May 18, 2009

Milton Eisenhower, Postdocs and the Society of Scholars

Johns Hopkins University’s eighth president, Milton S. Eisenhower, never professed to be a scholar. His highest earned degree was a bachelor of science in journalism from Kansas State University. But the former president of Kansas State and Penn State universities used to chuckle when he told friends, “I do have 31 honorary degrees, so I guess they ought to count for something.”

Advanced degrees or not, Eisenhower was determined to support and promote advanced scholarship and research at Johns Hopkins. A good example of that occurred in the early 1960s when he recognized that persons already holding doctoral degrees increasingly were returning to universities for additional study and research. The title “postdoctoral fellow” was becoming more common.

(Johns Hopkins had two postdoctoral fellows when it opened in 1876: Charles R. Lanman, a philologist with a doctorate from Germany’s University of Leipzig, and Herbert B. Adams, who had earned his doctorate at Heidelberg University, also in Germany.)

The problem, as Eisenhower saw it, was that no one knew the magnitude of postdoctoral programs at Johns Hopkins or elsewhere. How many fellows were there, how were they admitted, what were they doing, how long did they remain, how were they distributed across departments? He commissioned a study of 40 other universities to try to find some answers.

On Dec. 10, 1963, Eisenhower wrote to P. Stewart Macaulay, executive vice president of the university; G. Wilson Shaffer, dean of the Homewood schools; G. Heberton Evan, dean of Philosophy (Arts and Sciences); and Robert Roy, dean of Engineering, to express his concerns about this subject. In that memorandum, now in the Hamburger Archives of the Eisenhower Library, he said he was convinced that “the time has come when we must seriously consider the future of postdoctoral study at Johns Hopkins. We need to determine the educational purpose of the various types of postdoctoral study, determine whether tuition is to be charged, set the level of fellowships, examine the whole question between undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral study and face generally the difficult problem of finance.”

In his own hand at the bottom of the memo he wrote “P.S. Save Feb. 8-9.” He later scheduled a meeting on those dates to discuss postdoctoral education and other matters at a retreat of deans and vice presidents held at Higgins Millpond, a center owned by the university near Cambridge, Md.

In September 1964, the academic council at Homewood adopted a detailed statement dealing with postdoctoral issues. In November, an internal survey indicated that there were 99 postdoctoral fellows at Homewood; 591 in Medicine, including house staff; and 24 in Public Health. (In 2008-2009, the university had 1,206 postdocs, including nearly 1,000 in Medicine.)

Eisenhower hoped that at the conclusion of their Johns Hopkins work the fellows would receive some sort of certificate indicating successful completion of a course of advanced study and research. That was not done. Undeterred, he created a committee, chaired by Provost William Bevan, that was asked to recommend “a way to pay special tribute to former postdoctoral fellows who have distinguished themselves since leaving Johns Hopkins.”

The Bevan Committee recommended the formation of the Society of Scholars “to recognize publicly the professional accomplishments of former Johns Hopkins postdoctoral fellows.” Eisenhower recommended that the trustees accept the committee’s recommendation on May 1, 1967, and the society became the first of its kind in the nation.

The first members of the society were elected in 1969, two years after Eisenhower retired at the age of 67. Since then, more than 536 former postdoctoral fellows, postdoctoral degree recipients, house staff and junior or visiting faculty have accepted membership in the society.