Taking Hopkins' helm in storm

Daniels assumes presidency with economy in turmoil, students asking for change

March 02, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

As Ronald J. Daniels becomes the 14th president of the Johns Hopkins University today, he's expected to eat lunch with students in a dining hall and take a campus tour. That's about the most fun he'll be allowed.

"There's actual work happening," a Hopkins spokesman said. No wonder: Daniels is walking into a financial storm. University revenues over the next two fiscal years will be $100 million below projections, the endowment has lost 20 percent of its value and layoffs are expected.

The crunch might make it more difficult for Daniels, known for his aggressive, energetic style, to quickly implement an agenda of his own. Hiring professors will be hard to do. And with philanthropy declining with the economy, raising money for new buildings or renovations will be a challenge.

"I hope he has a strong constitution, because I think he's coming in at a point that's really going to call for inner strength," said Anthony W. Deering, a Hopkins trustee and former chairman of the Rouse Co. "The economy, as acknowledged by everybody, is in a tailspin unlike anything any of us has seen in our business careers."

Daniels, who was provost at the University of Pennsylvania for nearly four years, was consulted on the cutbacks announced last month by outgoing President William R. Brody. They include a hiring and salary freeze and a reduction in some department budgets.

Daniels declined to be interviewed for this article. He moved into Hopkins' on-campus presidential residence, Nichols House, over the weekend. (His wife and teenage children will join him later.) Daniels plans to invite small groups of students, faculty and staff to the house for get-togethers in the evenings, said Pamela Flaherty, chairwoman of the Hopkins board.

"We've already seen signs of his deep engagement," Flaherty said, describing Daniels' frequent trips to Baltimore in recent months to get to know the Hopkins community. "In many ways, it's a very good time to have a new leader, looking anew at everything and seeing how can we do things better, smarter, more efficiently, differently."

Already, supporters of the Hopkins crew teams are preparing to press the administration to reverse a decision announced last month to eliminate the crew program. More than 1,000 people have signed a petition urging Hopkins to reverse its cost-cutting move, which would save about $200,000 a year. Crew alumni and friends have pledged $40,000 toward next season's costs.

"I wouldn't have gone to this school had there not been a rowing team," said sophomore Beth Simmonds, a coxswain who has been in contact with six other universities about transferring. "It will be a very difficult decision," she said. "I love Hopkins."

Daniels has not revealed much regarding his priorities, but he has said that improving the undergraduate experience is important. He has scheduled meetings with students for his first month in office - a sign, they say, of increased attention to their concerns.

"In the last three years in student government, I've met with President Brody twice," said Prasanna Chandrasekhar, the student government president. "By the end of the month of March, I'll have met with President Daniels twice."

Chandrasekhar, a senior from Boston, praised Brody for his skill at raising money and increasing Hopkins' reputation: The university just completed an eight-year capital campaign that raised $3.7 billion. But he said student life at the Homewood campus has not improved markedly and that there still are not enough university-wide events.

"The cost is going higher and higher, but your day-to-day experience hasn't changed very much. You kind of say, 'Where's my money going?' " he said. In response to concerns like that, tuition for next year will go up by the smallest percentage increase in 35 years - 3.8 percent - to $39,150.

Hopkins administrators are taking a 5 percent pay cut this year, with the savings going to financial aid. At Penn, Daniels worked on a plan to convert student loans to grants, so they could graduate debt-free, and financial aid will certainly command his attention as more families ask for help.

"It's a heck of a thing to come into," said Erica Schoenberger, an engineering professor and member of the Homewood faculty assembly. "If you can imagine yourself negotiating the job, the first thing you do is ask for some guaranteed supply of resources so you can do the stuff you want to. And that's just evaporated."

But she said the faculty is optimistic about Daniels' arrival, partly because he is not what anyone expected for the next Hopkins president. Daniels was born and educated in Canada and was dean of the law school at the University of Toronto before joining Penn.

"We all sort of figured it would be somebody from the medical world. And he's not," Schoenberger said. "In fact, he's not from any part of Hopkins, and that's just plain interesting. It seems to suggest broader horizons."

Those who have watched Hopkins over the decades say the university is in a significantly stronger position now than when Brody took office in 1996. Applications are up, and observers say the ambience of the campus has made Hopkins a place where students are happy.

"The enthusiasm and pleasure level of the undergraduate student body is distinctly different from a number of years ago," said M.G. "Reds" Wolman, a geography and environmental engineering professor who has taught at Hopkins since 1958 and whose father taught there beginning in the 1920s.

He said expectations are high for Daniels. "This fellow looks wonderfully interesting," Wolman said, "and completely off the wall in the sense of, 'Who would have thought: a lawyer?' "

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