On The President: Looking Back Before he departs for his new role as head of the Kellogg Foundation, President William C. Richardson spoke to The Gazette about his five years at Hopkins and the state of higher education. Gazette: Why don't we start with a question many have been wondering since a major university president's recent self-imposed leave of absence: "Is it impossible to be a college president today?" WCR: Absolutely not. It's a challenging, wonderful job. I have always viewed it as being a high cost, high reward kind of job. You certainly pay a price in terms of personal time and freedom and ability to pursue your own interests. I don't downplay for a minute the pressures of the job. But on the other hand, it has tremendous rewards. The reward of seeing something not happen that could have happened, that would have hurt us, or conversely getting something to happen that helps us would be an example. Gazette: Is there a management style that best suits the variety of responsibilities demanded of a modern research university president? WCR: I think it's a matter of being organized properly, having a flat enough organization that you are able to delegate. Probably the linchpin to the whole thing is having the right people in place. We have, I think, one of the best groups of vice presidents and deans of any university I know. I'm absolutely convinced that our senior people are the best in the country in whatever field it is. They're just really outstanding individuals. And that means you can have productive conversations with them on what strategies are going to work best to make good things happen. If you're spending your time sort of helping them limp along or trying to figure out how you're going to replace them or trying to keep them from going at each other's throats, then you've got wasted time, in which you could be doing something productive for the university. Hopkins, I think, right now is just an exceptionally well-functioning, healthy organization. We're not paranoid. We're not neurotic. We don't have faculty members who are overly suspicious. And we don't have central administrators or deans who are anything but committed to what Hopkins is all about, which is doing everything that we can to provide support to our faculty and students. That is, after all, the only justification for the administration to exist. We're just here to help make sure that people have a productive setting within which they can pursue their work. And that's what we have, I think. Gazette: Many people have an idea that if you're a president you exert some sort of dictatorial power in that you can just say, "I'm president therefore we are going to do this." What's the reality? WCR: The reality is not what you just described except in some very minor things; few enough that I could count them on the fingers of my hand. You need the help of those around you and of the governing board and of the faculty, to be able to look out, figuring out where the university should be and what kinds of things you need to be alert to. And the key is being ahead of the curve as much as you can. You've got to persuade other people of where the university should be going, of what areas need shoring up, or what changes need to be made, or where more attention needs to be paid. You have to envision where the university should be in five to 10 years and then persuade people that that's where we should be. When I first came, the things I talked most about were not resting on our laurels but revamping the curriculum, doing something proactively with respect to interdivisional programs and collaborations, taking advantage of the international reputation of the university by really focusing on international programs in all the divisions. And then making sure that we have a human climate that is supportive of women and minorities, to put it in the simplest terms. And those are all things where I think we've made tremendous headway. --------------- The Hopkins Way --------------- Gazette: One fundamental aspect of the university is its lack of central control. All the various aspects are autonomous. WCR: It's a dream organization. Gazette: Does it work? WCR: You bet it works. If you look at the idealized model in the management literature, in the popular literature, the dream model is this flat decentralized organization with layers taken out between leadership and the people on the ground. Now the one drawback is the issue of central funds to move around from time to time. You need enough money for innovative investment, capital investment and human capital investment in new programs. But we don't have any trouble doing most of that. For example, we have a fund for moving money around to support central services, central activities and information systems that works very, very well. The only problem with it is that sometimes sources of funds get smaller at a time when the needs for the funds get bigger. Gazette: What about the prospect of a central curriculum? WCR: We do everything a college aspires to do, and then some. We do a lot more in terms of providing a very rich environment for our students to go off and explore on their own. If we don't give them time to explore or the freedom to design their own curriculum, then they are not going to be able to take advantage of the full university. I do think that the School of Arts and Sciences is wise in moving toward a greatly relaxed expectation of students knowing what they want to do when they come in. I think that is really helpful to give them more flexibility. Now if we went to the next step and said that we were going to have a core curriculum or a standard body of knowledge that we expect all students to know as some places do, then I get very uneasy. It's completely contrary to my notion of what it is that is going to turn a student on to a field in which he or she is going to get really excited and become excellent. I mean really turned on. And I think that is what an undergraduate education is all about. It's not pouring your mind full of information; it's turning it on for the rest of your life. Gazette: Are you content with where we've come during your administration? WCR: I think we're heading in the right direction. We are not as far along as I would have hoped because we've had a lot of detours along the way, the recession being the most conspicuous one. I would like to have seen, for example, a more fully developed set of interdisciplinary programs with more money to students and faculty to move back and forth between divisions. We just haven't been able to do that. I would like to have seen more fully and quickly developed curricular changes that would have been, in a sense, funded by additional resources that we simply haven't gotten because of the slowness of the economic recovery. While the campaign has been going well, the actual flow of dollars into the general endowment has not been as fast as I would have liked. It's just a matter of taking longer to get that done. We have commitments but we just don't yet have the money in the bank. So that means we're moving more slowly on our new majors for example, or our interdivisional programs that I would like to see pursued. It's not anybody's fault. Perhaps I'm an impatient person despite what seems a patient personality. --------------- Embracing The Information Age --------------- Gazette: It seems that on every social and cultural front, the role of the information superhighway is both anticipated and debated. How is this still-emerging information age going to affect how students are taught? WCR: It will radically change the way students are taught, I think. First of all, this university now has more than half of its students as adult part-time learners. Our delivery systems to those students are still fairly traditional. But the experiments that are going on in doing it in non-traditional ways are growing year by year. In fact we just set up a special fund for further experimentation. Does that mean we are going to lose human community? No, I don't think so. I think it means we're just going to use human community in different ways. We're not going to use it to do the nuts and bolts, which we'll do in more efficient ways. We'll use it more for either problem solving or working through different people's ideas and resolving them, teaching people how to interact more effectively. ------------------------ Reflecting On The Future ------------------------ Gazette: Hopkins, and higher education in general, has faced a lot of critical attention recently, both from legislators and the public. What are the threats or danger? There must be some lurking out there. WCR: There are lots of them. The threat that worries me the most is what I see as the breakdown in an understanding of the importance of investing in the future--not only for our children- -but for our society and our economy through basic research and education. I think certain things should be set aside and protected that have long-term consequences. Those are two areas. National defense is another. We have a highway system that I feel should be a protected investment; it is much more important than people realize to the success of the economy. We should cut on the consumption side, not on the investment side. But I think there has been a breakdown and it's all gotten blurred. Anything people want to spend money on they call an investment, whether it is or isn't. Gazette: Do you have a fear that over the next 10 or 12 years there is going to be a wide divide between those students who can get a quality education and those who simply can't because of the costs? WCR: I believe in markets and the power of markets. I think that inexorably we'll find universities and colleges will have to respond to market forces and will have to become more efficient and more cost effective. That's one of the great things about Hopkins, that we have put most of our resources into our programs and not so much into the administrative infrastructure. We know, for example, that our central administrative costs are not only among the lowest of any major university in the country, but they're half the average of major universities. And that isn't by accident, it's because of the way we've organized ourselves and cut away the layers that some places have. Other places are just going to have to deal with that. Second, I don't think we can continue to increase our costs and therefore our charges at a rate any faster than the growth of family income. We just can't. We're subject to the same laws of economics that anybody else is. Another question that is really important, I think, is, Are we going to go back where we were in the 20s and 30s? Then it really was something for the elite. It was relatively rare for a low income person to get access, and when a person did, it was through scholarships. We do the same thing today except in a much more organized way that requires our being able to use general funds to support families that don't have the resources to send their sons or daughters to a place like Hopkins. I think that's the greatest threat, even greater than the growth of cost which we just have to control. The system of pooling the dollars we get and allocating them in such a way that we develop a balanced class with regard to geography, gender, ethnic and racial diversity, economic diversity and so on is under stress. The thing that worries me about the debate over affirmative action is it really becomes a debate over redistribution and who's worthy and who isn't. I think we've had a pretty good system for assuring access by a whole range of people, economically and geographically, racially and by gender and so on. I don't want to see that undercut. And yet I see tremendous pressure coming from those who are paying the full amount, raising the question of why they should be bearing the burden when it could be spread more generally across the society. The problem is, at the same time this question is being raised all across society, which means taxes are under pressure as well. So, yes, I see this as a danger. Gazette: Do you have any suggestions? WCR: I think we just have to make as good a case as we can for the importance of having student bodies who are representative of the society and having programmatic initiatives that enable student bodies to take advantage of that diversity by learning from each other. And I think Hopkins has been exemplary in both respects in the last few years. ------------------- Considering Hopkins ------------------- Gazette: You must have had an impression of Hopkins when you were first approached about the presidency. How has that impression changed after five years at the helm? WCR: I had a vague notion that it was an excellent school. And I didn't really understand why in the way that I do today. Today my sense of Hopkins is of even greater admiration than I had before I came here and a much more vivid understanding of what it is that makes Hopkins great. Fundamentally--and to a greater degree than any place I've ever seen--Hopkins is extremely careful in who it brings into the faculty and how it provides for the faculty's advancement. Then it's also careful about assessing satisfactory progress of the faculty and how it manages to separate those who are without much question going to be on the leading edge and those who aren't. Hopkins by one means or another encourages people to move on to other places who are not going to be in that premiere spot 15 years from now. They do it more effectively than any place I've seen so that by the time it gets to a tenure decision, there aren't many people left. So I think that one factor--that is, the quality of the faculty and the traditions and standards of the faculty for excellence--is probably paramount in my understanding of why this Hopkins delivers the way it delivers. Very closely related is that, going way back to the beginning, the faculty is very, very supportive of each other. They don't have the idea that it's a zero sum game, but rather have the idea that it's an expanding universe, if you will, and that the more they help each other, the more they are going to prosper. It's a wonderful view of the world and you see it all the time here. It makes the place a pleasure, as far as I'm concerned. ----------------- Peabody And Other Success Stories ----------------- Gazette: Looking back, Peabody Institute must be personally satisfying because you came at a time when it was floundering. WCR: It was just about to go down. I am just delighted with it. I was down there for a performance on Saturday night that I thought was sensational, really catching the spirit of how vibrant it is in terms of the faculty and the students. Gazette: What other things have been particularly gratifying to you? WCR: Among the most gratifying is the degree to which the Hopkins student body particularly undergraduate student body are really learning from each other and benefiting from each other in so many different ways. I attribute some of that to the students themselves. But I give a lot of credit as well to the student services people on all the campuses, and especially Dean Benedict and his people, in making it work. I've visited a lot of campuses over the last five years and have had a chance to really look at what some other places are like. And when I see how our undergraduate students relate to each other and how they benefit from each other and compare it to what I've seen at other places, it's terrific. The other satisfaction that I've had is the degree to which some of the programs enhanced in the '80s--for example, SAIS, astronomy, molecular genetics and biophysics--have really paid off, for example, with Hubble working and with Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope having been in space twice. The human genome database has been not only been financially important, it also makes Hopkins the world hub for all the information on this work. And the same is true for the humanities. The effect of our humanities departments collaborating has been to break down barriers between departments and take advantage of what is a superb group of faculty to the benefit of all the students, whether they are in literature or in history or anthropology. Those are exciting things and we've recruited sensational faculty to do it and have lost very few when others have come knocking at our door. Gazette: Has this job changed you fundamentally or in any other way? WCR: I hope not. One of the things I've always tried to do is to know who I am, what my values are, what my beliefs are, what I really care about and then apply that to whatever I'm doing as my current life's work but not the other way around. I've always tried to conduct my life in a way so that if I suddenly had to give up teaching or suddenly had to give up my research in the old days or suddenly had to give up being president, it wouldn't be that big a deal. I know a lot of people who define themselves by the job that they are in and therefore when it comes time to retire or they have to step down they are just crushed by it because that's the way they define their life. I try never to do that. So that on any given day I could step away from it. Not that I wouldn't regret it or miss it, but it would not fundamentally alter who I am, why I'm here, what I believe and what I think my life's all about.
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