Q&a -- Kristina Johnson

Thinking Systematically

The highest-ranking woman in the Johns Hopkins University's history brings her skill at engineering - and her love of sports - to help run an academic institution

November 25, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun reporter

Kristina Johnson has been a pioneer before. This time, it is becoming the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Johns Hopkins University. She took over as provost in September.

In one way, she certainly came to the right place. That's because one of her previous pioneering efforts was when she entered Stanford University 32 years ago and helped establish the first women's team in - you guessed it - lacrosse.

"I love sports," says Johnson, 50, a native of Denver. "I loved field hockey and I loved lacrosse. I guess my first love was field hockey because that was already a varsity sport when I got to Stanford. But I helped found the lacrosse program."

She has already checked out the Hopkins women's team in their fall practice.

Johnson arrived at Hopkins from Duke University, where she was dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. That is not an area known for a high percentage of women, but, interestingly, one of the previous high-ranking women at Hopkins was dean of its Whiting School of Engineering: Ilene Busch-Vishniac, recently named provost at McMaster University in Canada.

Before coming to Duke in 1999, Johnson was on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder. She got her bachelor's and doctorate at Stanford.

Johnson's specialty is electrical engineering, particularly research in the field of smart pixel arrays, which are used in high-resolution displays and sensors such as cameras. As provost, she succeeds Steven Knapp, who became president of George Washington University in Washington. What exactly does a provost do?

It is the chief academic officer of the university, so you oversee faculty appointments, chair tenure and promotion committees and look out for the quality of the academic programs.

The way I like to think of the position is that you try to coordinate the excellence of individual units across the whole institution. You look for opportunities for several units to join together so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. If 10 can work as one, that one can be greater than 10. So you try to see the opportunities where we as a university can work as one. Do you think having an engineering background helps you to be an academic administrator?

I think so. An engineer applies the principles of design to solve problems in society. A lot of that involves understanding how systems works. For example, a transportation system is more than vehicles and roads: It's energy, routing and traffic, weather maintenance and all sorts of other factors. They are all interconnected. What always made sense to me is that you try to optimize the individual parts of a system, while understanding the impact on the overall system. That's what you try to do in a university.

Some systems are connected in a straightforward linear way. If one things happens, you can probably predict what the outcome will be on the rest of the system. But in complicated systems, you get all sorts of connections, linear and non-linear. It is more difficult to predict outcomes, but if you do the right thing, you may get a much greater response. That's the beauty and joy of a job like this, to see possibilities that might not be evident. I am very excited about this opportunity. Hopkins is known for the independence of its units, its schools and departments. Doesn't that make what you are trying to do more of a challenge?

There actually is a lot of cross-disciplinary work at Hopkins. What I've been told that describes this place the best is the term selective excellence. Aristotle said that you are what you do repeatedly. At Hopkins, what everyone does is strive to be excellent. Do that repeatedly, as people do here, and you will be excellent. That is exciting for any provost can work with.

But you really have to be on your game. People move quickly here, they work hard and they are committed to so many different things, in the community, the nation and on the international stage. It's a pretty exciting place. A recent internal report decried the paucity of women in leadership positions at Hopkins, somewhat ironic at a time when more and more schools, including several in the Ivy League, have women presidents. Obviously, you are part of changing that at Hopkins. Is this a challenge for the university?

I am new to Hopkins, so I don't really know about the history. But I do know that [President] Bill Brody and the deans and the faculty are very committed to diversity in every form, and very commited to making Hopkins an even more welcoming place to individuals of all backgrounds. I am thrilled to be coming into that environment. There is a great will to be excellent at everything we do and we can't be excellent unless we are diverse. Hopkins is also known as a place that emphasizes graduate education and research, not undergraduate teaching. With undergraduate education becoming more and more important, particularly in the way institutions are judged, is that a challenge for you?

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