January 4, 2010

JHU President Lincoln Gordon, 96, brought co-education to Homewood

Lincoln Gordon, who served as president of The Johns Hopkins University for four tumultuous years, died in his sleep on Dec. 19 at an assisted-living community in Mitchellville, Md. He was 96.

Gordon, a diplomat under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who had also been on the faculty at Harvard, came to Johns Hopkins in July 1967, following the retirement of Milton S. Eisenhower.

A gentleman of the old school, described by those who knew him as courteous and engaging, Gordon was rarely seen without his pipe. He loved to talk, between puffs on his pipe, and he dominated meetings with his lengthy conversations.

His lasting legacy came as a result of a recommendation in 1969 from a student/faculty/administration committee, headed by Biology Professor Carl Swanson, that the all-male Johns Hopkins undergraduate program become coeducational. The first female students arrived at Homewood in 1970.

But his tenure at the helm of Johns Hopkins is remembered by many just as much for its marked difficulties.

“Gordon had come to the university at a time of increasing unrest on college campuses throughout the country,” remembers Vice President and Secretary Emeritus Ross Jones, who served under Gordon as vice president for public affairs. “Issues surrounding the war in Vietnam, racial justice, individual rights and others stirred up students, faculty and administrators. And although he had been ambassador to Brazil for five years, he had no experience as an administrator of a complex institution like Johns Hopkins, and he found the assignment very difficult.”

Financial deficits increased dramatically during Gordon’s tenure, students were protesting about domestic and world issues, and the faculty was restless. Finally, in March 1971, some key members of the faculty visited Gordon in his office, located in what is now Homewood Museum, and told him that they had lost confidence in him. Immediately they went downtown to the office of Robert D.H. Harvey, chair of the university’s board of trustees, and told him of their feelings about the president. Gordon resigned immediately, less than four years after his presidency had begun.

One person to whom the news came as a surprise was Steven Muller, whom Gordon had recently appointed, with trustee approval, as provost. Muller, then vice president for public affairs at Cornell University, had driven to Baltimore that day with his wife, Margie, and two daughters from their home in Ithaca, N.Y., to show his family the university and look for housing. The Mullers left the girls briefly at their motel, and, to their amazement, when they returned, the girls told them that they had seen on the evening news that Gordon had resigned. The trustees coaxed Eisenhower out of retirement to serve as interim president, and then, 10 months after Muller took up his post as provost, named him to succeed Gordon.

Abraham Lincoln Gordon, who never used his first name, was born on Sept. 10, 1913, in New York, where he was educated at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, and later graduated with high honors from Harvard and earned his doctorate at Oxford.

In a career that spanned the worlds of academia and government, Gordon spent 25 years on the faculty of Harvard, where he taught classes on government and international economics; was a high-level administrator of Marshall Plan programs in Europe following WWII; and served as ambassador to Brazil. He also was a White House economic adviser to Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an economist at the Brookings Institution and the author of numerous books.

His wife, the former Allison Wright, died in 1987. He is survived by two sons, two daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

More about Gordon’s career can be found in obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun.