Volunteer Summit

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel

Earlier this year, the longtime provost of Columbia University, Jonathan Cole, published a critically acclaimed book called The Great American University. In it, he describes the rise, the growth and the preeminence of the American research university. In a time when the development of human capital is essential for social, economic and scientific progress, no institution is more important to society than the university, and no university has been more successful than the American model.

This is a stirring story. It is a story of the time-honored values of American inventiveness and foresight. It is a story of merit realized. But most of all, it is a story that begins here in Baltimore with Johns Hopkins. It was President Gilman’s insistence that undergraduate education be linked to graduate education and research that defined the essence of the American university. Ours was a model that ultimately found expression in the pantheon of great universities that today dot the American landscape.

Today, 134 years after the founding of Johns Hopkins, and the triumph of the model that was nursed into existence here, we have the opportunity to, once again, to reaffirm the values and the deeds that have undergirded our success.

But we also have the obligation to interpret and re-interpret our mission in light of a range of challenges that will test our tenacity and courage, our imagination and daring, our excellence and humanity. To do otherwise, is to risk complacency – a condition that is mercifully in short supply at Johns Hopkins.

This is the purpose of this day. It is a day in which we can pause – ever so briefly – to take stock of where we are, to survey the landscape around us, and to consider the implications for our great institution. It is a day in which we look forward to engaging you in open and frank conversations about the challenges and opportunities that currently confront us, and to harness your ideas and energies to chart our next steps.

To do this requires a little scene setting.

In particular, it requires a brief enumeration of the challenges that confront our university – indeed, challenges that I would argue confront all of the elite universities in the United States. Once those challenges are described, it is then possible to begin to speculate on ways in which we can and ought to respond.

Our Challenges

One could develop an exhaustive list of challenges confronting the great American universities, but time constraints require that I focus on only a few that I believe are particularly relevant to our discussion today:

– Intensifying competition;

– The revolutionary force of technology;

– The rising cost of education;

– The value of integrated research and teaching; and

– The mounting expectations that weigh on urban universities.

Let me address each in turn.

Intensifying Competition

Like so many other industries, a defining feature of our contemporary landscape is rapidly escalating competition from other institutions for faculty, for students, for resources.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the case of newly emerging foreign universities whose growth is being nurtured, often at a frenetic pace, by host governments determined to reap the same bounties from higher education that we have in this country.

I just returned from my fifth visit to China in a decade, trips that have given me the chance to observe first-hand the effect of the central government’s fervent commitment to higher education. In 1998, then-President Jiang Zemin stated his commitment to “world-class universities.” Just last year, nine chosen institutions formed the C9 – China’s equivalent of the Ivy League. These elite institutions signed cooperative agreements designed to cultivate talent and collaboration, in a driving pursuit of excellence. The pace of capital construction, research innovation, and talent recruitment is breathtaking.

The same commitment to higher education can now be seen in places like Singapore and South Korea, and the trend is not restricted to Asia.

KAUST University in Saudi Arabia just celebrated its first anniversary. KAUST – or the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology – is a co-ed research institution, where classes are taught in English. … And, I shouldn’t forget to mention: it opened with a $10 billion endowment. … At the time, larger endowments could be found at only five American universities, the youngest of which was 118 years old.

Of course, our competition does not only come from overseas. Domestic universities are increasingly vying for faculty, students and research dollars.

Take, for example, our preeminence in biomedical engineering. When the Department of Biomedical Engineering was founded in 1962, it pioneered an era of bold, interdisciplinary innovation.

But success has bred emulation, and universities such as Harvard and MIT are making staggering investments in this field. And with those investments, many of those institutions are trying to poach our talented faculty. This is just one example of the competition we have seen replicated in other areas of longstanding dominance: neuroscience, humanities, international policy, or public health.


Technology is the second challenge with which universities across the country are wrestling today. I know all of you who just snuck a peak at your iPhones are shrugging at this thought, but technology is transforming student expectations of what happens in a classroom.

The innovations in online learning offer new ways of stimulating interaction, enhancing opportunities and gauging a student’s learning. In short, we have the potential to radically reshape the student experience.

When I was dean of the law school at the University of Toronto, I filled in on a lecture after being out of the classroom for eight years. What I found was a sea of laptops – a completely new world. During my lecture, I noticed that a glass wall in the back reflected the students’ computer screens. Though I was sure I was offering scintillating analysis, the glass reflected games of solitaire, instant messages and a few retail sites. It was a rather deflating moment – and this was well before the distractions of Facebook or Twitter!

There’s no stopping this momentum. Students are increasingly restless with the standard lecture as a way of conveying knowledge, but their push for stimulation may actually move us closer to the ideal of Socratic dialogue. Technology will change, define and increase the ways we connect with each other in the classroom and across the university – if we harness the opportunities.

Cost of Education

The third challenge is something about which we have all heard a great deal – the rising cost of higher education.

We recognize that students feel these costs sharply. For the first time this year, the posted price for undergraduate tuition at Johns Hopkins – tuition alone – broke $40,000.

And this comes at a moment when families are coming to terms with the effects of the Great Recession.

I’ll get back to this point later, but want to highlight another aspect of the rising costs in universities.

From the outside, Johns Hopkins may look like a fantastically wealthy institution. For 31 years, we have received more public research and development funding than any other university in the country – $1.6 billion last year alone. But the fact is, our operating costs are constantly increasing, and neither the tightly restricted government funding nor our tuition bears the weight of those costs.

As federal compliance requirements grow, for example, so does our need for administrative staff to support our mandated responses. We feel the pinch as we increase our student services, augment safety measures around campus, contribute to community initiatives or bolster our student aid. And then there are research costs. The start-up costs for a computationally oriented lab – a so-called “dry lab” – can run as much as half-a-million dollars, while wet-labs can cost up to four times that much. Federal funding agencies don’t typically cover these costs in full.

Over the past several decades, universities have been required to pick up an increasing burden of research costs as federal expenditures shifted, and state and local support diminished. In 1964, universities covered 8 percent of those costs; today, that figure is about 20 percent.

Interdisciplinary activities

I have so far highlighted the challenges of competition, technology and cost. The next is finding an effective way to harness the distributed expertise in the University’s schools, departments and programs in the service of developing a deeper understanding of today’s complex social, scientific and economic problems.

Think of some of the issues with which our society is grappling – environmental degradation, diseases such as malaria and HIV, or economic destabilization. None of these real-world problems presents themselves in water-tight compartments, which means the solutions we devise will not either.

The agencies funding our research are also shifting their tact to better accommodate interdisciplinary efforts. A few years ago, as part of its Roadmap for Medical Research, the National Institutes of Health, created a dynamic fund to help quickly respond to new ideas and advances in biomedical research. Proposals must fit into certain requirements and advance specific aims, one of which is changing “academic culture to foster collaboration.”

Clearly, we all sense the need to shift the traditional, discipline-bound approach to research, but many are struggling to determine how that will best be accomplished.

Expectations of anchor institutions

The final challenge I’d like to mention relates to the expectations many universities feel as anchor institutions in their communities.

More than half the nation’s colleges and universities are located in – or just outside – of our cities. Decades ago, many of those institutions appeared as though they were almost trying to sequester themselves. Today, however, the most dynamic universities are embedding deeply and fruitfully in their communities.

Such universities are sources of jobs and talented workers, discoveries and start-up businesses. As institutions, they foster the health of their cities through the engagement of highly skilled faculty members, the outreach of medical clinics, and the tireless efforts of idealistic volunteers. In short, they are anchors within the communities of which they are a part, but this means they also feel the constant pull of urban issues.

Baltimore, for example, has spent the past few decades de-industrializing, and is pockmarked by poverty. The statistics related to crime, health and education in the some of the neighborhoods abutting our campuses are heartbreaking, and we feel those challenges acutely.

These are not issues we can watch from afar. Our students and faculty cannot thrive if they are worried about their safety, if the local schools are not adequate for their young children, or if they don’t feel the environment fosters their creativity and innovation. This means we must be part of Baltimore’s solutions. We want what’s best for the city because, frankly, it’s also best for us.

Our responses

Having run through the litany of challenges before us, let me change the tone of this conversation, and explain why I am so optimistic about the future of our great university, and why I believe Johns Hopkins is well positioned to address today’s challenges.

I’d like to discuss but a few.


In many ways, the rise of international research universities is a boon for Hopkins. Yes, we will have to work harder to maintain our excellence relative to a growing list of competitors. But the prospect of stronger partners overseas may be a great advantage to a university with a broad global reach.

On my recent trip to China, I visited Nanjing University, where we are expanding and deepening a long-standing partnership. The Hopkins-Nanjing Center was founded nearly 25 years ago to foster a true exchange of ideas on history, culture and contemporary thought. We have long said that we hope one day the presidents of China and the U.S. will pause at the start of their first state visit to reminisce about their student days at the Nanjing Center before getting down to official business. With a class of nearly 200 SAIS students at the center this year, and an alumni family of more than 2,000 spread around the world, we’re inching closer to that goal.

Our partnerships around the world are flourishing – from the SAIS Bologna Center in Italy, or archeological efforts in Egypt, to Peabody’s partnership with Singapore’s Young Siew Toh Conservatory, or our health outreach in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Our partnerships span health, politics, music, history and culture. These rich relationships mark a tradition of international engagement that has always been important, and may be even more so now.

Cost of education

I mentioned that I would return to the rising cost of tuition, so let me turn to that next.

Last spring, we admitted our freshman class on a need-blind basis, without regard to the financial circumstances of their families.

This took a lot of work. We strategically reallocated resources and eked out savings, while the deans of our schools contributed heroically from their own funds.

This year, about 45 percent of our freshmen are receiving grant aid from Johns Hopkins – a big jump from 33 percent last year. It’s also important to note that aid is significant: the average grant is $29,008. All told, we’re spending more than $15.7 million this year to assist the Class of 2014.

So while we may not have an immediate solution for the rising costs, we are working to limit their impact on our students.


Next: interdisciplinary collaboration.

Consider this: The three most popular majors among our undergraduates today are biomedical engineering, public health and international studies. We can’t shoehorn any of these into those traditional silos. Our students are eager to engage with today’s challenges in new and complex ways.

And so are our faculty. A group of you today will be looking at the promise of personalized medicine, recognizing that our ability to understand an individual’s susceptibility to disease and tailor therapies to that patient is truly breathtaking.

Johns Hopkins stands at the epicenter of the health sciences, home to preeminent physicians and groundbreaking research.

But profound ethical and social questions accompany any venture into genetics. Our ability to approach these complex questions from multiple vantage points is one reason we’re uniquely positioned to lead in this area. Our discoveries in the health sciences will be driven by our physicians and researchers, but our engineers, ethicists, musicians and sociologists will also play critical roles in the approaches that we fashion.

At Johns Hopkins, interdisciplinary collaboration is fundamental to what we do – and to who we are.

Expectations of anchors

Finally, I want to mention our important role in this city.

While we keep our eyes open to Baltimore’s visible struggles, it’s also important to recognize this place is the home of a stunningly engaged civil society and countless interventions that are pioneering new ways to address urban challenges. We live and work in a city that can harness our moral and intellectual capital in remarkable ways.

This is easy to see when you look at a project like East Baltimore Development, Inc. – or EBDI. Many of you have heard me talk about this 88-acre, $1.8 billion project designed to revitalize the neighborhood beside our medical campus. This mixed-income community will include new homes, restaurants and stores, and a new charter school geared specifically to the children of area residents and our East Baltimore employees.

We share this hopeful and holistic vision with members of EBDI’s public-private partnership, including the city, the state, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and many others. If we can make this work – and we will – we will make a lasting impact on this neighborhood, shatter any residual boundaries that separate our medical campus from the community, and add to the national discussions of urban issues.

And this is just one example of our spirited relationship with the city.


I firmly believe that we are well poised to provide novel and creative solutions to the challenges I just enumerated. But this is not a given. We must be willing to take risks. We must, to paraphrase Lincoln, be prepared to think anew and to act anew.

We are ready for this.

The culture of innovation and entrepreneurship is deeply encoded in our DNA. We have constantly had to earn and re-earn our preeminent standing in so many areas, and have consistently and forcefully demonstrated our commitment to excellence in a diversity of fields, from the life sciences to international policy. And we have demonstrated a capacity to connect the discrete dots of different disciplines, despite our geographic distribution.

In his book, which I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, Jonathan Cole writes that Johns Hopkins’ founding mission “represented the beginning of the great transformation of American higher learning.” With a number of challenges blowing against us, we are again at a turning point for American higher education.

I firmly believe that Hopkins is again – as ever – ready to lead that great transformation.

As we look ahead, you are our critical partners. We need your insight, your perspective and your energy to succeed.

Thank you, once again, for coming today, and for being willing to be a part of the transformation.