said
that "the opportunity to lead JHU into the 21st century is
an exciting one indeed."
Ten years down the road, Brody says he is still
excited to helm the university and lead it even further
into the century. Brody is keenly aware of the obstacles
that face private higher education today, but he is, he
says, a man who embraces challenges.
Brody became the 13th president of Johns Hopkins on
Sept. 1, 1996, and was formally inaugurated on
Commemoration Day, Feb. 23, 1997. Prior to assuming the
position, he was the provost of the Academic Health Center
at the University of Minnesota. The California native and
MIT and Stanford graduate, however, was no stranger to
Johns Hopkins. From 1987 to 1994, Brody served on the
faculty of the schools of Medicine and Engineering and was
radiologist-in-chief of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. During
that time he served as chairman of the influential
Committee for the 21st Century, which led the push for the
creation of a chief information officer for the university
and for substantial new investment in information
During Brody's tenure as president, Johns Hopkins has
witnessed considerable physical growth, including sweeping
transformations of the Homewood and Peabody campuses, and
continues to expand both here and abroad.
Among his many accomplishments, Brody championed the
formation of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute,
Diversity Leadership Council and Commission on
Undergraduate Education. He has also played a pivotal role
in highly successful capital campaigns and in the push for
HopkinsOne, the ongoing immense initiative to streamline
and integrate most of the institutions' administrative and
financial systems. Academically speaking, the university
has also broadened its repertoire in the past 10 years,
adding a host of new interdisciplinary programs and
On the occasion of his 10th anniversary, 'The Gazette'
sat down with President Brody to discuss the past, present
and future of the university — with a little Mandarin
and self-deprecation tossed in for good measure.
What do you remember of your inauguration?
I had more hair on my head then [laughs]. It's kind of
a blur. I remember a wonderful day. I hesitate to reread
what I said as it probably won't have all the relevance.
The one thing I do remember ... I was talking recently to a
fellow who is taking on a presidency of a college, and I
told him I remember vividly from the inauguration the East
Baltimore gospel choir [Unified Voices] who sang "Climb
Every Mountain," and then [MIT president] Chuck Vest got up
and said, "One piece of advice I can surely give you, Bill,
is, as president, don't try to climb every mountain."
I say that is both good advice and the frustrating
part of the job. There are many mountains we have to climb
as a university, and your first thought is, why not climb
them all? But then you realize to get something done
requires focused attention and energy, as well as
resources. And in order to do that, you can't climb every
mountain. There are things one would like to see more
movement on faster, but you have to focus on what you feel
is most important. It's what I call selective neglect.
Another thing I remember was the tremendously warm
reception from everybody who came, and the faculty in
particular. I still feel like Hopkins is a very special
place in the way that it welcomes its leaders. I can tell
you that is not the case everywhere else. [People here]
respect the leadership, and they work with them. People are
doing so many things to make me successful, and that is not
a characteristic of all universities and colleges. It's a
uniquely positive trait and a decided competitive advantage
for us. Sure, people look at [a university's] location,
they look at endowment, U.S News & World Report
rankings, all sorts of things. The important core values of
an institution are what make it successful, and its value
is how it carries out its mission.
Ten years is quite a milestone.
I'm told the average tenure of a university president
is five years. That seems a little bit short, and it's
probably bimodal. Tenure at a public university is rather
short, and if you look at private universities, it's
probably 50 [percent] to 100 percent longer. Public
universities are subject to more pressure from multiple
constituents, variations of funding and changes in the
board of regents. Basically, they are subject to more
political forces that make it much harder in many ways for
a president. I also think if you have Division I football
and basketball, and if you're at any of the big state
universities, you're in a certain bind to have to deal with
a whole set of issues that, quite frankly, we don't have to
A skating Wendy and Bill Brody
greeting arriving freshmen, 1999
Gazette File Photos
What keeps you going?
The students. Obviously, I love the alumni and all the
people on the faculty, but here our first mission is to
serve the students. Yesterday, I happened to meet a student
who came to the office to meet [my executive assistant]
Jerry Schnydman. [The student] is a senior and has two
majors and two minors. She speaks Chinese, Japanese, Korean
and Spanish, as well as English, of course. I'm like, can
you repeat all that [laughs]? When you meet with these
students, you realize this is the future of our country and
the world, and you see we have this great mission to carry
out. You realize this is a tremendously important thing
that we are engaged in.
People ask me, doesn't the fund raising get old? Well,
I guess if I was selling soap, it would get old after a
while. But I have the world's greatest product that I'm
offering — to support the next Nobel laureate, the
person who will find the cure for cancer or AIDS, the
person who will go to the inner city and turn around a
housing development or its whole economy, or become the
next president of the United States. That is what we are
here for, and it's a wonderful thing. It's fun and
There are days when it's not so great. We've had the
deaths of students. That was a pretty hard time, and I will
forever remember each one of those students. I won't ever
get over it. Yes, there are moments like that, but that is
what life is all about, good and bad. What is so great
about my job is that the emotional highs offset the
[This summer, Wendy] and I met the Johns Hopkins
students who rode cross-country for cancer, and I met them
in my hometown in California, and they were talking about
why they made the journey. I tell you, my buttons were
popping. We also went to Vienna [Austria] and heard the
opening of a Mozart opera starring Peabody graduate Hyunah
Yu. She was wonderful. The work we do here is wonderful. I
have a small bit part in it, but it makes me tremendously
What worries you?
I worry about the attacks on higher education. [Higher
education] is one of the things that America leads the
world in, and I worry that political attacks on higher ed
can have serious implications down the line.
Specifically, what are you focused on long-term?
The sustainability and affordability of higher
education. We have a cost problem. Whether you think
tuition is too high, too low or just right, the fact is
that tuition doesn't begin to cover the cost of the
education. And that cost is rising faster than our economy
is growing. We are able to make up the difference by and
large through philanthropic support. As that pressure
grows, more and more colleges and universities will see
that deficit grow in what [education] costs and what they
can afford. That is the No. 1 problem. For Hopkins, we need
to be able to increase our endowment as it relates to the
support of scholarships and professorships. That is what
will allow us to maintain the quality of the education.
As important as the Internet is, we also increasingly
recognize the importance of proximity and community for
scholarship. You can't completely supplant that sense of
community with the Internet. There are some things that
work well through that medium, and some things that do not.
This idea of a community of scholars has real meaning with
proximity. When buildings or programs get so big that they
can't be co-located, you begin to see that the productivity
changes. It's very expensive to maintain that sense of
proximity and community.
With Bill Cosby at the
undergraduate diploma ceremony, Commencement
Gazette File Photos
Students often say how much they enjoy Hopkins' small
programs and courses.
I remember taking a class [at MIT] with Amar Bose
[inventor and founder of the Bose Corp.], and we had 10 to
15 students in the class. He was the best teacher I ever
had. He really transformed my way of thinking. We have to
be sure we can provide those very same transformational
experiences and not get too big for our own good.
How has living on campus [in Nichols House] worked
It's worked out great. It has allowed us to
participate in more student activities. Even if we were
living somewhere close, say Guilford, where if I came home
from a meeting at 9 p.m., I would probably stay home. But
when I come home at 9 p.m. to Nichols House, I might say,
gee, we can still catch the second part of the basketball
game or a student concert.
Inviting people to the official residence of the
president, as opposed to inviting them to Bill Brody's
home, creates a very different dynamic.
What have been the most significant
changes/transformations during your tenure?
The first has been the physical transformation of most
of our campuses. I think if you walked on any of our
campuses — Nursing, Public Health, Medicine, Peabody,
this entire campus here [at Homewood] — you would see
this change. I jokingly tell alumni the Hopkins mascot is
no longer the Blue Jay, it's the crane.
I'm not sure I want my legacy to be buildings, but
certainly in order to accomplish a lot of things that we
want to do, we've had to change our facilities in ways that
make them either more functional or, as was the case at
Peabody and Homewood, really creating a better sense of
community. With Homewood, it was moving cars off campus and
allowing people to walk around and interact more. And with
the case of Peabody, it was making it more welcoming to the
community so people would attend events there. It was also
about creating an environment that students would see as
attractive and a reason to come to Peabody.
Those are the hardware changes; the software changes
are probably much more subtle. The major issues on the
software side are trying to create programs that are
cross-cutting and take advantage of the richness and the
depth of expertise at Hopkins in unique ways, whether it's
creating a public health undergraduate major or whether
it's putting up a center for nanobiotechnology or
computational medicine, the environmental health sciences,
CEPAR, etc. It's putting together pieces of the university
that exist that when combined create incredibly powerful
intellectual forces, whether it's for education, research
or for service. I think that has been really fun to
What about the less obvious?
We have made major strides in improving our
administrative processes. We still have more work to do,
but we are beginning to change the way we do business. I
believe the function of administration is to support the
activities of the university and the hospital, which are
education, research and service. We should be world-class
in our business processes just as we expect our
researchers, physicians and educators to be world-class in
what they are doing.
What has been the impact of the Commission on
Undergraduate Education's report?
I think CUE has to be looked at as a journey — a
long one and not a report that at the end of two years it's
implemented and done. Some things are relatively easy, some
things are harder, and, in some cases, it requires a
different mindset among the faculty. I think the whole idea
is that now we have focus. We have someone like Paula
[Burger, dean of undergraduate education], whose entire
focus is to improve undergraduate education in all its
facets. We created both a [position] and a way to allow
that to be optimized. In the past, it was extremely hard to
make changes because we didn't have a single point of
focus. In a way, nobody was responsible [for the
undergraduates], and nobody necessarily wanted to take the
risks and make some of the investments that were
We have a long way to go. This is not a unique issue
for Hopkins. Most of the major research universities are
looking at the same kind of sets of issues and how you
Where do you see us going?
Search committees will call me up and say they are
looking for a president, and do I have any suggestions? I
say, what are you interested in doing? On occasion they say
they want to improve their academic reputation. Well, so
how long do you want to wait to see a change in the
rankings? They say, what do you mean? I say, if you look at
the rankings of universities over the past 100 years, only
a couple have changed significantly in that time period.
It's a very slow process.
If you think about it, unless you have an immediate
infusion of a couple billion dollars of new endowment, the
only way you're going to change your academic reputation is
by changing the mix of programs, which means changing the
mix of faculty, and that means waiting for faculty to
retire, and then you have to recruit new ones. So, even if
you agreed that you wanted to be No. 1 in a new area,
unless you had tons of new funding, you have to do it
incrementally. So, academic reputation will change, but it
changes relatively slowly. You can have catastrophes that
all of a sudden change something. For example, [Hurricane]
Katrina caused Tulane to have to close its engineering
On the other hand, if you want to move the quality of
students you want to attract and the visibility of the
school, there are a lot of things you can do that have a
relatively short-term impact. Investment in facilities,
investing in creative education offerings that utilize the
same faculty that you have but in unique ways, creating a
public heath major, creating a dual program with Peabody,
allowing it to be easier for Peabody and Homewood
undergraduates to get joint degrees. There are a whole set
of things one can do to have an immediate impact. So my
point is, that's really where the focus should be. We
always focus on the academic piece, but in terms of moving
up the ladder, here is what you can change.
We've always gotten good academic students at Hopkins,
but I would argue that today we're getting much broader
students: students who are not only superb academically but
have other talents, a broader range. Just like this young
woman I met the other day with two majors and two
Where does JHU stand with its relationship to its
In some cases, better. The good news is that we are
doing more in neighborhoods, and in some cases we have
better relationships with the neighbors. It's a bit of a
moving target. As you know, we had some problems with our
Charles Village neighbors and complaints of [student]
noise. I think we have taken very effective moves, with the
deans stepping up, and I think that has made a big
We have to be responsible neighbors. In some cases, we
have some huge issues that we have to deal with, and
figuring out an appropriate strategy is a challenge,
especially in neighborhoods like Remington and, of course,
East Baltimore. We are in the middle of [the East Baltimore
Development Initiative], and it's further along than I ever
thought we would get, but we have a long way to go and lots
of challenges to look at, such as a potential change in the
political leadership at the state level.
Urban campuses must present unique challenges.
We have issues that other schools don't have to deal
with, yes. But the flip side of it is that we are the
largest employer, the anchor tenant for the City of
Baltimore, and everybody knows that we are not going to
move. At the same time, [the city] expects us to figure out
how to solve lots of the city's problems. And we should.
But the problem is that many people view Hopkins as an
organization with infinite resources, not recognizing that
most of our resources are committed by a donor or the
funding agency to very specific things, and they don't
allow us to move money from one area to another.
Even though we are a big institution, we are way
underendowed compared to our peers. So that remains another
challenge. The good news is that we have done
extraordinarily well on fund raising, and we have a new
director of development coming in who is fantastic.
How have you approached the fund-raising part of your
I don't mind fund raising. It is a means to an end. If
someone says, gee, I want to be remembered as the president
who raised $2 billion, the question is, what do you do with
the money that you get? How effectively do you use it? And
how efficient are you in utilizing the resources that you
got? My point is that we have to ensure that we are using
every resource as efficiently as possible. It's incumbent
on us for the sake of the people who give their hard-earned
money to Johns Hopkins.
How much have you personally changed in the past 10
You have to ask other people if I've changed. I don't
know if I have. I tend to like challenges, so I like to do
things that are challenging. I like to write. I never wrote
much before. I mean, I used to write scientific papers. One
of the hobbies, if you will, that I have developed is
writing for Hopkins publications. That has been fun, a new
experience. I've also developed an undergraduate course,
which wasn't a subject that I taught before, and I had a
lot of fun doing that. Now, I'm working on [learning]
Mandarin, and I have to figure out if there is any hope in
making a dent in that language [laughs].
Breaking ground for an addition to
the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, 2002
Gazette File Photos
Trying to teach an old dog a new trick?
Well, age-related cerebral degeneration makes it more
difficult to learn [laughs], but my suspicion is that even
as a college freshman, Mandarin is a pretty tough language.
Maybe for a 3-year-old it would be different. But my goal
is to give a speech at the 21st anniversary of the
Hopkins-Nanjing Center and give part of the speech in
Mandarin. It turns out even speaking in Mandarin is very
hard. I have given part of a speech in Japanese not really
fully understanding it, but I could say it phonetically.
That was relatively easy. I have not found that facility
with Chinese. Even simple sentences are incredibly
I like difficult challenges, and I like to solve
problems, and to tackle new things for the university as
well as for myself. One of the great things about the job
is that each day there is a new set of challenges that come
in and that you have to deal with. I enjoy a variety of
challenges. I did some of my early training in heart
surgery, and it was interesting, but the idea that I would
spend the rest of my life doing the same relatively small
series of operations just was not appealing to me. For a
lot of the people I was working with, that was their idea
of Nirvana — if one [operation] was good, a thousand
was better and 100,000 was the best. Everyone is made up
When you took this post, you talked about how JHU might
grow internationally, not knowing exactly how that would
take shape. Have you been surprised?
I still don't know how we are going to grow [laughs].
But we are growing. I'm surprised. I'm shocked. I'm scared.
Excited. One of the things that I've learned is how hard it
is to execute successfully any foreign endeavor. Even the
ones that we look at now as being very successful have had
in their term periodic blips that are very, very
challenging. Some of them financial, but not always.
Sometimes they are political.
The Hopkins-Nanjing Center has had a series of blips.
On my watch we had the bombing of the Chinese embassy in
Yugoslavia. The U.S. embassy in Beijing was surrounded and
trashed by stones, and it caused $2 million in damage to
the embassy. The Hopkins-Nanjing Center was surrounded by
demonstrators as well, but not a single rock was thrown.
So, clearly the message had gone out from some important
people to leave us alone. Nonetheless, we had a serious
disruption internally when that occurred.
The local customs and culture have a lot of
determination on the success of these operations. Let's
talk about Harvard in Beijing. Does it really make sense?
Harvard is all about the Harvard Yard and Harvard Square
and certain traditions and ways of doing things that fit in
Cambridge, Mass. But it's not clear that they work in
Brighton, Mass., across the Charles River, so how are they
going to translate in Beijing? And who will be teaching
there? It's not the Harvard Nobel laureates who will move
to Beijing, so they are going to have other faculty, but
are they really going to be Harvard faculty? It gets
Introducing President George W.
Bush to the SAIS community, 2006
Gazette File Photos
Any one moment stand out during your tenure, maybe a
person you met thanks to your position?
The one thing you have to keep saying is that I'm here
because I'm at Johns Hopkins. I'm not here because I'm Bill
Brody. You're interviewing me because I'm the president of
Johns Hopkins. I've met George Bush, Shimon Peres, Tom
Friedman, Bill Cosby. One of the more memorable evenings we
had was when Bobby McFerrin came over for dinner. He was
coming to Baltimore to perform with the [Baltimore]
Symphony, and we called him to ask why don't you come over
for dinner afterwards? We had some connection to him, but I
had never met him. We had a wonderful time. It was great.
But if I had called him up as Bill Brody, he would never
You have to remember that you represent the
institution, and it's the institution that has the pull,
not the individual. I'm here to make Johns Hopkins a better
place. But it's not about Bill Brody; it's about Johns
Hopkins. That is an important distinction to me.
How much longer do you want to go? Do you think you'll
know when it's time to step down?
I hope I don't stay too long [laughs]. That is a big
challenge. I obviously have things I want to do and that
are important. We have a hospital to build and raise money
for, HopkinsOne to get working. We have a number of
initiatives I'd like to see successful.
There comes a time and place to step away. I remember
the ideal agenda for a board of trustees meeting 100 or 150
years ago was a tribute to a president. It goes: The first
item on the agenda is approval of the minutes of the
previous meeting, meeting is then called to order, the
second item on the agenda is to entertain a motion to
dismiss the president, and if that fails, the third item on
the agenda is to adjourn the meeting [laughs].
At the end, you are sort of [serving] at the pleasure
of the board, but you really also serve at the pleasure of
the faculty. It's a wonderful job. I get credit for things
that thousands of people spend many hours doing. And
occasionally I get blamed for things that I had nothing to
do with as well. You have to accept both.