The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 2, 2001
April 2, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 28


Brody Looks At University of the Future

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

While the university continues to expand physically, President William R. Brody sees a future Johns Hopkins with a more indistinct shape and form.

In his 125th Anniversary Address, Brody said forces including globalization, economics and the information revolution will increasingly blur campus and discipline boundaries and alter the makeup of faculty.

President Brody and Aihud Pevsner, Physics and Astronomy

Brody delivered his PowerPoint-aided address--titled "The Quantum Physics Model of the University: The University Without Walls"--last Tuesday before a crowd of administration, staff, faculty and students gathered in Homewood's Shriver Hall.

He began his remarks by citing the wisdom and foresight of Daniel Coit Gilman, the university's first president, who based his vision for the first American research university on the German model. Much of what Hopkins is today, Brody said, was clearly outlined in Gilman's inaugural address.

Wendy Brody with Peabody faculty member Susan Weiss

A century and a quarter later, Brody said the university finds itself at a crossroads in its evolution. In particular, he said, in his recent thoughts have been "the changing forces and factors of knowledge generation" and what their impact is to the university.

"During my tenure at Hopkins I had been admonished by many people of the threats to higher education," Brody said. "At the same time, I think I have a unique vantage point from which to view a major research university, and I have begun to recognize that while there are many challenges that threaten our existence, these are not necessarily the ones you've heard about or read about in the media."

Kishin Moorjani, Ross Jones and Robert Sirota

Brody lists these threats to "the classical university model" as cultural, economic and intellectual.

Borrowing from his high school lessons, Brody defined the classical university model by likening it to the Bohr model of the atom, the nucleus being the campus, the tightly bound protons its faculty and the temporarily orbiting electrons the students.

"Everything was well-ordered and well-defined," Brody said. "The boundaries were well-defined, not only the campuses but the disciplines. We knew where mathematics stopped and physics began; we knew where biology ended and biochemistry started."

SPSBE dean Ralph Fessler and vice provost Edgar Roulhac

At the turn of the century, universities had more of a monopoly on knowledge generation, Brody said, and local or regional expertise in a particular subject was sufficient for faculty success due to limitations of "information mobility."

Today, however, all that has changed, Brody said, with the advent of jet transportation and the rise of the Internet.

"We now have such rapid and ubiquitous access to information and knowledge that one doesn't have to be in a university to get access to it or generate it," he said. A "globalization of information" has created a new dynamic for universities.

"As for expertise, it is no longer sufficient to be good or average; you have to be a superstar," he said. "We are already seeing this in recruitment of faculty."

Information mobility also has blurred the lines between disciplines, according to Brody. Faculty have increasingly become involved in multidisciplinary research and projects, and they see less need to define themselves by one specialty.

Medicine dean Edward Miller and Nursing dean Sue Donaldson

The economic threat to the university is the ever-increasing cost for what Brody calls a "hand-tooled education." While other industries have managed to increase productivity and reduce labor costs, the application of learning has changed little in the past 100 years, Brody said, as it still involves the direct interaction between faculty and students.

"Relative to other sectors of our society, we have not achieved a labor productivity, if you will," Brody said, comparing higher education to automated car manufacturing, "so the relative cost of our education ... has increased."

Brody said he realizes that the rising cost of higher education relative to the median family income is making it more and more difficult to afford a Hopkins education, or an education at any of the private research universities.

The solution to increased productivity might lie in Internet-based courses and distance education, Brody said, but the costs of developing these courses are high and their results unknown.

"We clearly don't understand enough about the pedagogical process to really know that if we were to change this teaching model that has been tested and proven over time we would create a better student in the end," Brody said, "or whether it would alter the dynamic in such a way that our educational effectivity would decrease significantly."

Another aspect of the university that is undergoing change is the definition of a faculty member, Brody said. Whereas faculty used to owe an allegiance to the university, he said, today they are more tied to their academic field. One result of this shifting allegiance, Brody said, is that more faculty are collaborating on projects not only with faculty of other American institutions but with individuals and institutions overseas as well.

Mame Warren, author of 'Johns Hopkins: Knowledge for the World,' autographs a book for Tim Ambruster

"We should let education and research find wherever it needs to go," Brody said.

He also said the majority of new faculty are entering universities on a nontenured track, thus casting tenure's future in doubt.

"Departments want flexibility. They want to hire faculty but don't want to make a long-term, necessarily a lifetime, commitment, to a faculty member in an area for which they are not sure they will have a need as they go forward," Brody said. "The faculty are taking matters into their own hands. It will be interesting to see where this trend will take us."

As for the physical boundaries of the university, Brody said that even those are becoming harder to determine. Due to global orientation, Hopkins continues to expand both here and abroad, as campuses have sprouted not only in nearby Columbia, Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., but in Bologna, Italy; Nanjing, China; and most recently Singapore.

"Where [Johns Hopkins] stops and where it ends is not clear," Brody said.

At one point during the address, a quote flashed upon the screen from Peter Drucker's 1994 book Post-Capitalist Society that speaks of changes to our society based upon the information revolution. It read: "In twenty-five years, universities will no longer exist as we know them today. The changes will be far more profound than when the printing press was invented."

"I think many people reading that quote will think that the Internet will take us over and make us obsolete, just as would make all the brick-and-mortar bookstores obsolete," Brody said. "I don't think that is the case. Nevertheless, profound changes are in the offing."

To hear President Brody's speech in its entirety, go to