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Reality Check

By William J. Evitts, A&S '64, '71 (PhD)

Students caffeinate at a popular coffee shop across the street from the Homewood campus.
Photo by Will Kirk
I've stayed close to Johns Hopkins since I arrived as a freshman in 1960. As I evolved through grad school, alumni volunteer roles, a stint as the director of alumni relations in the 1980s, and as the parent of a Hopkins graduate in the 1990s, I watched the university change. Now back in Baltimore after a 14-year absence, living two blocks from Homewood, I have shocking, unsettling news I must report to my fellow alumni.

Johns Hopkins — the campus that former president Steven Muller once jokingly called "America's premier nerd university" — has become cool.

I don't know when I first discovered the upsetting truth. Maybe it was when I was sipping a cup of very good coffee at a café on University Parkway, staring at the snazzy new stadium with cutting-edge synthetic turf, while watching the eclectic crowd of townies and Hoppies around me clack away on their wireless laptops.

Perhaps it was while I wandered down St. Paul Street, where new JHU off-campus buildings rub elbows with hip bars and cafés to create a real, bustling college-town environment. Privately developed high-end condos were sprouting around me in a neighborhood now called Charles Village — a term that didn't exist in my student days and that most of us would have hooted at if we'd ever heard it.

Hopkins' whole setting has changed. "The armpit of the East Coast," as Noo Yawkers called Baltimore back in the day, is one of America's great urban rebound stories. Or maybe my Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment was the gorgeous summer evening my wife and I strolled across campus to the Baltimore Museum of Art, sat in the sculpture garden listening to a jazz quartet, sipping a microbrew and munching a wrap. Then we followed the crowd to ice cream and espresso at a sidewalk café across Charles Street.

Other nights, we went to the summer outdoor movies on the quad....

My God! What has happened here?

For starters, Hopkins' whole setting has changed. "The armpit of the East Coast," as the Noo Yawkers called Baltimore back in the day, is one of America's great urban rebound stories. The Inner Harbor sparkles. (Well, except for the water itself. They still give you a tetanus shot if you fall in. Nonetheless . . .) The housing market is red hot. Nearly 10,000 people live downtown. In the '80s I'd explain to far-flung Hopkins grads that the Fells Point neighborhood had become a happening place, and they'd stare at me as if I were beginning to molt before their eyes. Now the city that once envied D.C. for being Camelot is awash in creative types, many of whom commute to Washington and revel in living somewhere real and vibrant and not in a federal theme park.

It's not only the city that's succumbed to coolness. Homewood has, too. The hard fact we must face is that Hopkins has one of the loveliest urban campuses in America. Azaleas and dogwoods frame new brick walks. Homewood House is a sophisticated museum open to the public. The Georgian architecture still oozes that serene Enlightenment-era confidence in rationality and the power of knowledge; new buildings keep an updated version of that same vibe. The moldy gym I remember athletic director Marshall Turner guarding so protectively is now a 203,000-square-foot athletic center with a state-of-the-art fitness facility. Sunset still ignites the stained glass windows in the Gilman reading room, but the busy campus outside bustles year-round, and has spilled over into the park behind and the city in front.

Shockingly, almost all our sports teams are doing very well. Our football team is league champ. Baseball is a force in Division III. Women's basketball consistently wins 20 a season. Of course, we've always been a men's lacrosse power, and we take it as our due that we're defending '05 national champions. But lacrosse is not the obscure regional thing it was when I came to campus from 40 miles south never having seen the game, ever. The sports tradition we've been known for all along, and which we dominate once again, has enormous cachet.

I'm struggling to convey the full, devastating impact. The nation's sharpest students clamor to get in here. The kids on campus are as attractive as they are bright. We produce Rhodes Scholars. We have the Peabody Conservatory and a theater program headed by John Astin, a Hollywood star who's also an alum. The university president rollerbladed to a student event. The first Rolling Stone College Guide: Schools that Rock included JHU in its top 100.

America's premier nerd university? MIT and Cal Tech would arm-wrestle us for the title, of course (OK, challenge us to hackey sack), but we'd still hold our own, wouldn't we? Well, here's the ultimate irony. In the age of Silicon Valley and iPods, nerdiness itself is now cool. Seek no further than the Hopkins engineering alum and early-adopting computeroid who is now the billionaire mayor of New York City.

Though alumni will still recognize the place, with its earnestness of purpose and cutthroat pre-meds, the wheel of trendiness has turned, and Hopkins is on top. Fellow alumni, we're going to have to rethink all our cherished certainties about JHU.

How bad is it?

People around the country who hear that I'm from Johns Hopkins no longer automatically ask if I'm a doctor....

Freelancer William Evitts writes from Baltimore.

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