Richardson: Popular, praised JHU president garners respect for skills, style.

August 16, 1991|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Evening Sun Staff

William Richardson knows the way to a student's heart is through his stomach.

So, the new president of Johns Hopkins University has made a practice of preparing grilled butterflied leg of lamb for students in his Guilford back yard so he can listen to their concerns as they feast on the specialty of the house.

The grass-roots approach is a Richardson trademark, one that has won him popularity and praise during his first year as head of a campus with 14,033 students.

Although he is quiet and unassuming, Richardson is a highly visible figure around the Hopkins campus. In 12 months, he has left impressions of strength and confidence in the local community and in Annapolis.

"I was very taken with him," said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-42nd, vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "He is regarded very highly. Bill Richardson is willing to share information. He asks for advice. He asks for help, and I'm sure he'll get it."

"One person can make the difference and Maryland is extremely gifted to have Bill Richardson," said Morris W. Offit, one of 57 Hopkins trustees and the person who led the national search for a successor to Steven Muller. "He's a major relationship builder. He may have a mild demeanor, but it's misleading. There's a great tensile strength in that man -- he sets his course and, by God, we're going to do it. I'm talking in hyperbole and I mean it."

First impressions aside, many Hopkins deans have quickly developed professional respect for Richardson.

They have seen him handle tough problems during his freshman year, problems that have become common at other expensive, private universities as the spendaholic 1980s give way to the frugal 1990s.

In his first month in office, Richardson plunged into a statewide fund-raising campaign to save the Peabody Institute. With private donations lagging, the new president made personal appeals to strangers for pledges to save the conservatory under a state bailout plan.

More recently, at Richardson's request, Hopkins deans -- once known for fierce protection of their turf -- are singing in unison, planning academic collaborations and consolidations as part of a look-inward philosophy to bolster Hopkins programs.

Restrictions brought on by a fiscal crisis two years ago have given way to some new opportunities at the Homewood campus and the medical complex.

New faculty positions in the School of Arts and Sciences, an endangered species in 1989, have been created. National faculty recruitment has been revitalized. Reviews of the undergraduate curriculum and of the way courses are organized are under way.

Richardson also has made sure that Hopkins is a major player in the local business community's quest to turn Baltimore into an international headquarters for life sciences.

The Hopkins schools of Medicine and Engineering will be at the forefront of the planned biotechnology revolution, according to Richardson's vision, and other partnerships with private industry and even the rival University of Maryland are planned.

"There's no reason why Baltimore and Maryland can't be the focal point worldwide," Richardson said. "I see Hopkins fitting in several ways. It needs to continue to be the internationally recognized university that it is, not just in life sciences but in other sciences like astronomy and physics, and a university that attracts scholars. Having a very strong and balanced university is a key."

Michael Johns, dean of the Hopkins School of Medicine, said Richardson's plans are based on doing more with less. The new president has been challenged by fiscal traps that have forced him to call on his experiences as a trouble-shooter during lean times at the University of Washington and at Penn State.

"I would say that he is looking to take the various components of the university and bring them together to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts," Johns said. "Even though things are tight, he believes the important part is to look at ourselves and look at our priorities."

One month after Richardson started last July, the recession took hold of the Hopkins budget, followed by a federal budget agreement that limits the amount of federal research funds that universities can seek.

Then the state cut $1 million out of its 1991 allocation to Hopkins and another federal move limited science funding. So Richardson hit the fund-raising pavement, seeking help from alumni, corporations and wealthy private foundations and donors. He and the Hopkins development office put together the second highest fund-raising year in the university's 115-year history, securing at least $100 million in pledges and donations.

"We have one of the finest institutions here and we want to make sure that we are able to preserve that at a time when the costs are accelerating disproportionately to the cost of living," Richardson said. "That basic, rather simple message is persuasive."

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