March 21, 2008

Searching for Johns Hopkins University Presidents

Searching for a new president, as the Johns Hopkins trustees are doing now, is the board’s most important task, and it never is easy. A look back over the past 60 years confirms that.

In December 1948, President Isaiah Bowman, a distinguished international geographer and adviser to U.S. presidents, retired after leading the university through the Great Depression and World War II.

The trustees selected Detlev W. Bronk, professor and research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, to succeed Bowman. Bronk, who is said to have developed the modern theory of the science of biophysics, took office in January 1949. During his time at Johns Hopkins he also served as president of the National Academy of Sciences (1950-62). He left Johns Hopkins in 1953, after just four years, to become president of the Rockefeller Institute, later Rockefeller University.

The trustees did not have time to mount a major search for Bronk’s successor and coaxed out of retirement a highly regarded Johns Hopkins professor and administrator, Lowell Reed. A pioneering biostatistician who had been dean of the School of Public Health, he became president in the fall of 1953. Reed, it turns out, was sort of a place holder for Milton S. Eisenhower, the president of Pennsylvania State University.

When Bronk announced his intention to leave, the board had dispatched trustee Thomas S. Nichols (for whom the president’s residence at Homewood is named) to State College, Pa., to recruit Eisenhower for the presidency. Nichols and Eisenhower’s brother, Dwight, were good friends, giving Nichols entree to Milton. He declined the invitation. Nichols tried again in 1956. By that time, Eisenhower’s wife, Helen, had died, and he was ready to move. He became president of Johns Hopkins in July 1956. With two successful presidencies (Kansas State before Penn State), an engaging personality and a wide network of domestic and international friends and advisers, he was welcomed warmly by the university family. Eisenhower announced his retirement in fall 1966, when he was 67 years old, to be effective June 30, 1967.

There was an interesting flavor to the ensuing search. Several trustees said that Johns Hopkins needed a president with more academic credentials than Eisenhower, who had earned only a bachelor of science degree in journalism. (Eisenhower, however, often said to close friends, “But I have more than 30 honorary degrees, so they must be worth something!”) The board’s two top candidates, an impressive university president and a provost at a leading research university, seemed interested but, after many weeks, declined the invitations.

The search committee went back to its list of possible candidates and selected Lincoln Gordon, a Harvard professor of international economic relations and a former ambassador to Brazil who was, at the time, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. His brief tenure, which began in July 1967, was beset with problems, and he resigned, suddenly, in March 1971.

The trustees immediately called Eisenhower, who was living in the Homewood neighborhood, and asked him to return to the President’s Office. He said he would, but only if the board would meet four conditions: 1. Trustees must appoint a woman to their all-male membership. (A School of Medicine alumna, Marjorie Lewisohn of New York City, was elected.) 2. The board must appoint younger members. (The current Young Trustee program, in which trustees each year select a graduating senior, began then.) 3. The student center at Levering Hall at Homewood must be expanded and improved. (The trustees pledged $1 million for the construction of the Glass Pavilion.) 4. Finally, the board must persuade Steven Muller, a Cornell University professor and vice president, to assume immediately — rather than several months later, as scheduled — his position as the new Johns Hopkins provost. (Muller agreed to the board’s request.)

The board mounted a national search for a president but quickly realized their best candidate was the talented new young provost. They appointed Muller president in February 1972. With youthful energy, creativity and a strong international orientation, he led Johns Hopkins through 18 years of unprecedented growth and vitality until resigning in 1990.

Muller’s successor, in July 1990, was William C. Richardson, the highly regarded executive vice president and provost of Penn State. He was an experienced administrator and internationally recognized in his area of expertise, health policy and management. He quickly gained support through his friendly, warm personality and his ability to quickly grasp issues facing Johns Hopkins. His tenure was brief. In December 1994, between Christmas and New Year’s, he traveled to New York City to inform board chair Morris W. Offit that he would be leaving to head the W.K. Kellogg Foundation within six months, in July 1995.

Needing to move promptly to find someone to assume the presidency, the board once more looked inside to find its person. Daniel Nathans, a winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, was professor and director of the Department of Microbiology. Deeply respected for his scientific accomplishments, he also was known for his abiding devotion to Johns Hopkins, his firm leadership and his quiet, gentle interaction with colleagues. He was appointed interim president while the trustees sought his successor, who turned out to be William R. Brody.

Brody was already well-known at Johns Hopkins. Formerly a professor and director of the Department of Radiology at the School of Medicine, he had left the university in 1994 to become provost at the Academic Health Center of the University of Minnesota. His broad understanding of Johns Hopkins had been developed by chairing the Committee for the 21st Century. That group of 100 leading faculty, staff and students had been charged with examining and making recommendations about every aspect of the university to assure that Johns Hopkins would stay at the forefront of higher education well into the 21st century.

He was elected 13th president of the university in April 1996 and began his tenure on Sept. 1 of that year.