Leadership Summit 2012

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Four Seasons Hotel, Baltimore

Despite the fact that there are 300 people in this room, I feel like we’re at a family gathering. This is the Johns Hopkins family – the people who know us best. Like any close family members, you are the ones who are most likely to rejoice in our successes – and, if you’re anything like my family, to call us on our faults. And so, you are the ones we need, once again, as we chart the course that this institution will follow over the next few years.

Ideas into action

Johns Hopkins is, as you know, a university of firsts. We were America’s first research university. We gave birth to modern medical education, built the first research-based school of public health and pioneered the serious investigation of the humanities and social sciences – from the history of ideas to our Writing Seminars.

But even more than a place of firsts, Johns Hopkins is a place that transforms ideas into action. You’ve heard these stories before.

  • At the Bloomberg School, Al Sommer demonstrated how Vitamin A could radically reduce child mortality in the developing world.
  • At SAIS, Francis Wilcox finished the first draft of the North Atlantic Treaty Resolution, then handed it over to some students gathering for class, and asked them to take a look.
  • At the School of Medicine, Helen Taussig helped pioneer the first successful “blue baby” operation, ushering in a new era in pediatric cardiology.

Our engineers, nurses, educators, musicians and physicists – they’re all breaking new ground in ways that are transforming their fields. But, as you know, our story is not only one of solo acts.

One University – History

From its earliest days, Johns Hopkins has been a place of unusual and remarkable collaboration.

As Hopkins philosophy professor George Boas wrote in Baltimore’s Evening Sun in 1936, “Departmental lines, like the Equator, are imaginary at Hopkins.” He went on to describe another institution’s efforts to install “roving professors,” then added, “[W]e have always been roving…; the only professors who do not rove are those who do not want to or those who are mentally paralyzed.”

Paralysis may be a slight exaggeration, but a glance through our history shows one example after another of this intellectual roving.

Those of you with ties to the Wilmer Eye Institute may know the story of Arnall Patz. He was an esteemed Hopkins ophthalmologist who, in the 1960s, was working on a problem related to the overgrowth and leaking of blood vessels in the retina – a problem that often led to blindness. This was the era when lasers were first invented, and Dr. Patz began to wonder about their clinical applications.

So he reportedly mortgaged his home to raise some funds and began working with a ruby laser light, before he finally brought the problem down to colleagues at the Applied Physics Laboratory. As the story goes, one physicist looked at him and said, “Wait a minute. You’re using … a ruby laser to coagulate red blood vessels? That’s stupid. You should be using a green light, a complementary color.” And Dr. Patz’s subsequent use of the argon laser paved the way for treatments that have saved the sight of countless people with degenerative eye conditions.

From its inception, Johns Hopkins has nurtured an ethos that fuels the innovation of faculty and students. The driving vision of our scholars has historically lifted their research above and across disciplinary silos. We were early leaders in creating the discipline of biomedical engineering and in forging groundbreaking, cross-divisional programs in areas such as brain science, nano-technology and environmental engineering.

One University – Present

Thirty-five years ago, the beloved Hopkins professor Reds Wolman, who many of you know helped found that pioneering Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering – fondly known as DoGEE – wrote a piece in the journal Science describing the program’s beginnings. He wrote, “The rationale for interdisciplinary studies is based on the common observation that problems in the real world are not separable into disciplines.”

Of course, problems have grown no less complex in the decades since. No one scholar, one discipline or even one solitary institution could take on the complicated challenges we face today. To address health care delivery, for instance, we rely on our scientists and clinicians to drive the discovery of new therapies. But we also call on our economists and public health experts to analyze market forces that propel the cost of insurance and to illuminate cultural barriers that block the adoption of proven preventive-care strategies.

As you well know, Johns Hopkins has never shied away from tackling the challenges of our world. Rest assured, we are not doing so today.

  • Right now, we have a computer scientist working with a cardiothoracic surgeon to develop robots that allow for less invasive surgery, and extend a surgeon’s reach. As one of the lead researchers says it: through this technology, “we can transcend human limits.”
  • Right now, in the basement of the Brody Learning Commons – the glorious new addition to the Eisenhower Library on the Homewood campus – the conservators of our libraries are working with materials scientists from the Whiting School to better understand the causes of paper degradation and develop new techniques to preserve our past.
  • And right now our most popular undergraduate majors – international studies, public health and biomedical engineering – are areas that slice across divisional boundaries.

In short: George Boas was right. We at Hopkins are a roving people, driven by voracious intellectual curiosity and a relentless quest to transform our ideas into action.

One University – Challenges

But George Boas was a bit off base on another point. You see, departmental lines are not imaginary at Hopkins. Like nearly all institutions of higher education, Johns Hopkins is a place organized by discipline, department and division. And this is for good reason. Strong, vibrant disciplines are marked by shared norms and methodologies and fuel rigorous inquiry. Great research universities will never lose the “discipline of the disciplines.”

But disciplines must be regularly permeated, and enlisted in the service our common challenges.

At Hopkins, it seems we’ve always recognized the importance of cross-divisional collaboration; that recognition echoes through our university task-force reports.  In 1994, President Bill Richardson chartered the Committee for the 21st Century – which was chaired by a radiologist you may remember named Bill Brody. The Committee concluded there were “compelling intellectual and financial reasons to increase the amount of collaboration within and among the divisions.” Sixteen years later, President Brody and Provost Kristina Johnson launched a planning initiative called “Framework for the Future,” that found “unprecedented opportunities exist to leverage strengths across divisions and promote university-wide efforts in discovery….”

We come around to this concept again and again in part because the realization of this ideal has never been easy.

In that article I mentioned from Reds Wolman, he described a few of the challenges he faced when helping to establish DoGEE. His list included, “philosophy, faculty, students, curriculum, research, money, and evaluation.” (Think he missed anything there?)

These are the very real difficulties of creating permeable boundaries between disciplines.

Whether defining a problem … determining a fair promotion process for faculty with joint appointments … steering the work of a graduate student when her research spans disciplines … or attracting sufficient funding to conduct research in multiple fields – the hurdles to this type of effort have not grown smaller since Professor Wolman’s day.

In fact, many of Hopkins’ interdisciplinary collaborations were spurred only by the driving vision of a tenacious leader. Intellectual “roving” has been an individual prerogative, not something hard-wired into the formal organization of the university. Where successful, the driving entrepreneurial ethos and enthusiasm of our scholars has carried our collaborations forward.

But we cannot wait for heroic acts of leadership to advance this agenda. Our university must find ways to ensure our scholars can work across disciplines more easily and to facilitate – within the very structure of our institution – the visionary work that our faculty and students are already taking on.

The Path Ahead

We are, of course, not the only ones who recognize the critical importance of interdisciplinary efforts. Funders such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others are increasingly interested in this type of collaboration. And other universities have taken important steps in this direction.

There is a reason why progress has been slow; these questions point to the very foundation of our enterprise. But as we work to align ourselves in ways that support cross-divisional efforts, with the critical engagement of our deans and senior academic leaders, it is clear that our efforts may alter the fabric of the traditional university model. The ramifications for how we will equip our students and contribute to our society are profound.

For the past three years, led by the Provost and Deans and supplemented by faculty thought leaders, interesting conversations have begun to take place around major collaborations involving research, education and service. These include how to address global water challenges, or how to harness the burgeoning possibilities of Big Data – which you’ll hear more about in a few minutes.

And there is perhaps no more vivid illustration of the potential of these emerging connections than a new multi-year billion dollar initiative called Hopkins InHealth. This innovative collaboration draws on the expertise of our biochemists, bioethicists, biostatisticians, clinicians, engineers and even our physicists from across five divisions. As the availability of genetic and epigenetic data increases dramatically, this initiative will allow us both to tailor medical interventions to individual patients, and to analyze data across patient populations to further our understanding of human health.

Within a decade, this initiative will spawn a model for U.S. health care—achieving improved outcomes while significantly controlling costs associated with unnecessary and ineffectual interventions.

Importantly, the project has already benefitted from millions of dollars of philanthropy and a core investment by the schools. We’re off to a good start.

Through this and other efforts, we want to marshal the resources of this entire extraordinary institution in response to the challenges of our day.

Charge to the group

It’s been about two years since we last convened this group. At that time, we started talking with you about some of the issues facing U.S. research universities. We asked you to help us think through some of our society’s most complex challenges – and we listened to what you had to say. In today’s program, you’re going to hear that your thinking, your comments, and your continued engagement have shaped the university’s path. So, we’re asking you to do it again. We still need your ideas and your support to make this happen.

Thank you for being here today, and for all of the contributions you have made and will make to our great cause.