The Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 14, 2000
August 14, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 43


Q&A: President Brody on Technology ... and Bricks and Mortar

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

This is the second installment in a series of questions addressed by President William R. Brody at a recent Administrative Leadership Conference. This week's topics: the university's technology infrastructure, expectations for technology transfer, the role of APL and future bricks and mortar.

The material was prepared for publication by Mike Field, assistant to the president. The first part of the Q&A can be found on at

Is the technology infrastructure of the university developing fast enough and in the right directions?

Well, the first part of the answer is no, it's not fast enough, and the second part is yes, we are headed in the right direction. But the fact is, our technology infrastructure will never develop fast enough. It's sort of like me and my PC. I get the latest processor shipped, and you know, within a couple of months there's another one out and soon I find myself thinking my new computer is too slow.

Whatever level Internet service you have, there always seems to be something better. If you have a dial-up modem, you want a cable modem; if you have cable modem, you want a DSL; then a T1 line. And you can basically utilize all the computer power and speed that's out there but still want more.

Clearly, we continue to need to make significant investments in technology infrastructure. At the same time, we've made tremendous strides. Our CIO, Stephanie Reel, has done a wonderful job of putting together the right structure and standards and advisory groups in order to implement university-wide networking. We are beginning to see some major gains after a relatively short period of time.

We still have lots of things to do, and, as I said, there is an appetite for technology that far exceeds our ability to pay for it. So we are going to have to prioritize and then find out how we are going to bring in the right resources. That's the biggest challenge: Figure out what we need to do, and get general agreement about our priorities and where we need to go. Once we do that, it's the issue of coming up with the capital to make those investments.

What challenges do you see on the immediate horizon from your perspective facing us in this arena?

If we are going to be a leading university of the 21st century, we have to become more connected to the Internet. By that I mean more than just having a robust network and fiber going to every building. We have to employ the Internet for all our business and academic processes--from personnel management, purchasing and financial information systems to student admissions, registration, faculty databases and research administration. We will never succeed at Web-based education unless we are truly integrated on the Web in all these services.

Faculty researchers need to have a user-friendly Web-enabled system for managing research grants, from submitting applications to final reports and everything in between. Library services must be totally Web-enabled, and so forth.

This is a big task--one that I have charged our senior administrators to begin implementing--but I don't think we really yet understand how important this could be to the future of Hopkins. One advantage that private industry has is that when they invest $100 million in technology, they can readily compute what that means to the bottom line. It's far more difficult to do that at a university because we don't have a bottom line in that sense. It's much harder to figure out the cost-effectiveness of implementing technology for activities that don't generate any profits, such as education or research.

In some cases, we can say if we put a new payroll system in, it will allow us to do the payroll more efficiently and we can save certain amounts of money. But a lot of our technology investments support the core activities of education, research or patient care, and it is much more difficult to figure out how you can get any financial return in order to pay for the investment.

And the other challenge, of course, is that most people who are feeling philanthropically inclined would love to give money because they've got eye problems, or they might be interested in a particular period of art history, and so they donate money for that.

But I haven't found anybody stepping up saying that they are enthralled with network capabilities and technological infrastructure and would love to give money. I'm still looking, however, and at some point we may either be able to find some private support or some partners in industry to do that. The alternative, of course, is to continue to raise more unrestricted funds that allow us to use those monies, or off-load other expenses in order to support technology.

What are your expectations for the technology transfer program at JHU? Are you expecting substantial revenue from license agreements, or is your primary objective economic development for the state of Maryland?

Both, but with certain caveats. Technology transfer is a long-term process that will lose money for a number of years until the number of licenses builds up over time and the revenues begin to exceed expenses. Technology licensing tends not to be a huge profit-making activity for universities. Unless we have a major "hit"--such as Gatorade at the University of Florida--tech transfer is never much of a factor in the way of generating large amounts of dollars for universities.

A few, like Florida, Columbia and Stanford, however, have been wildly successful. But it takes a number of years in order to have the roll of the dice come up favorably. Hopkins is in the top 10 in technology licensing. We are starting more and more companies. But I think our greatest role in technology licensing is to try to license technology and to start companies in the greater Baltimore area so that we can have a positive economic impact. That should be our primary objective, and not necessarily a monetary goal.

If we happen to have an invention like Gatorade, or have some blockbuster drug, then we might make $100 million. But we can't count on that. In the meantime, we can spur the formation and enhancement of companies using Hopkins technology. By encouraging spin-offs to locate in Maryland with access to Hopkins faculty, we can create a positive economic benefit to the state.

How does the Applied Physics Laboratory fit within your vision of JHU over the next 20 years? Is the mission of the Lab to do R&D for national defense compatible with the educational/ research/health care mission of the rest of the university?

APL fills a vital role in the U.S. defense infrastructure, and I believe that it is appropriate for Hopkins to be providing this support. The end of the Cold War and the effectiveness of diplomacy have both been enhanced by the strength of the U.S. military.

When I was a student at another university in the '60s, that university, and many others, divested themselves of their defense contracting work. The work went on, in some cases leading to some highly profitable companies and important new technologies. So they didn't really stop the work. But the universities lost a lot in that.

First, they lost their role and voice in our national defense infrastructure. They also lost an opportunity to participate in development of technologies that had important payoffs and spin-offs in areas outside defense. I believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War were in no small part due to the strength of our nation's defense establishment in which APL played a role, and I am very proud of that.

It's not that I want us to go out and use weapons of mass destruction. But I do believe, given where the world is today, that it's critically important work. Often, diplomacy can only work if it's backed up by a strong defense establishment.

I should also point out that APL has an educational role that is quite significant. APL provides a valuable source of scientific and technical expertise that can partner with other Hopkins divisions for win/win situations. A recent example is the successful design and launch of the FUSE satellite in which the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences worked in partnership with APL. We have one of the largest master's programs in engineering, and that's done through a partnership with the Whiting School. Now we have students working at APL, and there are many opportunities to collaborate with other divisions, such as Medicine, Engineering, and Arts and Sciences.

How much money is the university planning to spend on the bricks and mortar-type improvements to our facilities over the next 10 years? If everything is moving toward electronic access to everything (education, work, research), will we need all these new buildings?

The total is in the order of $1 billion, including the health system, and assuming financing can be obtained. Regarding bricks vs. clicks, my response is, Who knows exactly how much electronic communication will actually replace traditional education done on site in buildings? We need to be able to respond to the demands we now face in order to continue to fulfill our missions of education, research and patient care. Thus, prudent planning for buildings is necessary.

In addition, a large piece of the $1 billion total is for hospital construction and hospital-related support space. Despite advancing technology and managed care, there has been no abating of demand for our care facilities. They are full and we have had to turn some patients away, so building is both prudent and warranted.