New first family, new community


This new president didn't promise to bring a new puppy along when his family moves into the official residence, and his overall message was more of continuity than change.

And yet there was a now-familiar sense of a generational shift yesterday when the Johns Hopkins University introduced its new president, Ronald J. Daniels, a youthful 49-year-old and the father of four teenagers. He is believed to be the first Hopkins head in recent memory who will bring children to live at Nichols House, the presidential abode on the Homewood campus.

Maybe I'm just overly obsessed with first families these days, what with a particularly intriguing one moving into that White House down the way from here. But something about moving a family into Nichols House, I think, immediately gives Daniels a unique vantage point from which to view not just the campus but the city.

With children in tow, it's harder to live solely within the comfort zone of a college campus. They have to go to school somewhere, for one thing, and surely their activities and friendships and lives necessarily would expand beyond the campus. (While Steven Muller, four presidents ago, had two preteen daughters when he became Hopkins president in 1972, he and his wife decided to raise them in the "less public setting" of Timonium, according to an article in Johns Hopkins Magazine.)

It's said so often as to be a cliche, but the divide between Baltimore and its august local institution has always seemed particularly vast, even by the usual town-and-gown standards. I sense it wasn't always that way, but something that happened as Baltimore and Hopkins moved in different directions - the city grew poorer and blacker, the school grew bigger, richer and more worldly. You hear it in the grumblings of neighborhoods where the ever-expanding Hopkins empire has squeezed out some longtime residents; you hear it from city kids, no matter how bright, who sense they wouldn't feel at home at this school despite its proximity to their own neighborhoods.

And yet it's the largest employer in town and the premier local educational institution. We're obviously in this together.

So I was struck, pleasantly, by how one of the first subjects Daniels raised yesterday was what he called "the inextricable ties" between Hopkins and its surrounding city. He made special mention of the Baltimore Scholars program, which offers free tuition to any city public school graduate who can make it through the rigorous acceptance process and get into Hopkins. The program, which will graduate its first class this spring, is credited with greatly increasing the number of local African-American students on campus.

"It moves me so deeply," Daniels said of the effort.

For all his impressive credentials - from what his former colleagues at Penn and the University of Toronto say, Hopkins landed quite an academic and administrative star - Daniels remains rather touchingly awed by the power of education and its potential to elevate both individuals and society. He is just one generation removed from a time when higher education wasn't part of his family's world - he is the grandchild of Polish immigrants to Canada, and his father was one of the first in the family to get a college degree, at the University of Toronto, where Daniels himself earned his bachelor's and law degrees before getting a master of laws degree at Yale.

"It is a debt that I have never forgotten," he said.

Daniels didn't outline a specific mission or a set of priorities yesterday. Much of what will consume him at Hopkins already is in motion - the huge biotech park that is being built adjacent to the Hopkins medical campus, for one, and the worries at all universities about the effect of the economic downturn on their endowments. And the fact that the Hopkins trustees selected someone with notable fundraising prowess is perhaps a signal that such endeavors will play a big role during Daniel's tenure.

But first, he seemed most interested in learning more about both the campus and the city that he will inherit in March.

Yesterday was only his third visit to town, and he joked that he's been advised to catch up on the ouevres of Barry Levinson and John Waters (but the grittier, David Simon Wire series, not so much). Daniels, apparently a jazz fan and restaurant fancier, said he hoped Baltimoreans would take his family under their wings and point them to the spots they need to explore in town.

"It's something we look forward to doing as a family," he said.

As Daniels rushed off to speak to the various outposts of the Hopkins institutions, from Homewood to the Peabody to the medical campus, his wife, Joanne Rosen, and three of their children went to check out Nichols House, although they won't be moving in for a while. Rosen, a human-rights lawyer, said the family will commute between Philadelphia and Baltimore as the 16-year-old twins finish high school.

Daniels' predecessor, William R. Brody, was the first president to live in the house since 1971. The house was built in the 1950s as a way of luring Milton Eisenhower, the U.S. president's brother, to the school, according to the Hopkins Magazine article, and he used to turn the house's front light on to signal to students when they could drop in and chat.

Surely Daniels won't be expected to adopt this charming practice. But he did speak glowingly about how it was the random moments at his previous campuses - such as standing in line for coffee - that revealed for him the true "soul" of the school.

And, perhaps, the surrounding city as well. It is that intersection of a university and a community, Daniels said, where "magic happens."

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