Hopkins president embraces his role of 'picking the pockets' of benefactors

October 01, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

When the call came from California, Bill Richardson juggled his schedule and grabbed a plane west.

A lengthy courtship was over, and a couple had decided to endow a professorship at Hopkins.

Over lunch in Los Angeles, the president of the Johns Hopkins University and the donors pinned down details. He returned to Baltimore with a commitment of yet another $2 million, a gift that is to be announced later this fall.

Through the years, he's learned to move quickly when major donors beckon.

"I didn't want to let it hang fire," Dr. Richardson says, recalling the trip he made last year, "because people can change their minds."

Dr. Richardson scarcely will stop moving as he leads Hopkins on a just-announced capital campaign with the staggering goal of $900 million and a completion date of 2000.

The campaign, the largest such effort in the history of Hopkins or any Maryland institution, comes as the university has been operating in the red and faces significant financial pitfalls.

Federal health care reform, although dead for now, and the movement toward managed care pose long-term threats to Hopkins' medical units and expensive specialists. Also, with a relatively small endowment and a huge dependance on federal research funding, Hopkins is vulnerable to budget-cutting in Washington.

While the campaign is a Hopkins-wide effort, nobody has more on the line than the soft-spoken president.

Far from dreading the fund-raising marathon, Dr. Richardson sounds almost eager.

"Personally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, I'm looking forward to it," Dr. Richardson says in his modest corner office in red-brick Garland Hall. "I find it to be one of the most enjoyable parts of my job -- offering people a chance to invest in something I believe in and they believe in."

William P. Gerberding, the president of the University of Washington and one of Dr. Richardson's former bosses, remembers the assessment he gave some Hopkins supporters the night before Dr. Richardson's inauguration in 1990.

"I said they would come to understand that Bill was very adept at picking their pockets at fund raising," Dr. Gerberding says. "The wonderful thing is they would go away thinking it's a grand experience. He just has that kind of manner."

For William Chase Richardson "that kind of manner" means making connections, something he's practiced as an art form for a long time. Overseeing the sprawling Hopkins empire, he burnishes an endless series of friendships.

"He thoroughly enjoys people," says Morris Offit, the New York investment banker who heads the Hopkins Board of Trustees. "What he thrives on are relationships."

Dr. Richardson, 54, is low-key but confident, with a rock-solid handshake and hazel eyes that stare unflinchingly through clear-framed glasses.

Even his daughter, Elizabeth, acknowledges that he isn't a rousing public speaker, but one-on-one he is charming, with a gift for remembering names and previous encounters.

His humor is dry and he is prone to deliver earnest monologues about the opportunities and problems ahead for the university.

Expert on health care issues

With an academic background in the business of medicine, Dr. Richardson is a respected expert on health-care reform issues as well as the complicated and politically sensitive process that determines how much the federal government pays universities for research. At the governor's request, he also heads the state commission that established the minimum health insurance coverage to be offered by Maryland's small businesses.

"With his background, he is very much the right person at the right time for Hopkins," says Eugene Sunshine, Hopkins' senior vice president for administration.

Dr. Richardson runs an enterprise with about 12,590 employees, campuses on three continents, nearly 16,000 students and a budget of $1.5 billion. With its stable of world-class researchers, it is Baltimore's preeminent institution.

It was an institution with the financial shakes when Dr. Richardson arrived in 1990. The university was trimming faculty and increasing enrollment to generate revenue. State aid was being slashed and Dr. Richardson had to preside over a series of painful budget cuts.

On top of that, he faced a state-imposed deadline of less than three months to raise $15 million for Peabody Conservatory, which Hopkins had agreed earlier to absorb. The university met the deadline.

Early on, Dr. Richardson began working on major gifts for the Hopkins capital campaign.

His task was complicated in the case of Morton K. Blaustein, a Hopkins benefactor who became disgruntled during the tenure of Steven Muller, Dr. Richardson's predecessor.

Dr. Richardson brought the millionaire back into the fold with a VIP tour, luncheon and a leisurely discussion about geology, Mr. Blaustein's major at Hopkins in the 1940s.

"Mr. Blaustein had an incredibly active mind. Bill Richardson was asking questions about the origin of the moon," says Bruce D. Marsh, a geology professor who was at the lunch.

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