October 25, 2010

Q&A with Katherine Newman of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences

New dean of Krieger School puts her long- range vision in motion

Working with colleagues across the university, Katherine Newman is exploring the possibilities of more cross-disciplinary initiatives, increased arts-related offerings, expanded interaction with the city of Baltimore and more. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edThis is part of a yearlong series of talks with the leaders of Johns Hopkins’ nine academic divisions and the Applied Physics Laboratory.

Even before she rolled up her sleeves as dean, Katherine S. Newman  began thinking about a long-range vision for the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences that would focus on the quality of undergraduate life and education at Johns Hopkins, improvements in financial packages offered to students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and productive interactions with other university divisions to foster interdisciplinary work.

No empty rhetoric here: Newman has a track record of getting results.

A distinguished scholar and veteran academic leader, Newman led major interdisciplinary initiatives at Princeton and Harvard universities before being named the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School. She assumed the position on Sept. 1.

Just prior to coming to Johns Hopkins, Newman was the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes ’41 Professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Sociology at Princeton, where she directed the universitywide Institute for International and Regional Studies. She also founded and chaired Princeton’s joint doctoral program in sociology, politics, psychology and social policy.

At Harvard, she was the first dean of Social Science at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and developed a universitywide research program in the social sciences, promoting collaboration among faculty in Arts and Sciences, Public Health, Medicine, Law and Education. She also has served on the faculties of Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Newman, who has written 10 books and edited five volumes thus far, has focused much of her scholarly work on the lives of the working poor and mobility up and down the economic ladder.

Newman recently sat down with The Gazette to talk about her first month on the job and the direction of the Krieger School. We learned that she loves challenges in her intellectual life—and that her role calls for  a creative approach to problem solving.

Q: Getting to know Baltimore yet?

A: To be perfectly honest, my commute is now about two blocks between here and my home, and I have had very little time to enjoy the city since the job itself is very demanding. But I’m certainly going to explore the city after I get my arms around my work. I will say that I’ve found my way to the Charles Theatre. As a devoted film buff, I knew I would love it here as soon as I found myself in a first-rate venue for independent film.

Q: How has the transition been professionally?

A: This is a very different job than those I’ve had before, although it builds upon skills and experiences that I’ve used for many years now as a university leader. I was responsible for creating new programs at several different universities, so I’m accustomed to institution building, but the range of departments that I’m responsible for now is much greater.

I love learning about new fields, and that is what this job fundamentally requires. It’s about learning the vocabulary and intellectual puzzles that engage my colleagues in the wide range of fields that make up the arts and sciences. For anyone who enjoys ideas, there is probably no better place than the Dean’s Office for developing at least a passing understanding of what astronomers or art historians are proccupied with.

Q: You recently reconfigured the school’s top administrative structure, specifically creating new vice dean positions [see ‘Gazette’, Sept. 20]. You, in essence, split the school in two with the creation of a vice dean for science and research infrastructure, and a vice dean for humanities, social sciences and graduate programs. What was the thinking behind this restructuring?

A: When I look at my office from the viewpoint of a department chair, who has multiple kinds of responsibilities for undergraduate programs, graduate programs and for faculty, I’m imagining that person would appreciate as close as possible to a one-stop arrangement—precisely, one place where they can go for what they need from my office.

Before they had to go to multiple places to support the different constituencies that they have to be responsible for. I was trying to make a structure that was easier for them to access the resources they need. It also reduces the wingspan to a more manageable, although still difficult, concentration of fields for the vice deans.

In the prior structure, the dean of faculty had responsibilities that were as broad as mine. I thought it would be more efficient for the Krieger School to have two vice deans who had portfolios that were more closely configured and could provide a deeper range of understanding for the departments that fell under their aegis.

Thanks to the hard work of Greg Ball on the science side and Kellee Tsai on the humanities/social science side, I think we are able to support our colleagues better. It is certainly a great help to me to be able to turn over issues that require more in-depth engagement with chairs and faculty to my vice deans. Given the amount of time I devote to Alumni Relations off campus, it is a real boon to be able to turn to these two very capable people for the many day-to-day issues that need to be resolved.

Q: Tell me your thoughts about the recently reopened Gilman Hall and what this renovated building means to the school.

A: This is now the fifth university that I have worked for, and I don’t recall ever seeing an academic building as beautiful as Gilman Hall on any of those campuses. It’s an honor to arrive here at a time when we are celebrating this magnificent new home.

But it’s a lot more than a building. It’s a monument to a set of ideas about what is important in intellectual terms to the university: the centrality of the humanistic disciplines to our understanding of our historical origins, moral dilemmas and forms of creative expression.

Having everyone in the same building increases their accidental encounters with one another, which changes the natures of their conversations. It surfaces connections and lines of intellectual inquiry that might not have emerged before.

Q: The faculty certainly seemed to look forward to being back together under one roof.

A: Even in this era of electronic communication, when we think we are connected to everybody every which way, creativity still depends on proximity.

Social scientists who study innovation have shown that people from disparate disciplines are more likely to collaborate with one another if they are just across the hallway than they will with someone exactly in their field who is physically separated. Face-to-face interaction creates intellectual interchange, and that is what Gilman Hall is making possible for students and faculty—and for me, if I ever get my office over there [laughs].

Q: You dropped that not-so-subtle hint to President Daniels at the building’s reopening.

A: I would love to be there. As it is, I will have to settle for an office that looks out at it.

Q: The public health major continues to be very popular among undergraduates, as does a new major on sustainability. Do you feel we have an excess of altruistic students, those who want to go out and save the world?

A: I think Johns Hopkins students are very oriented toward service in the world, as are many people of their generation. Young people throughout the United States share this ethic of service. They want to make the world a better place than the way they found it.

Ironically, I think that the catastrophe of 9/11 had a profound effect on the generation that is in college right now. It left them with questions about the place of our country in the world. Enrollment in languages such as Arabic and Chinese has just skyrocketed. Why is that? There are many reasons. Students see that there are opportunities for them in the future if they can master these languages, but I think there is also just a broader sense of interest in the world beyond our boundaries that was catalyzed by truly tragic events.

Public health is part of this calling because a focus on international well-being of people far from our shores is integral to the study of public health, as well as questions of the underserved in our own country. This same ethic of service attracts students to international studies and to medical science.

Q: Have you begun to reach out to other schools or divisions for interdisciplinary collaborations?

A: Oh, definitely. I spend quite a lot of time with my colleague in the School of Engineering, [Dean] Nick Jones, talking about how we can better serve students that we are both responsible for in a curricular fashion. Many Whiting School students start off taking courses on the Krieger School side.

We are seeking new grants from foundations and relying on support within the university that will support our faculty as they develop new ways of teaching introductory science courses that emphasize problem solving and direct experience with experimental methods. The new science lab building behind Mudd Hall will express in a physical way new ideas regarding the integrated science curriculum, and this will matter to students in Engineering as much as it does to those in the Krieger School.

I have also opened up conversations with [Bloomberg School of Public Health] Dean [Michael] Klag about ways we might engage on healthy policy, for example. This would be part of a broader initiative that my colleagues in Sociology, Economics and Political Science are working on to develop programs that have a deeper footprint in Washington, D.C., in this domain of social policy.

I have talked with [Martha Hill] the dean of the School of Nursing, where they have a lot of interest in questions concerning poverty and underserved populations, and where I think our students have something to contribute. Dean Ed Miller, who is responsible for the School of Medicine, has a lot of helpful thoughts on how the basic science faculty in his domain can collaborate with my colleagues in Chemistry, Biology and Physics.

I have also called on my colleagues Winston Tabb [Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums] and Peabody Director Jeff Sharkey to convene a task force on the arts. They have drawn together faculty in Peabody and on the Homewood campus to think about the possibilities of more curricular offerings that crisscross these boundaries in music, theater, the Writing Seminars, Museum Studies, and Film and Media Studies. I’m asking them to engage on my behalf in thinking about the future of the arts here.

Q: Can you elaborate on your plans for more arts-related offerings?

A: As everyone knows, we have a world-class program in the Writing Seminars and a thriving interest in filmmaking as well. I am very proud of the new developments in Museums and Society. Growing a program that provides more opportunity to study music would complement these arts programs. From my perspective, the arts and “public humanities” are critical to the health of the Krieger School.

Q: Major challenge going forward?

A: Finding the resources to realize all of our dreams. We have no shortage of ideas, and no shortage of talent. But we are going into a capital campaign in 2013 that is going to be absolutely essential to finding all the resources to make these dreams come true.

Q: Tuition relief, financial aid certainly.

A: Yes, those are very, very important provisions for making sure that the most talented students continue to come our way. They are highly sought after, as they should be, and we need to be able to meet their needs as other universities do, and that is expensive, but it’s worthwhile.

Q: Do you want to see our students have an even bigger stake in the community?

A: I do. I would like us to expand a program of internships in city agencies. I think there is a lot more that our students have to offer to the city of Baltimore, and I think it would be very valuable to them to have that experience. There are some places where our students are actively engaged, but they are not everywhere.

I also think we will see an increasing amount of research on the faculty end that will engage students as well in the city of Baltimore. We want to extend our footprint in the national conversation about questions of inequality, poverty, education and employment, all the serious issues that affect the people of the country.

I hope to see us develop more opportunities for our undergraduates to engage in Washington, D.C., where all of these issues are debated in Congress, think tanks, nonprofit organizations and the like. But these problems matter just as much here at home in Baltimore. If we can create a stronger research presence in Washington for our faculty and students, then Baltimore becomes the place where we look to see if these ideas have real traction.

I think we have a responsibility to do what we can to make it a stronger and more vibrant city.

Q: I’m looking behind you at your books. Do you miss the scholarly world?

A: In a sense, but I also gain a huge amount with a job like this, which is the unique opportunity to engage with brilliant colleagues and fantastic students in plotting the future of an institution that everyone cares about so much. That is a privilege. It is mind-expanding, and it is intellectually challenging.

But to come back to your question, I have a book coming out in February and a book deadline for next September, and I’m going to meet all those commitments. Before I knew I had this job, I promised to write four books on different topics, and they will all get done. They will just take a little longer to do. I don’t walk away from the things I’ve committed to do. I don’t think I will ever abandon my role as a writer and public scholar; it’s way too important to who I am. But it will definitely take a back seat to the more pressing demands of the Krieger School.

Q: What is the book you’re writing now about?

A: It’s called “The Accordion Family,” and it’s about the impact of globalization on household configurations; in particular, the pattern that many young people in many countries are staying home for longer and longer periods of time than they used to, delaying marriage, delaying forming their own households.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I picked up a copy of The Corner because I just finished watching The Wire, which was my introduction to the city of Baltimore. Of course, this is pretty close to my area of specialization as a scholar of urban poverty.

I have also been reading a lot of reports [laughs].