Hopkins president-elect praised for boundless energy, can-do attitude

November 23, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

PHILADELPHIA - Six months before German tanks rolled into Poland in 1939, marking the start of World War II, the grandfather of Ronald J. Daniels lost his job as a teacher in Warsaw. Aba Danilak thought he would move to Canada, where his brother lived, save some money and then send for his wife and three children.

But a travel agent in Toronto suggested that the entire family leave immediately, given the emerging persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe. Danilak obtained visas for his family, and they left for Canada in March 1939. The war began in September.

"That my family had that good fortune to be able to get out and secure safe harbor - it's a powerful story, and you feel by virtue of my dad's and his siblings' good fortune in escaping the Holocaust, that shapes you," Daniels said. "The question for them, and in truth for me, was, 'How do you make sense of that, and how do you return something to society, how do you give something back?' "

Daniels' answer was education. In March, he will become the 14th president of the Johns Hopkins University.

A hard-driving 49-year-old who lifts weights and runs for an hour every morning, Daniels will face the task of uniting disparate campuses, raising vast sums of money and helping the institution engage Baltimore and the world.

Early in Hopkins' presidential search, some had suggested that prominent figures such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice be considered for the job. Instead, the unanimous choice of the trustees was Ron Daniels, a young, affable University of Pennsylvania provost who had spent most of his career as a Canadian law professor and dean.

But at every step of his rapid ascension in academia, Daniels has defied expectations. In college, he worked on a key government commission in Canada, savoring the arcane details of public policy. As dean of the University of Toronto law school, he raised huge amounts to hire more faculty and boost the school's reputation. As provost at Penn, he helped make the university more cohesive, bolstered its role in the developing world and increased financial aid, while still finding time to host barbecues for students in his backyard.

In interviews with a dozen of his friends and colleagues, not a single person failed to mention Daniels' energy and enthusiasm.

He e-mails his staff in the Penn provost's office as late as 1 a.m. and as early as 5 a.m. He calls his office on the way in to get a head start on his day. Fueled by peanut M&Ms and almonds kept in large canisters outside his office, and by the occasional food-cart hot dog, he races through back-to-back meetings.

"He doesn't need that much sleep," said George Triantis, a Harvard law professor and one of Daniels' oldest and closest friends. "I've always been so envious of him because he probably gets an extra three hours [of work in] every day, so he gets a lot done."

When Triantis and Daniels were students at the University of Toronto law school, on many nights they would gather with a third student at a restaurant where cheap Hungarian goulash was served, fiercely debating legal issues. When Triantis saw Daniels at Thanksgiving last year, Daniels wanted to talk about "why there are obstacles in getting departments to collaborate in interdisciplinary work at universities."

"In one sense, he doesn't leave his work behind," Triantis said. "On the other hand, he viewed it as a way we could just have fun."

After law school, Daniels worked for a year in private practice in Toronto before going to Yale to earn a Master of Laws degree.

The emphasis on education was handed down from his parents; his father was a lawyer, his mother a teacher. Daniels is the oldest of four. One sister is a physician, the other is a teacher and his brother is a lawyer.

"Something that was instilled in all of us ... was an immigrant mentality that education was a great opportunity that would allow us to be full participants in society," Daniels said over a turkey sandwich lunch at Penn last week. He has not stopped his own education. This summer, he took a two-day course in molecular biology at Penn to get a glimpse into scientific research.

His enrollment in the class stunned John Gearhart, one of the world's pre-eminent stem cell researchers who moved this summer from Hopkins to Penn, partly because of Daniels' recruiting efforts. "He's the provost, and he's taking this course," Gearhart said. "I thought, my God, that's impressive."

Gearhart's reaction when he heard Daniels was leaving Penn cannot be printed in a newspaper. But he said that while he was initially wary of Daniels - because of his youth and legal background - he was quickly won over. He found that Daniels asked smart questions, was warm and personable, and supported the faculty. Daniels will need all those qualities at Hopkins, he said.

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