The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 17, 2000
July 17, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 41


Q&A: President Brody on Major Higher-Education Issues

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

A recent Administrative Leadership Conference, held on the Homewood campus for faculty and staff representing all divisions, gave President William R. Brody an opportunity to share his thoughts on issues facing Hopkins and higher education in general.

Because the questions he addressed, which were submitted in advance by attendees, are of interest to the entire Hopkins community, his answers are being printed in The Gazette, over the course of several issues. This week's topics: competition, the rising cost of college tuition, how Hopkins rates as a world-class university and the top two challenges facing faculty and staff.

Would you comment on the issue of competition, not just within higher education but from others?

Our major competition for residence-based education will likely continue to be the other 75 or so research universities and a handful of small liberal arts colleges within the U.S., at least for the foreseeable future.

This is not to say that the dot-coms and the for-profits like the University of Phoenix can or should be ignored. They are likely to begin encroaching on our nontraditional educational programs--those part-time programs that started out in the Hopkins Evening College around the beginning of the last century but which now comprise a significant activity for each and every one of our nine divisions.

Part-time programs help subsidize the research and educational missions of our residence-based programs. If someone comes along and says, "Well, I'm not going to have to subsidize research, or a world-class library, I'm going to plow all of the profits back into growing my part-time programs," then that's going to create some challenges for places like Hopkins.

We have to take these new competitors seriously and find ways of meeting the challenge. In some cases, this will mean expanding and improving our existing part-time programs; in others, developing more online distance education course content. Finally, we may decide to partner with some of these entities, to expand our reach and protect our niche.

As a parent, I am concerned about the increase in college tuition rates. Can you describe the efforts Hopkins is making to control and limit future tuition increases?

I am sorry that I cannot paint a brighter picture for the future costs of higher education. Because the American system of higher education--presently the envy of the world--is highly "hands-on" (or should I say "minds-on"?), it is therefore highly labor intensive. The type of labor we employ--faculty who are experts in their field--will become more and more scarce as the knowledge economy develops. We can therefore assume their cost will only continue to rise.

And the options for improving productivity are few and far between. We can increase class size, but then you provide a different kind of education, and at some point you really begin to question, Why don't we just provide distance education?

The stock in trade of a Hopkins education--or of that of any of our competitor schools--is this "hand-tooled" education focusing on close interaction between the teacher and the student. And that interaction is very costly.

It still takes the same amount of faculty input to educate a student at Hopkins, Harvard or Haverford as it did a century or two ago. In other sectors of our economy such as automobile manufacturing or financial services, we have found ways to reduce labor content through productivity gains. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of higher education.

If someone comes up with a better way of using faculty to educate students, we will certainly all adopt it. But right now, and in the foreseeable future, I don't see a way to replace the Hopkins hand-tooled education with the Internet or distance learning, etc.

However, we and our competitor colleges and universities are redoubling our efforts to raise support for scholarships in order to make the net price, rather than the sticker price, affordable to all families, irrespective of income level. Just because tuition is listed at a certain level does not mean that is what all, or even most, students pay.

Furthermore, I am pushing our deans and administrative staff to find ways to reduce costs--mostly administrative costs--through more effective administration, use of information technology and, where appropriate, outsourcing, when and if it makes sense.

To be sure, it will not be financially painless to send your child to one of the elite private colleges, but it will be possible and, further, the economic benefit to your son or daughter fully justifies the investment.

How would you define or describe a first-class, global university? In terms of that definition, where would you rate us?

To be a first-class global research--my emphasis--university means having a world-class faculty who can attract the very best students. World-class faculty are recognized experts in their fields whose work is at the cutting edge of their discipline.

On that score I would put Hopkins without question in the top tier; saying we're No. 1, 2 or 10, however, is meaningless without further definition. For example, in certain fields--say the genetic basis of cancer, or creative writing--we are at or near the top, while in other areas we are not on the map. Ratings are highly specific to the subfield within a given discipline. An overall weighting, such as is done in many college surveys, averages many fields, and is not particularly meaningful.

Our students are among the very best anywhere in the world and, given our large foreign student enrollment, speak highly for both our reputation and our global reach.

Can we do better? Of course. And in each division, the deans or directors are continually working on strengthening departments or disciplines that are important to Hopkins but are not up to our standards.

What do you see as the top two challenges for the average Hopkins faculty member? What role does or should the administration play in assisting the faculty with these challenges?

What do you see as the top two challenges for the average Hopkins staff member? What role does or should the administration play in assisting the staff with these challenges?

As far as faculty, their major activities are first, developing a strong base of expertise that is advancing the state of the art in their particular field, and second, attracting the very best students to study with them. Expertise may be in research, for most of our faculty and APL senior staff; or in performance, for Peabody performing musicians; or clinical practice, for physicians in Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The role of the administration is to help provide the environment--resources, physical space, administrative support--to enable faculty to perform their major activities in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.

Staff challenges include first, responding to a rapidly changing environment while learning, or figuring out, how to do more with fewer resources, and second, working in a world that is much more diverse.

In response to external pressures, government regulations, rapidly changing research frontiers and other challenges, staff have to learn how to do things differently--in some cases, better; in some cases, cheaper; in some cases, faster; but in most cases, all three. Resources are not increasing as fast as the need to deploy them more efficiently and effectively.

The administration's role is to help identify new ways of organization and operation and work with the staff, especially through education and training, to help implement changes smoothly. I believe also that administration must develop good listening habits to appreciate what issues the staff are facing.

By 2030, more than 40 percent of U.S. citizens will be of what we have traditionally considered minority ethnic background. We have in the past two decades witnessed the advent of a work force with far more women and a growing number of minorities, but we have a long way to go to provide a work environment that is conducive and supportive of peoples of differing gender, color, national origin and beliefs. Hopkins must make considerably more progress in adapting to the needs of the 21st century work force.