Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 20, 1996

In Appreciation:
Making Their
Presence Felt

Stepping aside:
Morris Offit and
Dan Nathans plan
to remain active
in university's

Mike Field
Staff Writer

The completion of the university's 120th academic year is a watershed event in many respects. Embarked upon an unprecedented $900 million fund-raising drive, the Johns Hopkins Institutions end the academic year with more than 60 percent of the monies raised, including a record-setting $55 million donation announced in the fall.

Come September, the university will welcome the class of 2000, making the new millennium an immediate reality. And this summer, two of the stalwart leaders of the past year will gracefully relinquish their titles, but, they both insist, neither intends to retire to obscurity.

Chairman of the board of trustees Morris W. Offit (BA '57) and Interim President Daniel Nathans will each be getting on with the work that has been their life's focus: Offit to act as chief executive officer of New York's Offitbank, and Nathans to continue his Nobel-winning research in medical genetics. However, both say they intend to remain active as supporters and spokesmen for the university, tasks at which they have proved themselves remarkably effective in the past few years.

Offit assumed the role of chairman in 1990, after successfully spearheading the Campaign for Johns Hopkins, a $450 million fund-raising effort that far surpassed its target, eventually raising more than $640 million for the university and the hospital. After that five-year effort, others may have been reluctant to accept the daunting responsibilities of board chairmanship, but Offit looked at it as a reward for all his hard work.

"Being chairman of the board of trustees of Johns Hopkins is one of the extraordinary privileges in life," he said in a telephone interview from his New York office. "You are providing leadership to one of the world's great universities and, perhaps, are making a difference in some positive way. That's a very rare opportunity."

One of the ways Offit set his mark on the university was in helping direct not one, but two full-scale presidential searches. He was an early and vocal supporter of President William C. Richardson, whom he helped hire and watched become, according to one national newspaper, "the consummate academic administrator of the 1990s." When Richardson resigned to become president of the Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., Offit once again helped direct a high-profile, nationwide search, this time selecting President-elect William R. Brody, who is expected to take up his duties by Sept. 1.

Finding a president isn't difficult, said Offit, it's finding the right one that can prove challenging, even for an institution with a world-class reputation. "Hopkins has one of those sanctified reputations," he said of his ceaseless campaigning on the university's behalf in New York and around the world. "The respect is so universal, it's held in awe. I would say there is even a mystique about this institution having to do with its extraordinary research that crosses every division of the university."

But reputation alone cannot pay the bills, which is why one of the chief concerns of any chairman is the institution's fiscal health. "I'm always trying to measure our relative strengths through comparison to the so-called competition," Offit said. "I can confidently say that we continue to distinguish ourselves--in fact, by my measure, we're thriving. Because we are so entrepreneurial, Hopkins has a magnificent appetite. It's always on the cutting edge, so one of the questions that will perpetually face this institution is how do you fund the resulting opportunities?"

Despite gloom and doom talk from some quarters, Offit believes the federal government will continue its historic support for higher education, particularly the research-based variety that Hopkins specializes in.

"If you stop to look at the treasures in this country, you quickly realize that our system of higher education is the envy of the world. It's the world measure of undergraduate and graduate study, and the breeding ground of the research that leads to new technologies, new ways of doing things and creating new jobs. I don't think this administration--or any administration--can fail to recognize that fact," he said.

He is also comforted by the fact that his successor--current Johns Hopkins Initiative campaign chairman Michael Bloomberg--is a business associate and friend of long standing.

"Mike is an extraordinary talent," Offit said. "He is truly a person for all seasons and I know he and Bill Brody will lead Hopkins to new heights of achievement."

Offit said he plans to offer Bloomberg whatever help the new chairman may request. "Old chairmen never fade away, they just take on new committee assignments," he quipped.

If Morris Offit is retiring an old hand at Hopkins executive leadership, interim president and School of Medicine professor of molecular biology and genetics Daniel Nathans is heading back to his lab as the man who had to learn it all in a hurry. Although he has been a member of the faculty for 34 years, and has distinguished himself in that time as a department chairman and member of many important university-wide committees, the university's executive office was unfamiliar territory when Morris Offit asked him to step in more than a year ago.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Nathans frankly of his first weeks on the job. "I was fairly distant from the Office of the President. When I came, I found it was a lot more varied, and required a lot more ceremonial duties, than I expected."

Morris Offit likes to tell the story of going to meet with Nathans to ask him to act as the university's first interim president. "Dan said to me, 'Yes, I'll accept, but I don't want to be a caretaker or a steward. I want to be an active, vigorous president who moves the university along.' I would say he has done that and much, much more."

The choice proved to be an especially propitious one, as shortly after taking office Nathans was faced with a long-delayed need to implement major restructuring in the relationship between the university and its School of Medicine on the one hand and The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System on the other.

"The issues of the medical school and the hospital took a lot of my time, and that was unanticipated," Nathans said. "Right after I became interim president the trustees adopted a restructuring of governance. That was in June of 1995. From that time forward I would say over half my time was spent with these issues."

The result is a new governance structure that should enable the hospital and the university to work more closely in tandem to face the many market-driven changes in healthcare delivery that promise to radically alter American medicine in the coming decade. "This was the kind of historic change that was attempted many times in the past but never came about," Nathans said. "It's a very profound change. The creation of a medical chief executive officer should relieve the president of the need to be a line officer in Johns Hopkins Medicine and allow him to turn his attention to the larger picture."

That picture, said Nathans, must include the need to continually refine the institution's educational mission. "I think we will need to stress the notion of selective excellence, which we have talked about for a long time, but we now have to take more seriously. We need to examine what we do for its quality and significance, and we need to make decisions based on what's most important. What are we doing well, or what are we determined to do well, if we don't do so already? This will need to be our focus in the future."

In the short term, however, Nathans is looking forward to a summer vacation in Maine before returning to his East Baltimore lab.

"In September I'll be back to my usual activities," he said. "I've kept my lab going, of course. I'll do some teaching, work with postdoctoral fellows and continue to serve the university when I'm needed."

And the past year?

"One of the great pleasures has been the opportunity to work closely with the trustees, who are an extremely talented group of very dedicated individuals," Nathans said. "Morris Offit in particular has given his enormous energy and talent to the university in a way I still find hard to believe. I greatly respect his wonderful judgment and his subtle intellect. He's been very concerned about the university and its reputation and has consistently striven to put the best people in leadership positions. I've felt enormous support from him, from all the trustees and from the entire university community. It's been a demanding job, but it's been very invigorating, very inspiring. I've enjoyed it."

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