University of Florida President John V. Lombardi withdrew yesterday from consideration for the presidency of the Johns Hopkins University, saying he still wanted to finish the job he had started in Gainesville nearly six years ago.
The position had been essentially Dr. Lombardi's to take, Hopkins and Florida higher education officials said. The decision clearly dismayed Hopkins administrators and faculty members, many of whom offered positive reviews after meetings with Dr. Lombardi last week.
"Our guy decided to stay in Florida," said Morris W. Offit, chairman of Hopkins' board of trustees. Mr. Offit said he did not ask for an explanation and Dr. Lombardi did not volunteer one. "I just didn't get into it," Mr. Offit said. "Not interested."
Dr. Lombardi's decision makes Mr. Offit's desire to name a new president by the end of January much more difficult, in a search already troubled by delays. Hopkins has penciled in a group of finalists, but Mr. Offit said yesterday that he is "not comfortable" with the rest of the short list. No other candidate has visited the campus for extensive interviews like the ones Dr. Lombardi had last week.
Trustees have a meeting scheduled Monday. They initially hoped to announce a new president early last summer but named Daniel Nathans interim president as they sought to resolve a leadership conflict within the Hopkins medical center.
Dr. Lombardi was already known to many people on campus; he served as Hopkins' provost and put it on sound financial footing during the late 1980s.
"It's really critical that there be a perfect match," said Hopkins engineering dean Don Giddons, who met with Dr. Lombardi last week. "People thought that there might have been one [here]. I believe that Dr. Lombardi thought there might have been one, too."
After last week's interviews, Hopkins officials asked Dr. Lombardi if he would accept the presidency if offered. They expected a positive response. Although the university has a student body less than 10 percent the size of the University of Florida's, Hopkins has an international reputation almost without peer, particularly in medicine, and receives more research dollars than any other U.S. campus.
Dr. Lombardi spent the weekend enmeshed in University of Florida activities: Saturday night he watched with Gov. Lawton Chiles and major benefactors as the football squad won the Southeast Conference championship; on Sunday night he attended a student choir concert, where 800 people gave him a standing ovation. Yesterday morning, the blunt-spoken historian
on Latin America said he would stay put.
"The opportunities at Johns Hopkins and the generosity of my friends there made it almost impossible to resist," Dr. Lombardi wrote in a statement released to reporters. "But in the end, the commitment to complete what we have all begun together here had to outweigh the exceptional opportunity offered."
This is not the first time Dr. Lombardi has flirted with another campus.
Two years ago, Dr. Lombardi let it be known that he was being interviewed as a short-list candidate to become president at Indiana University, where he had been dean of arts and sciences. (It is not known whether he was ever offered the job.) The regents of the Florida state university system promptly granted him a $20,000 raise. The move ensured his salary was higher than his counterpart at Florida State University.
Until then, the two men earned the same salary, a sticking point for Dr. Lombardi. Charismatic, articulate and highly popular on and off campus, he is acutely sensitive to the University of Florida's status as the state's flagship university, associates said.
"He's an ambitious guy and a builder," said Rick Edmonds, staff director of the Business/Higher Education Partnership. "He wants not just OK things for Florida but great things."
Representatives for Hopkins first asked Dr. Lombardi months ago whether he was interested in discussing the job here. He said he was not. Then, after a public tussle with the chairman of Florida's university regents, Dr. Lombardi made overtures to Hopkins.
In October, the regents chairman, James Heekin, wrote a letter criticizing the extent to which Dr. Lombardi sought to set tuition policy and lobby state legislators without working through the university system. In his letter, Mr. Heekin caustically remarked that he would help the college administrator find a job elsewhere if he could not live under the system.
That's when Dr. Lombardi told benefactors he had spoken with Hopkins -- and it leaked out almost immediately.
Then Florida politicians, including Mr. Chiles and former state House Speaker John Mills, stitched together a resolution affirming the importance placed on Dr. Lombardi and the leadership he has provided. The resolution was adopted Friday during an emergency meeting of university system regents.
Several Florida observers and officials said the policy dispute was secondary to the clash of strong personalities.
"He was really upset with some people in the system and with the system," Florida regent Steven Uhlfelder said.
It is not clear, as some Florida critics of Dr. Lombardi have privately maintained, whether he had courted Hopkins for leverage against his antagonists on the board of regents.
"If he did use us," trustee chairman Mr. Offit said, pausing, "we're happy that we were able to make him successful."