February 22, 2010

Dean Jessica P. Einhorn of SAIS

Self-described ‘enabler’ talks about mission of training global leaders


The first SAIS graduate to serve the school as dean, Jessica Einhorn says that today’s students are cosmopolitan in ways that weren’t possible 40 years ago. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Jessica P. Einhorn made history the moment she assumed leadership of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in 2002. Einhorn, who earned a master’s degree in international affairs from SAIS in 1970, became the first graduate to return as dean.

Upon her appointment, Einhorn said she viewed the role as that of an “enabler,” someone to help the faculty fulfill its potential in both research and teaching, and the students to receive the education that best prepares them for the careers of their choice.

SAIS’s ongoing mission is to train the next generation of leaders in the global arena. Founded in 1943, the school combined with Johns Hopkins in 1950; today, its campuses in Washington, D.C., Bologna, Italy, and Nanjing, China, draw 950 students from around the world who want a degree program based on individual academic and professional interests.

For Einhorn, the financial realm has always been her chief interest.

She worked for 19 years at the World Bank, where she was vice president and treasurer and, later, managing director, serving directly under the bank’s president.

She is known internationally for her influence on modern global capital markets, including holding key roles in the first currency swap operation, development of the global bond and risk management of derivatives. Einhorn spent her last year at the World Bank as a visiting fellow at the International Monetary Fund, studying issues involving the international financial system, including the nature of financial crises.

Just prior to becoming dean, Einhorn was a consultant in the Washington office of Clark & Weinstock. Earlier in her career, she worked at the U.S. Treasury and State departments and in the International Development Cooperation Agency of the United States.

Einhorn, who earned her doctorate in politics from Princeton University, recently sat down with The Gazette to discuss SAIS’s global mission and the opportunities for its graduates. We learned, among other things, that you can take the girl out of finance but not finance out of the girl.

Q: What about SAIS has changed since your days as a student, and what continues to attract people here?

A: Well, I can tell you a lot has changed since I was a student here. This is an absolutely extraordinary place, and we have the most amazing student body. In addition to being so able academically and intellectually curious, they are adventuresome and idealistic. I like to joke that our students help cure AIDS in Africa in July and trade commodities in Singapore in August.

They are really cosmopolitan in ways that just were not quite possible when I was young. When I came to SAIS, I was 21 years old, and I had just graduated from [Barnard]. In my college years, I had spent a year at the London School of Economics, and right after college I had gone on a Fulbright to Caracas, Venezuela. So, I thought I was pretty international. But our students today use every break to hop on an airplane and travel to places like India and Thailand and Vietnam.

The generation of students who come to SAIS now are part of a network that is really global. They are embedded in activities around the world, from business to government to international organizations and nonprofit work. They are part of the global culture.

To get back to your question, there are many, many things that have changed at SAIS. Part of what has changed is that “international” is no longer just going off and living and learning in that place. That, of course, is an important part of it, which is why we celebrate regional studies, learning a particular culture in depth. But now it’s about people who are living lives of international engagement. Our students venture into all walks of life.

Q: You just mentioned you were 21 when you came to SAIS. What is the average age and background of SAIS students today?

A: The average age of the incoming master’s student is 26, which is another big change. They come from more than 65 countries, and they have had an amazing set of experiences, both in their home countries and outside those countries. They all gather together at SAIS, along with the midcareer students and the military fellows who are here.

I found from the first day I came to SAIS that our faculty loves being engaged with our students. We have a very small full-time faculty, and something like 130 part-time faculty drawn from around the city, with great expertise in different disciplines of international affairs. As a dean, and I only know this anecdotally, everyone I have spoken to really loves teaching our students [because] they manage to combine respectfulness for their professors and at the same time be able to engage with them in almost a peerlike way through experience and understanding. The dynamic seems to be very special.

Q: How much of a challenge is recruitment?

A: It’s been a little too easy, and we don’t take it for granted. One of our highest priorities is to not allow ourselves to become just supply oriented in admissions. We want to build up and fine-tune demand. A number of years ago, we wanted more students from a business background. For a couple of years, we wanted to find more students with an engineering background. Now, we have a very able admissions director, who comes to us from the Columbia Business School, who is taking the lead in reviewing and revamping our entire admissions operation to make it the tremendously important engine of entry that a professional school needs.

Q: Tell me about the Roll Back the Future initiative you launched last year and its progress.

A: It is an idea of looking forward 10 years to examine what students you want to attract and which institutions are your competitors. In doing so, we wanted to learn what we needed to do the next one to three, or three to five, years to make sure we’re on a path, not a rigid road, that would head us in the right direction.

This was a nonacademic exercise. We came up with a set of priorities. Of course, financial aid was singled out, as that is our biggest competitive disadvantage. We don’t offer as much as we would like. We also wanted to focus on admissions and career services. Those two functions have to be absolutely top of class among professional schools.

I can tell you that a lot of work has been done in information and technology, and we have made great progress with that. We also have an idea of what we want SAIS to be outside the classroom. It’s an all-encompassing notion that every SAIS student who comes here—from the first day of economics preterm until the day that they march in commencement—should know that she or he is a SAIS student. We want to be involved in the thinking of their summer plans, in their internships and career development, and the trips that they take during short school breaks.

For example, Eliot Cohen was a model for us with his Staff Rides [and Field Trips], where students in Strategic Studies spend the better part of a year preparing for a week studying a major battle. This year they will be studying the German invasion of France in World War II and visit sites. In the past, they studied the Spanish Civil War, the Allied invasion of Italy and the battle of Waterloo.

We also have a special grant that allows us to support students outside of Asian Studies to go to Asia. For example, students in African Studies have gone on a trip to China. It’s so important if you’re doing African Studies to understand modern China and the role it plays.

Currently, we are in an experimental phase of having these short courses on special subjects. [Foreign Policy Institute author in residence] James Mann gave a course on history and biography in international affairs. It’s just a one-week course, but we think it will be an important addition to what we offer.

Q: I heard you mention before that it’s important that SAIS not be solely identified with D.C.

A: It’s very important to understanding SAIS to know about our other campuses, Bologna and Nanjing. But they are not equivalent. Nanjing is very important in that it anchors us in such an important area of Asia, but it has its own degree program. Bologna is absolutely integral; as many as half our graduating class spend their first year there.

Ken Keller—a JHU PhD in Engineering—is a tremendous leader of the Bologna Center. He is leading an effort, with his colleagues, to create a Bologna that will have both an independent identity in Europe and yet be fully integrated and a partner with SAIS in Washington. Those two concepts are very important, and he is particularly skilled in being able to walk down both those paths at the same time.

Q: Do you envision SAIS expanding beyond these two affiliates?

A: I would say, not on my watch [laughs]. Two is enough of a challenge.

Q: Can I go back to what you said about infrastructure and technology? What has been implemented already?

A: What happened for many years here was that technology was just about hardware and servicing that hardware. We made sure we had wireless connections and all of that. But we see technology as more central than that. A basic principle for SAIS is that we do not embrace technology just to save money on education. Our mantra is that we use technology to enhance the educational experience for the students. We created the position of CIO, George Petasis, who together with our senior associate dean, is undertaking transformational change in both Washington and Bologna to bring us into the 21st century and then some.

Q: It sounds like you are progressing methodically and cautiously on this technological front?

A: I would say we are progressing constrained by poverty, and not just cautiously. Financial constraints are critical here. It’s all about financial priorities.

Q: Speaking of which, capital projects. Where do they stand?

A: We are doing as much as we can afford with tremendous support from [Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration] Jim McGill and his team. We had done a master plan to get where we wanted to be for SAIS, and it was more than we could afford. What we are doing now is more modest changes to the Rome Building and the Nitze Building. We are also doing some changes in the Bernstein-Offit Building.

To give you an idea of our constraints, we desperately need a new heating system here, and we had to put that off. We all view our fiduciary duty first and foremost to our students. Our calling is to give every single student at SAIS the best possible education we can give them, and to prepare them for a life of productive and professional engagement in international affairs. That is really what we care about, and we never take our eye off that ball. Obviously, scholarship is very important to us, and having great professors who are both scholars and teachers is entirely essential to fulfill that mission.

Looking at infrastructure and our priorities, we said our No. 1 priority has to be health and legal compliance, and No. 2 is everything that improves the student experience. We have made improvements to public spaces, classrooms and the library. A distant last is office space. The furniture you see here, I inherited from the last dean. You cannot get lower on the priority list than the dean’s furniture.

Q: What are the students studying? Popular fields?

A: International Development and Energy, Resources and Environment are our two largest programs. I think this trend goes back to that fact we have a whole generation here who feel engaged with the world. Strategic Studies, Conflict Management and Western Hemispheres Studies are also large programs.

International development is a discipline that trains you to think about different social and human development issues. It gives you framework for thinking about these different cultures and how they can build the institutions to empower them to serve their own populations well. There is a great appeal there for many of our students.

Q: Where do students go when they leave SAIS, and has that changed much?

A: It’s quite a big pie: the private sector, public sector, international organizations—like my career in the World Bank—and the nonprofit sector. When students come in for orientation on their first day, I say to them, Think of the three broad sectors: public, including international organizations; the private; and nonprofit. Most of you will have careers in two of them, and many of you will be engaged in the third. All I encourage you to do is think about where your first job will be and focus on that.

Q: It’s the Year of Religion here. You’ve been doing these themed years for five years now. Why is it important to you?

A: Well, I can joke about it, and I recently said this to [Johns Hopkins] President Daniels. I told him we were doing an annual magazine and needed a theme for that. And the annual holiday card, we needed a theme for that. We also do a special named lecture each year, and we needed a theme for that. So, I thought to myself, Why am I doing this to myself three or four times a year? Why don’t I just pick one? So that’s the humorous side of it.

But the serious side is that it started with the Year of Energy, and we did that because I wanted to brand the school in that field because I thought it was a natural for our students in the private and public sectors. Energy and natural resources are a natural for us because they’re always so linked to a particular place, location, culture, geography or form of government. Our students are so adept at being able to understand all those relationships and politics.

I used to say that you could teach international relations with a course on oil pipeline politics because those issues are so interesting—where the pipeline starts and its transit path.

Energy was such a nice hit that we decided to continue with these themed years. We next picked China because we were celebrating the Hopkins-Nanjing Center’s 20th anniversary. And it just picked up steam from there. The themed years have really sparked a community interest that is multidisciplinary.

Q: What country fascinates you?

A: Well, I can do a country if you want, but what fascinates me right now is financial reform. I’m really a finance sort of gal. I think that the huge recession, and the fact that we had a breakdown of the financial systems, has led us to this point of how we should build resilience into our systems. I think that is fascinating.

I manage to follow major power stuff quite a lot but tend to read articles more based on function. So I’ll read a story about energy in Central Asia, or political unrest in Latin America or anything and everything that is going on with financial reform. I’ll see a story on Chinese stock exchange governance, and I’ll read that, if that tells you anything [laughs]. I think I’m pretty cosmopolitan in my geographical interest.

Q: So, you’re not picking favorites, are you?

A: I’m really more interested in what America can do to fulfill its potential than I am about the others.

Q: Obama ran on a policy of change, and there will be some, no matter which way we turn. How do you see the next few years going in terms of foreign affairs?

A: I think the first year of this administration is about a change in the nature of its engagement. I think it will be four years before we see whether or not that stance in the service of policy is more successful in furthering our interests and furthering truly effective leadership in international affairs.

I will say it’s been a smoother transition than others in terms of picking up where we left off. In terms of change, what we have so far is a change in stance for international engagement and a deliberate approach to policy. I think the United States interests in the world don’t change from president to president. What changes is how you pursue those objectives.

Q: The level of guest speakers that SAIS attracts is extraordinary. Having heads of state come here is a common occurrence. Can you talk about your philosophy concerning speakers?

A: No. 1, we never pay for any. Well, rarely, but even that at a great discount. The major factor for us is Washington. It is sure different to ask someone to take a 12-minute cab ride—or, if they are in a motorcade, even shorter—to come to SAIS than to ask them to go to a city or part of the country they wouldn’t otherwise be.

The second thing is that the school has standing. We are really part of the fabric of the city. Our alumni are all over the world. So when you are reaching out to people, they often have connections to SAIS. We might have three alums in Vice President Biden’s office, or someone else at the World Bank. Or our own faculty have been involved in government and with groups all over the world. The personal network is quite great.

Q: And what an engaged audience you have at these events.

A: Our students are an unbelievable audience. Nobody is as blessed as I am. At the height of the debates, I could have President Bush one day and Ted Kennedy the other day, and I didn’t have to worry for a second about decorum or respectfulness in the question-and-answer period. They are just a class act. The school itself is a big tent. It stretches from people who want their whole careers in finance and military to those who want to do the most grassroots work in poor countries. And they just all get along. They respect one another and one’s views, predilections and ambitions. It’s been eight years, and I have never had a SAIS student who didn’t make me proud in these public events.

Q: How engaged are your alumni, and would you like them to be more engaged?

A: One of the most gratifying initiatives to me in the past three years has been that we have finally found our footing and are building a really great alumni outreach effort, which, of course, is an investment in the future. We are doing it geographically, looking at major cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London and others.

We look at where there are alums and try to help them to get to know one another. And then bring SAIS faculty to them and engage them with our students. They can mentor students, help them find jobs or internships. This goes for Bologna as well. We are very much enjoying the huge potential that comes with engaging with this amazing group of people.

Q: Where are you traveling to next?

A: Personally, I hope I get to a ski slope this year. I’ll be going to Bologna toward the end of April. I’ll be in New York soon to see some alums.

I have done a lot of international traveling, especially in my earlier career, but as dean I feel you have to be here during the academic portion of the year.

Q: Is it possible to get “too” much of D.C.?

A: You can definitely overdose on D.C. The way to get out of it is not to do international affairs in another capital. You instead go to a museum, the opera, the theater, see family, visit friends. I think it’s more about getting your head out of it than getting on a plane. Not to mention that on the plane are people you know from D.C. [laughs], and when you get there, there are people who are interested in the same subjects you are.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: It’s almost too perfect. I’m reading a book called The Hawk and the Dove about [SAIS founder] Paul Nitze and George Kennan. It’s written by Paul Nitze’s grandson, Nicholas Thompson. It’s a wonderful book, very well-received. The other book, [which] I sent Ron Daniels for a holiday gift, was a great book, Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed. It’s a compelling story about the cause of the Great Depression told as a biography of the four central bank governors. It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s wonderful.