The Accidental Academic
December 2, 2009 |  by Dale Keiger

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So what do you do?

You double and redouble your efforts to increase benefaction going to financial aid. You make it a major capital campaign priority. You work to persuade the broader community of the importance of this ideal and how it will make us stronger as an institution. It also requires that we think about ways in which we can invest our own resources in strengthening that program, in some cases making difficult reallocative decisions within our budget to be able to support that. As president, I have shared with the trustees how important this priority is for me.

Another thing that you’ve indicated means a lot to you is how Hopkins fits into and works with its various communities. What do you see as the principal needs there?

We start off, again, with a foundation in which Johns Hopkins is not just in Baltimore but very much of this community. If one looks at the range of ways in which Johns Hopkins contributes to the betterment of Baltimore, it’s quite a remarkable record. This year there’s about $200 million of uncompensated medical care provided by the health system. There are significant contributions being made by faculty, staff, and students throughout the university to a range of different community needs. The role that we’ve played in public health within the city of Baltimore is quite remarkable.

But there is one area that for me, at least at the present time, stands out as a very compelling priority, and that is the contribution that we have made—and I would like us to increase—to the Baltimore City public school system. Our principal obligation is to the Hopkins students who are currently enrolled in programs throughout the university. But I think we have the capacity to contribute beyond those constituents to the public school system in the region. And we already do a lot of this now. There’s a range of programs that involve our students in which we are making significant contributions in mentorship and tutorial assistance. We have colleagues in the School of Education contributing to curriculum development and evaluation. We have programs based in East Baltimore seeking to support nutritional counseling for students in the public school system. These are all important and remarkable initiatives. Of course, I am particularly proud of the program that Bill Brody launched, where we dedicated full-ride scholarships to students who graduate from Baltimore City schools, the Baltimore Scholars program.

Having said that, I still think there’s much more that we can do to build on that foundation. We have in excess of 5,000 undergraduate students currently enrolled in programs on the Homewood campus. If we could increase the fraction of students who are currently contributing to mentorship and tutorial assistance to students in the Baltimore City school system, I think we could have a profound impact. I think we have a reservoir of intellectual and moral energy that exists in our undergraduate student population that could make a marked impact. And that’s something, in these early days, that I would really like to be able to encourage.

We had a wonderful moment last weekend during the installation. We thought it would be nice to complement the pomp and circumstance with a  commitment to community service, and so we called for a day of service. At the time the idea was broached, there was hope that if we were lucky we’d get 400 to 500 students who would come out on a Saturday to contribute to a variety of good works in the Baltimore City area, and demonstrate in a very tangible way that we are determined to give back to the community of which we are a part. Due to a number of different people, in particular Bill Tiefenwerth and Paula Burger, we ended up having more than 1,000 individuals who came out for that day of service. I think it underscored the yearning on the part of our student body to be part of something greater than themselves.

What I’ve sought to do, in the short time that I’ve been here, is to remind our students that life isn’t always pursued where there’s nice, neat compartments: “I’m going to be an undergraduate, and I’m going to immerse myself in the educational environment of the university. Then I’ll go off and think about graduate or professional studies. I’ll become well established, and then there will come a point in my life that I’ll be able to give back to the community.” What we’ve encouraged them to think about is that, no, it starts right from the get-go. It’s an earned privilege to be part of Johns Hopkins, and you have an opportunity to share your significant bounty with the community that surrounds us. I think the students embrace this idea with gusto. It gives me a great sense of optimism that as we find more ways to develop opportunities for our students to contribute, that they will do that in an unprecedented way.

Do you have a clear image in mind of what you want Johns Hopkins to look like five years from now?

I know the challenges that we have to address. The precise way in which we respond to those challenges is something that has to be determined by the community. The only thing that I am dogmatic about is that we actually marshal responses to a number of these challenges, whether we’re talking about interdisciplinary collaboration or deeper engagement with the community or fostering an environment conducive to individual pursuit. How we think about ways in which we can respond to the globalized world, how we use technology—all these things ultimately, in the best tradition of the academy, have to come from the conversations we have on campus. The only thing I’m confident about is that in five years’ time we will have responded, in the true tradition of Johns Hopkins, in a bold, daring, and imaginative fashion.

Dale Keiger is the associate editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine.