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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 5, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 1
President Brody: 10 Years at the Helm

President-elect Brody, right, with three predecessors: Steven Muller, William Richardson and Daniel Nathans, May 1996
Gazette File Photos

A decade into his tenure, JHU's 13th president talks about the job he still loves

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

When William R. Brody became president of The Johns Hopkins University, he said that "the opportunity to lead JHU into the 21st century is an exciting one indeed."

Ten years down the road, Brody says he is still excited to helm the university and lead it even further into the century. Brody is keenly aware of the obstacles that face private higher education today, but he is, he says, a man who embraces challenges.

Brody became the 13th president of Johns Hopkins on Sept. 1, 1996, and was formally inaugurated on Commemoration Day, Feb. 23, 1997. Prior to assuming the position, he was the provost of the Academic Health Center at the University of Minnesota. The California native and MIT and Stanford graduate, however, was no stranger to Johns Hopkins. From 1987 to 1994, Brody served on the faculty of the schools of Medicine and Engineering and was radiologist-in-chief of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. During that time he served as chairman of the influential Committee for the 21st Century, which led the push for the creation of a chief information officer for the university and for substantial new investment in information infrastructure.

During Brody's tenure as president, Johns Hopkins has witnessed considerable physical growth, including sweeping transformations of the Homewood and Peabody campuses, and continues to expand both here and abroad.

Among his many accomplishments, Brody championed the formation of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, Diversity Leadership Council and Commission on Undergraduate Education. He has also played a pivotal role in highly successful capital campaigns and in the push for HopkinsOne, the ongoing immense initiative to streamline and integrate most of the institutions' administrative and financial systems. Academically speaking, the university has also broadened its repertoire in the past 10 years, adding a host of new interdisciplinary programs and centers.

On the occasion of his 10th anniversary, 'The Gazette' sat down with President Brody to discuss the past, present and future of the university — with a little Mandarin and self-deprecation tossed in for good measure.

What do you remember of your inauguration?

I had more hair on my head then [laughs]. It's kind of a blur. I remember a wonderful day. I hesitate to reread what I said as it probably won't have all the relevance. The one thing I do remember ... I was talking recently to a fellow who is taking on a presidency of a college, and I told him I remember vividly from the inauguration the East Baltimore gospel choir [Unified Voices] who sang "Climb Every Mountain," and then [MIT president] Chuck Vest got up and said, "One piece of advice I can surely give you, Bill, is, as president, don't try to climb every mountain."

I say that is both good advice and the frustrating part of the job. There are many mountains we have to climb as a university, and your first thought is, why not climb them all? But then you realize to get something done requires focused attention and energy, as well as resources. And in order to do that, you can't climb every mountain. There are things one would like to see more movement on faster, but you have to focus on what you feel is most important. It's what I call selective neglect.

Anything else?

Another thing I remember was the tremendously warm reception from everybody who came, and the faculty in particular. I still feel like Hopkins is a very special place in the way that it welcomes its leaders. I can tell you that is not the case everywhere else. [People here] respect the leadership, and they work with them. People are doing so many things to make me successful, and that is not a characteristic of all universities and colleges. It's a uniquely positive trait and a decided competitive advantage for us. Sure, people look at [a university's] location, they look at endowment, U.S News & World Report rankings, all sorts of things. The important core values of an institution are what make it successful, and its value is how it carries out its mission.

Ten years is quite a milestone.

I'm told the average tenure of a university president is five years. That seems a little bit short, and it's probably bimodal. Tenure at a public university is rather short, and if you look at private universities, it's probably 50 [percent] to 100 percent longer. Public universities are subject to more pressure from multiple constituents, variations of funding and changes in the board of regents. Basically, they are subject to more political forces that make it much harder in many ways for a president. I also think if you have Division I football and basketball, and if you're at any of the big state universities, you're in a certain bind to have to deal with a whole set of issues that, quite frankly, we don't have to deal with.

A skating Wendy and Bill Brody greeting arriving freshmen, 1999
Gazette File Photos

What keeps you going?

The students. Obviously, I love the alumni and all the people on the faculty, but here our first mission is to serve the students. Yesterday, I happened to meet a student who came to the office to meet [my executive assistant] Jerry Schnydman. [The student] is a senior and has two majors and two minors. She speaks Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Spanish, as well as English, of course. I'm like, can you repeat all that [laughs]? When you meet with these students, you realize this is the future of our country and the world, and you see we have this great mission to carry out. You realize this is a tremendously important thing that we are engaged in.

People ask me, doesn't the fund raising get old? Well, I guess if I was selling soap, it would get old after a while. But I have the world's greatest product that I'm offering — to support the next Nobel laureate, the person who will find the cure for cancer or AIDS, the person who will go to the inner city and turn around a housing development or its whole economy, or become the next president of the United States. That is what we are here for, and it's a wonderful thing. It's fun and challenging.

There are days when it's not so great. We've had the deaths of students. That was a pretty hard time, and I will forever remember each one of those students. I won't ever get over it. Yes, there are moments like that, but that is what life is all about, good and bad. What is so great about my job is that the emotional highs offset the lows.

[This summer, Wendy] and I met the Johns Hopkins students who rode cross-country for cancer, and I met them in my hometown in California, and they were talking about why they made the journey. I tell you, my buttons were popping. We also went to Vienna [Austria] and heard the opening of a Mozart opera starring Peabody graduate Hyunah Yu. She was wonderful. The work we do here is wonderful. I have a small bit part in it, but it makes me tremendously proud.

What worries you?

I worry about the attacks on higher education. [Higher education] is one of the things that America leads the world in, and I worry that political attacks on higher ed can have serious implications down the line.

Specifically, what are you focused on long-term?

The sustainability and affordability of higher education. We have a cost problem. Whether you think tuition is too high, too low or just right, the fact is that tuition doesn't begin to cover the cost of the education. And that cost is rising faster than our economy is growing. We are able to make up the difference by and large through philanthropic support. As that pressure grows, more and more colleges and universities will see that deficit grow in what [education] costs and what they can afford. That is the No. 1 problem. For Hopkins, we need to be able to increase our endowment as it relates to the support of scholarships and professorships. That is what will allow us to maintain the quality of the education.

As important as the Internet is, we also increasingly recognize the importance of proximity and community for scholarship. You can't completely supplant that sense of community with the Internet. There are some things that work well through that medium, and some things that do not. This idea of a community of scholars has real meaning with proximity. When buildings or programs get so big that they can't be co-located, you begin to see that the productivity changes. It's very expensive to maintain that sense of proximity and community.

With Bill Cosby at the undergraduate diploma ceremony, Commencement 2004
Gazette File Photos

Students often say how much they enjoy Hopkins' small programs and courses.

I remember taking a class [at MIT] with Amar Bose [inventor and founder of the Bose Corp.], and we had 10 to 15 students in the class. He was the best teacher I ever had. He really transformed my way of thinking. We have to be sure we can provide those very same transformational experiences and not get too big for our own good.

How has living on campus [in Nichols House] worked out?

It's worked out great. It has allowed us to participate in more student activities. Even if we were living somewhere close, say Guilford, where if I came home from a meeting at 9 p.m., I would probably stay home. But when I come home at 9 p.m. to Nichols House, I might say, gee, we can still catch the second part of the basketball game or a student concert.

Inviting people to the official residence of the president, as opposed to inviting them to Bill Brody's home, creates a very different dynamic.

What have been the most significant changes/transformations during your tenure?

The first has been the physical transformation of most of our campuses. I think if you walked on any of our campuses — Nursing, Public Health, Medicine, Peabody, this entire campus here [at Homewood] — you would see this change. I jokingly tell alumni the Hopkins mascot is no longer the Blue Jay, it's the crane.

I'm not sure I want my legacy to be buildings, but certainly in order to accomplish a lot of things that we want to do, we've had to change our facilities in ways that make them either more functional or, as was the case at Peabody and Homewood, really creating a better sense of community. With Homewood, it was moving cars off campus and allowing people to walk around and interact more. And with the case of Peabody, it was making it more welcoming to the community so people would attend events there. It was also about creating an environment that students would see as attractive and a reason to come to Peabody.

Those are the hardware changes; the software changes are probably much more subtle. The major issues on the software side are trying to create programs that are cross-cutting and take advantage of the richness and the depth of expertise at Hopkins in unique ways, whether it's creating a public health undergraduate major or whether it's putting up a center for nanobiotechnology or computational medicine, the environmental health sciences, CEPAR, etc. It's putting together pieces of the university that exist that when combined create incredibly powerful intellectual forces, whether it's for education, research or for service. I think that has been really fun to watch.

What about the less obvious?

We have made major strides in improving our administrative processes. We still have more work to do, but we are beginning to change the way we do business. I believe the function of administration is to support the activities of the university and the hospital, which are education, research and service. We should be world-class in our business processes just as we expect our researchers, physicians and educators to be world-class in what they are doing.

What has been the impact of the Commission on Undergraduate Education's report?

I think CUE has to be looked at as a journey — a long one and not a report that at the end of two years it's implemented and done. Some things are relatively easy, some things are harder, and, in some cases, it requires a different mindset among the faculty. I think the whole idea is that now we have focus. We have someone like Paula [Burger, dean of undergraduate education], whose entire focus is to improve undergraduate education in all its facets. We created both a [position] and a way to allow that to be optimized. In the past, it was extremely hard to make changes because we didn't have a single point of focus. In a way, nobody was responsible [for the undergraduates], and nobody necessarily wanted to take the risks and make some of the investments that were required.

We have a long way to go. This is not a unique issue for Hopkins. Most of the major research universities are looking at the same kind of sets of issues and how you approach them.

Where do you see us going?

Search committees will call me up and say they are looking for a president, and do I have any suggestions? I say, what are you interested in doing? On occasion they say they want to improve their academic reputation. Well, so how long do you want to wait to see a change in the rankings? They say, what do you mean? I say, if you look at the rankings of universities over the past 100 years, only a couple have changed significantly in that time period. It's a very slow process.

If you think about it, unless you have an immediate infusion of a couple billion dollars of new endowment, the only way you're going to change your academic reputation is by changing the mix of programs, which means changing the mix of faculty, and that means waiting for faculty to retire, and then you have to recruit new ones. So, even if you agreed that you wanted to be No. 1 in a new area, unless you had tons of new funding, you have to do it incrementally. So, academic reputation will change, but it changes relatively slowly. You can have catastrophes that all of a sudden change something. For example, [Hurricane] Katrina caused Tulane to have to close its engineering program.

On the other hand, if you want to move the quality of students you want to attract and the visibility of the school, there are a lot of things you can do that have a relatively short-term impact. Investment in facilities, investing in creative education offerings that utilize the same faculty that you have but in unique ways, creating a public heath major, creating a dual program with Peabody, allowing it to be easier for Peabody and Homewood undergraduates to get joint degrees. There are a whole set of things one can do to have an immediate impact. So my point is, that's really where the focus should be. We always focus on the academic piece, but in terms of moving up the ladder, here is what you can change.

We've always gotten good academic students at Hopkins, but I would argue that today we're getting much broader students: students who are not only superb academically but have other talents, a broader range. Just like this young woman I met the other day with two majors and two minors.

Where does JHU stand with its relationship to its neighbors?

In some cases, better. The good news is that we are doing more in neighborhoods, and in some cases we have better relationships with the neighbors. It's a bit of a moving target. As you know, we had some problems with our Charles Village neighbors and complaints of [student] noise. I think we have taken very effective moves, with the deans stepping up, and I think that has made a big difference.

We have to be responsible neighbors. In some cases, we have some huge issues that we have to deal with, and figuring out an appropriate strategy is a challenge, especially in neighborhoods like Remington and, of course, East Baltimore. We are in the middle of [the East Baltimore Development Initiative], and it's further along than I ever thought we would get, but we have a long way to go and lots of challenges to look at, such as a potential change in the political leadership at the state level.

Urban campuses must present unique challenges.

We have issues that other schools don't have to deal with, yes. But the flip side of it is that we are the largest employer, the anchor tenant for the City of Baltimore, and everybody knows that we are not going to move. At the same time, [the city] expects us to figure out how to solve lots of the city's problems. And we should. But the problem is that many people view Hopkins as an organization with infinite resources, not recognizing that most of our resources are committed by a donor or the funding agency to very specific things, and they don't allow us to move money from one area to another.

Even though we are a big institution, we are way underendowed compared to our peers. So that remains another challenge. The good news is that we have done extraordinarily well on fund raising, and we have a new director of development coming in who is fantastic.

How have you approached the fund-raising part of your job?

I don't mind fund raising. It is a means to an end. If someone says, gee, I want to be remembered as the president who raised $2 billion, the question is, what do you do with the money that you get? How effectively do you use it? And how efficient are you in utilizing the resources that you got? My point is that we have to ensure that we are using every resource as efficiently as possible. It's incumbent on us for the sake of the people who give their hard-earned money to Johns Hopkins.

How much have you personally changed in the past 10 years?

You have to ask other people if I've changed. I don't know if I have. I tend to like challenges, so I like to do things that are challenging. I like to write. I never wrote much before. I mean, I used to write scientific papers. One of the hobbies, if you will, that I have developed is writing for Hopkins publications. That has been fun, a new experience. I've also developed an undergraduate course, which wasn't a subject that I taught before, and I had a lot of fun doing that. Now, I'm working on [learning] Mandarin, and I have to figure out if there is any hope in making a dent in that language [laughs].

Breaking ground for an addition to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, 2002
Gazette File Photos

Trying to teach an old dog a new trick?

Well, age-related cerebral degeneration makes it more difficult to learn [laughs], but my suspicion is that even as a college freshman, Mandarin is a pretty tough language. Maybe for a 3-year-old it would be different. But my goal is to give a speech at the 21st anniversary of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and give part of the speech in Mandarin. It turns out even speaking in Mandarin is very hard. I have given part of a speech in Japanese not really fully understanding it, but I could say it phonetically. That was relatively easy. I have not found that facility with Chinese. Even simple sentences are incredibly difficult.

I like difficult challenges, and I like to solve problems, and to tackle new things for the university as well as for myself. One of the great things about the job is that each day there is a new set of challenges that come in and that you have to deal with. I enjoy a variety of challenges. I did some of my early training in heart surgery, and it was interesting, but the idea that I would spend the rest of my life doing the same relatively small series of operations just was not appealing to me. For a lot of the people I was working with, that was their idea of Nirvana — if one [operation] was good, a thousand was better and 100,000 was the best. Everyone is made up differently.

When you took this post, you talked about how JHU might grow internationally, not knowing exactly how that would take shape. Have you been surprised?

I still don't know how we are going to grow [laughs]. But we are growing. I'm surprised. I'm shocked. I'm scared. Excited. One of the things that I've learned is how hard it is to execute successfully any foreign endeavor. Even the ones that we look at now as being very successful have had in their term periodic blips that are very, very challenging. Some of them financial, but not always. Sometimes they are political.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center has had a series of blips. On my watch we had the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. The U.S. embassy in Beijing was surrounded and trashed by stones, and it caused $2 million in damage to the embassy. The Hopkins-Nanjing Center was surrounded by demonstrators as well, but not a single rock was thrown. So, clearly the message had gone out from some important people to leave us alone. Nonetheless, we had a serious disruption internally when that occurred.

The local customs and culture have a lot of determination on the success of these operations. Let's talk about Harvard in Beijing. Does it really make sense? Harvard is all about the Harvard Yard and Harvard Square and certain traditions and ways of doing things that fit in Cambridge, Mass. But it's not clear that they work in Brighton, Mass., across the Charles River, so how are they going to translate in Beijing? And who will be teaching there? It's not the Harvard Nobel laureates who will move to Beijing, so they are going to have other faculty, but are they really going to be Harvard faculty? It gets incredibly complicated.

Introducing President George W. Bush to the SAIS community, 2006
Gazette File Photos

Any one moment stand out during your tenure, maybe a person you met thanks to your position?

The one thing you have to keep saying is that I'm here because I'm at Johns Hopkins. I'm not here because I'm Bill Brody. You're interviewing me because I'm the president of Johns Hopkins. I've met George Bush, Shimon Peres, Tom Friedman, Bill Cosby. One of the more memorable evenings we had was when Bobby McFerrin came over for dinner. He was coming to Baltimore to perform with the [Baltimore] Symphony, and we called him to ask why don't you come over for dinner afterwards? We had some connection to him, but I had never met him. We had a wonderful time. It was great. But if I had called him up as Bill Brody, he would never have come.

You have to remember that you represent the institution, and it's the institution that has the pull, not the individual. I'm here to make Johns Hopkins a better place. But it's not about Bill Brody; it's about Johns Hopkins. That is an important distinction to me.

How much longer do you want to go? Do you think you'll know when it's time to step down?

I hope I don't stay too long [laughs]. That is a big challenge. I obviously have things I want to do and that are important. We have a hospital to build and raise money for, HopkinsOne to get working. We have a number of initiatives I'd like to see successful.

There comes a time and place to step away. I remember the ideal agenda for a board of trustees meeting 100 or 150 years ago was a tribute to a president. It goes: The first item on the agenda is approval of the minutes of the previous meeting, meeting is then called to order, the second item on the agenda is to entertain a motion to dismiss the president, and if that fails, the third item on the agenda is to adjourn the meeting [laughs].

At the end, you are sort of [serving] at the pleasure of the board, but you really also serve at the pleasure of the faculty. It's a wonderful job. I get credit for things that thousands of people spend many hours doing. And occasionally I get blamed for things that I had nothing to do with as well. You have to accept both.


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