New Hopkins president touts value of research Brody fears public has forgotten worth of making discoveries

September 03, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

An academic turned entrepreneur, Dr. William R. Brody is a man best known during his career for challenging convention.

But Brody, who took office last week as the 13th president of the Johns Hopkins University, says his most important chore will be to hammer home the importance of research.

Perhaps that's not such a surprising thing to hear from the mouth of the president of Hopkins, the first American research university. But in a 55-minute interview Friday reflecting on his new duties, Brody repeatedly expressed the fear that most Americans -- including parents, pundits and politicians -- have forgotten the worth of research.

"The value of a research university, of which Hopkins is the prototype, is the discovery of new knowledge and the education of young minds," said Brody, who took office Aug. 26. The payoffs of research itself, whether in the inquiry of science or the scholarship of the humanities, cannot be predicted or forced, he said.

And Brody intends to push that message with almost any audience that will listen. On Sunday, he repeated it in separate addresses to freshmen and their parents, attempting to counter a decade-long backlash against the nation's elite research universities.

In a movement built on conservative politics and middle-class frustration, some parents, students and commentators have condemned private campuses, where exorbitant tuition rates and government funds are believed to subsidize the esoteric musings of academic dilettantes.

Support is threatened, Brody said, as corporations and politicians announce that they intend to cut spending on research and development. So in Washington, too, Brody said he will champion research as he seeks to maintain the university's unrivaled ties with the U.S. government.

"What we do, ideally, is not measurable in the short-term basis," he said. "This is a long-term business with long-term payoffs. It's very nonlinear."

Brody acknowledged that universities have to adapt and become more responsive. Hopkins, for example, cannot continue to raise tuition above inflation every year without driving out all but students who are very rich or on full scholarships, he said. Trustees are said to be weighing how to limit future increases in tuition rates, currently at $20,740 a year.

But Brody defended the value of the opportunities at research campuses as providing an education for students that cannot be found anywhere else.

"The focus [of criticism] continues to be on teaching quality" by university professors, Brody said in Friday's interview with The Sun at his Garland Hall office. "I know we have to have good teachers, and we must be sure we are rewarding good teachers and not promoting people who aren't good at communicating or teaching.

"But the essence of the research university is not necessarily the quality of the lecturer who gets up in front of the class of 250 students," he said. "It's the interaction of teacher and student. You don't remember the lectures in Chemistry 101 or Journalism 101.

"What you remember is the interactions you had with a professor who set you on fire, who stimulated you to go beyond the boundaries of your experience to come out with something new."

He will sound that same theme, he said, in seeking to excite alumni and other potential donors, as he takes the helm of the university's $900 million fund-raising drive, which is roughly two-thirds completed and will wrap up in February 2000.

'A good story to tell'

Despite these presidential tasks of charming donors and wooing politicos, Brody projects nothing like a Clintonesque presence, instead maintaining a fairly formal manner. Jut-jawed, clean-cut and earnest, he more closely resembles the relatively reserved Al Gore.

"The secret is having a good thing to s " Brody paused, then continued, "a good thing to talk about, a good story to tell." Brody sounded, for a moment, as though he was going to say that he had "a good thing to sell," an understandable remark for a successful entrepreneur.

"This is a wonderful thing to tell, the Hopkins story. I believe we have a terrific product," he said. "I think there's lot of reasons to be bullish on Johns Hopkins."

Brody takes over a university with about 16,000 students -- half of them pursuing continuing education. Approximately 3,200 students are undergraduates, and there are roughly 5,000 graduate and professional students at the university, which receives more federal research funds than any other campus in the country.

Brody's background

Softly insistent in conversation, Brody's perspective is by his own account forged by his experience as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then at Stanford University, where he earned his medical degree and doctorate in engineering. He went on to become a professor at Stanford, then left Palo Alto to found two companies, one of which marketed his invention, a device that significantly lessened the intrusiveness of magnetic resonance imaging on patients.

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