The Accidental Academic
December 2, 2009 |  by Dale Keiger

Ronald J. Daniels has a vision of Johns Hopkins: interdisciplinary, fully engaged with its many communities, open to anyone of merit.

The president of Johns Hopkins University is by definition a very busy person. Ron Daniels, No. 14 on the list of men elected to his office, will be no exception, by the looks of it. Ten days after an unforeseen event crowded onto his calendar—successful surgery for a gastrointestinal stromal tumor on his duodenum—Daniels was walking campus with Provost Lloyd Minor, conducting conference calls, and trying to heed his doctors’ advice for recovery in the face of what he called his “constitutional inability to remain at rest for very long.” In late September, Johns Hopkins Magazine secured an hour (54 minutes, to be precise) on Daniels’ schedule to talk about his ideas for leading Johns Hopkins into the interesting times ahead. He seems fond of the phrase “from the get-go,” so here he is discussing what he has in mind for Johns Hopkins, from the get-go.

How did you find your way into the academy?

At the dinner the trustees hosted the night before my installation, my wife, Joanne, talked about how I found my way to the academy and referred to me as “the accidental academic.” Joanne and I were in law school together, and although I loved ideas and did a fair amount of writing and found scholarship rewarding and exciting, I wasn’t destined, or so I thought, to be an academic. After graduation from law school I went out and worked a year at a law firm. During that time, one of my closest friends, who had been a professor of mine, was persistent in making the case for going into the academy. I had deep reservations. But he persuaded me to go off to graduate school at Yale, which I did. I loved the courses, loved the intellectual environment, but was pretty disengaged in the path to the academy. I was really resistant.

Why were you so resistant?

I thought that I didn’t have the temperament to be an academic, that I was too restless, that I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy the highly solitary character of research. What was so remarkable was that people saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself. But for the intervention of those people I would never be here today. For me, it’s a real lesson about mentorship. For a number of people who find their way to the academy, as graduate students and as faculty members, it’s not so much that they knew in their heart of hearts that it was great for them, but it was the intervention of a mentor who encouraged them to make a commitment to the life of the mind. I’ve felt enormously, enormously blessed to have been touched that way.

Why did you want this job?

These are simply the best jobs that anyone could possibly dream of, to be able to lead a research-intensive university. It’s enormously challenging, but it’s enormously rewarding. This was such a great stroke of luck that came my way. From the get-go I’ve always been passionate about the commitment to excellence. I’ve been passionate about my commitment to the value of research in the university, to the way research can align with and foster a rich teaching environment. I’ve been moved by ways the university is really part of the community, and how its research and teaching and service activities touch and enrich the community. In all these dimensions, Hopkins epitomizes the best of the research-intensive universities. Its commitment to excellence is passionate and deep. Its commitment to fostering, at a very early stage [in a student’s career], connections between research and education—I think that’s unique. Then there’s the number of ways, whether we’re talking about the city of Baltimore or our activities in Africa, in which a spirit of community engagement pervades the institution. So for all of these reasons, I think this is simply the best platform for higher education and leadership in the United States.

You come here at an interesting time of economic dislocations, changing demographics, science like genomics and computational biology that didn’t exist 20 years ago, the spiraling cost of college. When you look now at what’s before you, what do you anticipate as the biggest issues that you’ll have to deal with in this hyperdynamic environment?

The truth is we’ve always been in an environment that has presented us with enormous challenges. The challenges you’re talking about today are intense, and they’re daunting in some ways. But the reality is that when you look back at our history, there have been many other moments when we faced equally daunting challenges that called for a brave and imaginative response on the part of the university. So in truth, that’s not new for us.

I don’t sense on the part of colleagues or students whom I’ve talked with or staff members that this is particularly intimidating or overwhelming. In fact, what I sense is that people see that in this climate of competition and pressure and change, this really plays to the fundamental strengths of Johns Hopkins, and the willingness to resist any instinct for complacency and drive our mission hard. I’m very encouraged by that.

Having said that, what I think for me constitutes a driving priority is the idea that however we respond to these challenges, we must do so in a way that fosters our sense of being one university. Johns Hopkins is an enormously nimble, entrepreneurial, and decentralized institution, and that has served us very well. Increasingly, the problems that we face as a society cannot be addressed—whether we’re talking about research or teaching—through the prism of one disciplinary perspective alone. Most of the really commanding challenges that we face, whether we’re talking about science, or politics, or economics, do not present themselves in watertight disciplinary compartments. They’re problems that span a number of different fields and require that we find creative ways to connect the different disciplines in the service of understanding those issues and contributing to them. When we talk about challenges, I regard my role as serving as a catalyst, along with members of the senior administration and all the deans, in promoting an environment in which we’re able to look broadly across the university and put together clusters of colleagues and students who can respond to those challenges by bringing their particular disciplinary perspectives to the enterprise.

Hopkins, at the level of the individual department or school, has done extraordinarily well in being able to support the kinds of collaborative enterprise that responds to that challenge. But there’s more that we can do to knit the various parts of the university.

For example?

One of the striking examples is the role that Hopkins has played in biomedical engineering. That’s where we were able to overcome the loyalties of school and department and develop a new discipline that spans the School of Medicine and the Whiting School of Engineering, and now appears to be the preeminent program in the world. That broke molds. It required a new vision of how you would actually connect disparate parts of the university, and it has yielded handsome rewards for us.

But if one looks today at how we think about the whole field of neuroscience, to what extent our behavior is shaped by nature or nurture, and how our understanding of the behavior of the brain translates into understanding the motivations for human conduct, these are important and profound issues that require not just a firm grasp of the brain from the perspective of the classic fields of neurology and other cognate schools within the School of Medicine. In the Krieger School it requires that we connect with colleagues in the Whiting School of Engineering. This is all at the level of trying to model, understand, and probe the behavior of the brain both at a cellular and molecular level. From there, one could think about how we correlate the structure with actual function, which may have significant implications for core understandings we have of human behavior, and thus inform the social sciences.

In my field of law, if one could demonstrate, as some neuroscientists have, that the brains of some habitual criminal offenders are structured in a fundamentally different way from the brains of the background population, what does this do to our understanding of notions of criminal responsibility? Do we think about the way our justice systems operate and the kinds of penalties that we visit upon people in the same way if we start to garner a more nuanced understanding of behavior as being much more determined than we had previously thought?

What I am getting at is that a better understanding of neuroscience has powerful implications for the ways in which we think about problems in a number of different spheres of human activity. The university should be able to develop mechanisms to connect the various parts of itself so that conversation can be supported, and the kinds of inquiry following from that conversation are appropriately nourished.

One could duplicate the examples in genomics, in astrophysics, in issues around sustainability. These are not problems confined to one discipline. We have to find ways that we can transcend the silos of department and school to allow our colleagues to benefit from the fruits of that kind of interaction. The university has recognized this in a number of different initiatives now under way. But having said that, when I talk to colleagues across campus, for all that we’ve done in promoting collaborative activity, there’s still a sense that the sum is not yet greater than its constituent parts. How we’re able to focus that conversation stands as a very, very important challenge for us.