William C. Richardson, new president of Hopkins, shows a different style


September 23, 1990|By Nora Frenkiel

On the second day of July and his first day on the job, the new Johns Hopkins University president, Dr. William C. Richardson, had lunch with faculty members at Levering Hall, met with students in his office and walked through the administration building from the top floor to the bottom, shaking as many hands as he could find.

More than a few were startled by the new president's accessibility. In style, Dr. Richardson could not be more different than Steven Muller, the man who in his 18 years as Hopkins president was known for being a bit aloof and very tanned, and very rarely entered in faculty offices or student halls.

"My style is to get to know people's names," says Dr. Richardson. "I don't think you can run the institution unless you know the people who work here. That's a major part of the job."

Dr. Richardson, the former executive vice president and provost for Penn State, is 50 years old, pale and bespectacled. The words most used by colleagues and admirers to describe him are "decent and thoughtful."

"Never in my life have I come across a candidate like Bill, where there was absolutely not one blemish in his background, not one negative," says Morris Offit, chairman of the search committee and new chairman of the board of Hopkins. "Bill may not bowl you over on the first meeting, but, God, there's depth there, and by the second meeting you realize you're talking to one of the true talented gentlemen in this business. . . . He can also easily submerge his own ego, which is a rare talent in any human being."

Off the record, Dr. Richardson's warmth and puckish sense of humor emerge. But when the tape recorder is running, he is circumspect and unwilling to reveal anything other than what he has already announced as his mission in running Hopkins:

"If in 10 years from now, people can look at this university and say it is one of a handful of major universities on the world scene, if we can take advantage of all the riches of learning here and if we are able to work across divisional lines, then I would be satisfied."

His personality and vision, say some, are well suited for the role of private university president of the 1990s. Institutions, reflecting the mood of the nation, must rethink and scale down after the booms of the '70s and '80s, which meshed well with President Muller's expansionary vision.

"Steve Muller had a great public presence," observes Robert Rosenzweig, president of the Association of American Universities. "Bill Richardson is a quieter person . . . and I think Bill works more quietly and outside of the public eye."

Now may be the time for taking account of the way things are and for thoughtful conciliation -- especially at such a decentralized institution as Hopkins with its Applied Physics Laboratory and its eight academic divisions: Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Continuing Studies at the Homewood campus; the Schools of Nursing, Public Health and Medicine in East Baltimore; the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and Baltimore's Peabody Institute -- recently rescued with a $3 million commitment from Hopkins toward its required $15 million fund-raising goal.

Professor M. Gordon Wolman, who has spent 32 years at Hopkins and is currently interim provost, says: "Richardson comes at a different moment in Hopkins history . . . a period of consolidation, of trying to bring various schools together on as many issues as possible."

Dr. Richardson admits, however, that this was not a job he originally sought nor particularly wanted.

"I made it known I wasn't interested when they first called," he says, sitting in his office at Garland Hall.

When he received a second call from Mr. Offit, asking if he would come for a meeting -- with no obligations on either side -- he agreed. And rather quickly, he decided, "This was a perfect fit for my background."

Dr. Richardson -- who had spent six years at Penn State, following 14 years in academic and administrative positions at the University of Washington -- admits, "I had regrets at first in the transition of leaving Penn State, but not anymore. I think this is an extraordinary place to be."

Penn State, although operating independently, is designated as the state university and has 70,000 students on 23 campuses statewide and a $1.2 billion budget.

Hopkins is a different institution, with a relatively small undergraduate program -- 4,000 students in Arts and Sciences and Engineering -- and a total of 13,200 in all programs, although with a budget of about $1.1 billion. One of the preeminent research institutions in the nation, it receives more federal research dollars than any other university in the country.

But that reputation does not obscure what Mr. Offit calls "a perception that Hopkins the university is not as great as the sum of its parts."

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