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Taking the Heat During
An Era Beset by Controversy
By Bob Armbruster
Johns Hopkins Magazine Editor (1968-1971)
Editors rarely are singled out for their humility. We tend to have convictions about the way our publications should be put together, and some observers--even friends--tend to favor the word "arrogant" in describing us.
I plead guilty, even though, as editor of the Johns Hopkins Magazine, I sometimes found it hard to remain cocksure of anything when readers sent us letters that began, "Your magazine has become a disgrace to a fine University.... I do not want this kind of garbage in my home." Or that ended with, "So, with the same sadness I would have at shooting a once magnificent but now mortally sick horse, I ask you to take my name from your [mailing] list."
Such letters were a prominent part of every issue while I was editor because so many of our stories were on controversial topics: the anti-Vietnam war protests, the proposed banning of ROTC from the campus, the call by students and faculty to end Defense Department research at Hopkins's Applied Physics Lab, transsexual surgery (headline: "He Had Become What He Always Knew He Was--A Woman"), drug use on campus.
The Magazine was covering these issues and many more, and a lot of readers weren't happy about it. "How can you stand to have people be so angry with you?" friends would ask me. Simple, I'd tell them. The letter writers couldn't be that angry if they weren't reading the articles, and if they didn't care about the university.
Beside, there were always other letters such as the one from a faculty member at a Catholic university: "After I read your publication I place it in our Jesuit faculty recreation room. I cannot pay you a higher compliment than to inform you that within 20 minutes some other Jesuit has stolen it."
Our severest--and most long-winded--critic was a Hopkins professor whose five-page, single-spaced letter excoriated us for everything imaginable. He concluded that the best way we could serve his (our) university was to "cease publication at once" and release our budget to finance additional post-doctoral fellowships. (That recommendation drew letters too pro and con.) Beside printing his letter, I sent him a five-page reply answering every charge he'd leveled at us. Ignoring all of my well-crafted points, he fired back the perfect one-sentence squelch: "Mr. Armbruster, you misunderstand; I said cease publication at once."
The Magazine's myriad letter writers taught me a lot: 1) that you can't always tell exactly what a person thinks from his initial blast; 2) that just because people disagree with you, sometimes angrily, doesn't mean they're your enemy; 3) that when a writer threatens to withhold future financial support to the university, chances are he or she never has given a penny in the first place; and 4) that about 75 percent of the time, when someone from the university--in these instances, those of us at the Magazine--takes the time to respond to an unhappy constituent, the anger disappears and the letter writer becomes a friend and supporter of the institution.
Almost a decade before taking the job at Hopkins, I'd become well aware of the Magazine and of the standard it was setting for university periodicals throughout the country. And I liked everything I'd heard and seen. Here was a publication that was choosing substantial content over self-congratulatory hoopla and fluff (the staples of most "alumni magazines" at the time, and of far too many today); and first-class writing, photography, illustration, and graphic design over thrown-together, badly reproduced snapshots of alumni attending reunions, getting married, and showing off their babies.
In short, the Johns Hopkins Magazine of the late 1950s and early '60s was a tribute to its readers' intelligence and taste--and to their desire to continue learning--rather than an appeal to their nostalgia for some long-lost good old days at the Hop.
The other important truth I'd heard about the Hopkins Magazine, and a handful of similarly ambitious magazines at other universities, was that the institution gave its editor both the responsibility and the authority to determine content and format. Not once did I have to show a word of copy or a layout to President Lincoln Gordon or Vice President Ross Jones, whose support of the Magazine was unwavering. They received their advance copies of the printed magazine at the same time I did: a day before it went in the mail.
Both men, and Milton Eisenhower when he returned briefly as president, took a lot of heat, I know, from influential alumni and other financial supporters because of some of our articles. Yet they stuck throughout to a hands-off policy.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have come to Hopkins when I did in large part because of the talented people with whom I worked: successive associate editors Anne Alexander and Rich Westcott, designer Gerry Valerio, photographer Dick Linfield, and secretary/circulation manager Sherri Staib. Everyone had the same goal: a first-rate magazine that reflected Johns Hopkins honestly and creatively and that invited and welcomed the participation of its readers.
That, in fact, seems to have been the goal of the editors and their staffs throughout the entire 50 years of the Magazine's existence. As a consequence, there's plenty to celebrate.
RETURN TO APRIL 2000 TABLE OF CONTENTS.