Farewell: Gene Sunshine
It was 10 years ago that Eugene Sunshine came to Hopkins to
become the university's treasurer. He arrived with a wealth of
experience gained working in New York state government in
capacities ranging from a stint in the state Urban Development
Corporation (where he helped coordinate relief efforts after
Tropical Storm Agnes) to roles as the state treasurer and as the
deputy commissioner for tax policy.
Sunshine's style may best be described as an easy-going, jovial camaraderie wrapped around a core of hard-nosed pragmatism. It is obviously a combination that works. A little more than a year after arriving at Hopkins, Sunhine was promoted to become the university's senior vice president for administration, the senior financial position at Johns Hopkins. He was 38 years old.
Perhaps his relative youth was exactly what was needed. At that time, a combination of factors had created a crisis in financial planning within the university. Commitments outstripped financial resources, and a number of often difficult decisions-- including the scrapping of several planned building projects, the closing of the Chesapeake Bay Institute and the scaling back of financial support for radio station WJHU--had to be made.
It was not an experience anyone at the university wished to go through again. In order to bring a sense of stability and focus to an institution best known for its highly decentralized planning and widely divergent funding sources, Sunshine and then-provost John Lombardi worked in collaboration with senior administrators and the university board of trustees to create, in 1989, Hopkins' first five-year plan.
Since that time, every division and department of the university has been required to be constantly looking ahead, and projecting both revenues and expenses for the next five years. This approach is widely credited with bringing the university's operating budget back into the black, and preserving Hopkins' high-quality debt ratings.
It is, Sunshine says, perhaps his greatest accomplishment during the decade he spent in Baltimore. As he prepares to leave July 18 for a similar position at Northwestern University--the school where he earned his undergraduate degree in history and met his wife, Holly--Sunshine took the time to speak with The Gazette about his years in Baltimore.
Sunshine: So what are you doing? A farewell? It's-about-time-you're-out-of-here kind of thing?
Gazette: Actually, we were hoping to get your sense of how things have changed in the past 10 years. You started as treasurer ...
Sunshine: That was in the Muller years. It's a more narrow area of responsibility. The treasurer is the principal officer of the university responsible for the investment of university monies: the working capital and the university's endowment. He's the principal staff person for the university's committee on investments on the board of trustees; he's responsible for the banking relationships the university has with its financial institutions, that sort of thing. That's what I was recruited to do.
Gazette: After a year, at age 38, you were promoted to senior vice president for administration, which you did, for a while, in conjunction with your duties as treasurer. Did that raise any eyebrows? Was that considered kind of young?
Sunshine: I'm not the best one to ask about that, I guess. If there were eyebrows raised they typically wouldn't be done in my presence. I think relative to my peers, I was young.
Gazette: What exactly are the duties of the senior vice president for administration?
Sunshine: Officially, it's described here as being the chief financial, chief administrative and chief human resources officer. A practical shorthand description is anything of significance of a non-academic nature, one way or another, you get involved in. Anything involving large sums of money you're involved in. And since money is crucial around here_it's what prevents you from accomplishing objectives or enables you to do things_you find yourself getting involved in a whole range of matters.
Gazette: After college at Northwestern you went to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University for graduate work in public administration. Why?
Sunshine: I guess you could say I was a product of the '60s and early '70s. I always wanted to work in government, so I pursued that and then went to work for the New York state government.
Gazette: What happened?
Sunshine: I worked for the New York State Urban Development Corporation, which was the public authority that had been designated to be the lead state agency in coordinating all the flood recovery programs after Agnes. We just passed the 25th anniversary of the flood--June 23, 1972. The whole southern tier of New York state was terribly flooded. Unbelievable amounts of damage. When it happened I was essentially finishing my master's degree. So I was coming out of graduate school and was really fortunate to land an opportunity at the UDC. It was a small office. We had a big office in New York City, but I was just in a field office, so we became jacks of all trades. I wrote press releases and conducted press conferences--the skills you guys think I have no talent in. So the development of my lack of talent started then.
Gazette: You moved around in state government, eventually landing in the state Division of the Budget, then serving as state treasurer and deputy commissioner of tax policy, both appointed by then-Governor Cuomo. Why the change to higher education?
Sunshine: By the time you rise to that level in state service, you recognize that there aren't many other jobs you would like to do. There was maybe one or two. But at that level there are many factors that determine whether you get such a job, and not all of them relate to your merit and your abilities. My two older sisters had been in academic life. Both had Ph.D.s, both had taught, both had been administrators. So the notion of getting into higher education as an administrator was not completely alien to me.
Gazette: So you came to Hopkins. What was your initial impression?
Sunshine: In some respects, my job is very similar to the higher level jobs in New York. You have multiple constituencies when you work for the higher levels of state service. And the same is true in higher education. Everybody thinks you work for them, and in fact you do. In a place like Hopkins obviously you work for the president and the board of trustees. But you also work for the students, the faculty and for the federal and state governments that give you money. You also work for the alums, and so on. These are all constituent groups that you have to care about and respond to. That's the job. The corollary is that decision making doesn't happen simply because you want it to happen. That is, a decision doesn't get implemented just because you think it's the right thing to do. In some respects, figuring out the right thing to do is the least difficult assignment. What's harder is building a constituency among folks who have different perspectives about the right action to take.
Gazette: What are the right things we've done at Hopkins in the past 10 years?
Sunshine: I think I was not used to the degree of decentralization here, financially speaking, when I first arrived. It's very hard for a financial person to fully appreciate decentralization's value. There's a lot going on that you can't control or influence, and that is discomforting to a financial person. It takes a while to fully appreciate that from an academic point of view there's a lot of virtue to it. And I believe there is; there's no question about it. A lot of Hopkins' greatness comes from pushing down decision making and authority as low as you possibly can. That doesn't mean there aren't other models that work well, too. But at Hopkins that model works well, even if it puts added pressure and concerns on the backs of centralized financial officers.
Gazette: Is this what precipitated the financial crisis in 1989?
Sunshine: I think what happened, with 20-20 hindsight, is that the university's best intentions to facilitate growth and enhance excellence got substantially out in front of prudent financial planning. Maybe a slang way of putting it is that our appetite really outstripped our pocketbook. What happened was there were commitments being made whose full ramifications, from a financial point of view, were not properly considered.
So one day, figuratively speaking, when we laid out all the commitments we'd made--buildings, new programs, debt associated with the buildings--and we assessed likely revenues, we had a huge gulf. It was not because each of the individual ideas, in themselves, wasn't exciting and worthwhile, but because the full future ramifications of those projects had not been fully explored. The "what if" scenarios had not been considered. What if your expectations for research growth in some particular area don't materialize? Where are you financially? The full amalgamation of all those risks--not on a project-by-project basis, but cutting across the university--had never been assessed.
Gazette: And so the five-year planning process was instituted?
Sunshine: That is what we did--and continue to do--with the planning process. There were a whole slew of initiatives, capital projects come to mind, that were stopped or modified. We increased the number of students, decreased some faculty positions, reduced the subsidy levels from the university to a lot of entities and so on. Around this time we embarked on a plan with the state to put the Peabody on sound financial footing. I think the Peabody financial plan was a remarkable illustration of private money, university money and university talent combining with state generosity of money, working together to achieve a purpose. Perhaps unlike many other partnerships of that nature, which for various reasons don't work, this deal did. The state did its thing, the university did its thing, private donors stepped up to the plate, and the whole thing was a wonderful tribute to the state of Maryland and the leadership of Peabody and the university.
Gazette: What lies ahead?
Sunshine: I'll tell you why the five-year planning process is so important. It really gives you the framework for ensuring that this place's excellence is maintained and enhanced. That means research, teaching, clinical practice--you name it, all the major thrusts of what we're all about. The five-year planning process enables you to achieve your objectives in a financially responsible manner. If you don't, ultimately you fail. And in fact, not only do you fail, but you slip back because rarely can one stand still successfully. So it's the discipline of the five-year financial planning process that allows you to maintain and enhance excellence. And the structured process has permeated this place.
Over the years the deans, the faculty and administrators have come to understand the importance of projecting out their activities and plans, taking the whole process seriously, not highballing the revenues and lowballing the expenditures. I think it has become inculcated into the culture of Hopkins. That, in my opinion, is a tremendous accomplishment--the best achievement of the past 10 years.
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