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Saying farewell to Steven Muller, one of Baltimore's best

By Shale D. Stiller

7:00 AM EST, February 18, 2013

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Steven Muller, the president of Johns Hopkins University from 1972-1990, died on Jan. 19.  He was one of the giants of his era.  I knew him well.  I write to share three remarkable stories which reveal the character of this great man.

1. Steve was invited to speak in Hamburg several years ago to celebrate the publication of a book on “The Fate of Jewish Lawyers in Hamburg After 1933.”  At that event, he discussed his life  in Hamburg from his birth in 1927 through August 1939, when his family was lucky to escape Germany and fly to England, just three weeks before the Germans began World War II.  Steve’s talk included a personal description of Kristallnacht – Nov. 9, 1938, when, throughout Germany, Jewish synagogues, homes, shops and other buildings were set on fire.  Steve and his younger brother had spent the evening at a school because they thought that it would be safe, but when he returned home, his mother was in hysterics because his father, a leading lawyer, had been seized at his office and taken to a concentration camp.  His father was released two months later but was told that unless he left Germany immediately, he would be returned to the concentration camp.  In quick order, he closed down his law practice, said goodbye to his family and left for London.  Several months later, Steve, his mother and his brother received their English visas and flew to London.

The most dramatic part of Steve’s talk was the revelation of the Faustian bargain that the evil Nazis proposed to his mother:

“During this time one other bizarre event occurred.  My mother, who was reared as a Roman Catholic in Düsseldorf, received a letter from the person in the Hamburg government responsible for such matters which stated that, due to the departure from Germany of her Jewish husband, she was entitled to normal Aryan status and that her two sons could be granted Aryan status, become Hitler Youths, and attend the public schools, provided only that both sons would be castrated so that they could not contaminate any woman with or perpetuate the Jewish blood with which they were afflicted.  My mother showed me this letter and agreed with my decision not to accept this offer.”

For several years, at the annual Passover Seders that Ellen and I convene, we have read this passage.  Needless to say, it is chilling for anyone to hear this story and to be reminded in the starkest form of man’s inhumanity to man.  One of Steve’s remarkable qualities was to rise above the horror that he must have felt as a child.  Indeed, he later became one of America’s greatest bulwarks in creating rapprochement with Germany.

2. Around 1986, during one of the board meetings of the John Hopkins University, a trustee asked Steve a question about some arcane policy of the university.  The question could not possibly have been anticipated by Steve.  But in perfectly chiseled English prose, he proceeded for 10 minutes to speak about the 100-year evolution of the many responses of Hopkins to that issue.  I could not imagine that there was anyone who could speak extemporaneously with such eloquence, such clarity, and such logic about any topic, much less one that would not have been a burning issue.

At that time, I knew very little about Steve’s background and certainly knew nothing about the fact that he had spent the first 11 years of his life in Germany.  I certainly knew nothing about the fact that when he went to England, he did not know one word of English.  Yet here was a man, unlike so many other immigrants, who not only learned to speak English without any trace of a foreign accent but also became one of the great orators of his time.  When Steve was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, one of his teachers was the great Isaiah Berlin.  Berlin, also a Jew, had been born in Latvia.  As a young child, he moved to St. Petersburg in Russia as a teenager and left Russia for England shortly after the Russian Revolution.  He, like Steve, became not only one of the great orators in English but also one of the best writers of English.  He could accomplish such a feat only by fierce determination and will, qualities which were emblematic of his entire professional life.

3. Most importantly, I know of no better way to appreciate the breadth and creativity of Steve Muller’s extraordinary genius than to read “A Spirit of Reason,” a short collection of his essays published by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in 2004  (ISBN #0-941441-88-1).  The collection was assembled in a Festschrift in honor of Steve’s 75th birthday.  Its major subject was the roles and responsibilities of great American universities.  Steve’s essays are filled with such insights and perspective that in a perfect world, every university president would be required to certify that he or she read them at least once a year. 

Peter Fischer-Appelt, who was the president of the University in Hamburg for over 20 years and for a decade led the Council of Europe’s Higher Education Series, introduced the collection with this stirring comment:  “I believe I will find little opposition from among his contemporaries and colleagues when I call Steven Muller one of the great American University Presidents of the second half of the Twentieth Century.”  Mr. Fischer-Appelt then went on to compare him to a small band of leading university professors by saying: 

“It was true every now and then that their power of reflection, inspired in such a way, surpassed the boundaries of their institutional experience: they quickly grew to fill out their office, they thrived at their tasks for a long time, and finally they outgrew their university.  They grasped and preserved the mission of their university much more clearly than the suggestions of the Zeitgeist, the ups and downs of their everyday lives, and the distractions of their successes and occasional failures should have allowed.  Their humanism contained that inconvenient component of impertinences, which required from their institution leaps into new dimensions of research and international cooperation on the brink of academic heresy.  In the end, they became prophets who counted more elsewhere than at home because the horizon of their sphere of action could no longer be conciliated with that of the members and curators of their institutions.”

Steve understood that the role of great universities was, in Robert Browning’s phrase, to enable one’s reach to exceed his grasp.  He appreciated that universities, while primarily fulfilling the requirements of teaching and research, also had responsibilities to the country and to the community.  That responsibility led him to bold heights.  It was Steve who persuaded the Johns Hopkins University to open a school in China, the first such effort by any American university in over 100 years.  Steve understood in the early 1980s the importance to America of creating a significant alliance with a country that would, in his view, soon become one of the major powers in the world.  On a community level, it was Steve who engendered the support for rescuing Peabody, one of the best music conservatories in the country, and, by doing so, preserving for Baltimore a major cultural heritage.  These efforts, and many more, were laden with financial roadblocks, but Steve knew that universities must, on occasion, take risks for the greater good.  As a corollary, I cannot imagine that Steve could “fit” as president of a university whose major attraction to its alumni and its community would be the quality of its football or basketball team.

A remarkable aspect of Steve’s essays, written 20 years ago, was their extraordinary prescience.  He accurately predicted many of the recent difficulties in universities.  In “Research Universities and Industrial Innovation in America,” Steve tackled the proposition that “American Research Universities have been vital contributors to innovation in science and technology in the past and that a successful recommitment to such innovation depends essentially on leading participation by American researching universities.”  He then cautioned: “As usual, when a majority of the public subscribes to beliefs and ideas, there is some truth in them; but no one simple truth.”  He then proceeded to sift out reality from unwarranted assumptions and reduce some confusion.

In this article, he discussed the historical evolution of the partnership between government and university in research partnerships.  Steve thought that in the 1970s a “substantial corrosion” had appeared in the process of government-university interaction – the distrust by government caused by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War in the eyes of the academic community, the inevitable problems in the auditing and accountability for such huge and diverse research efforts, and even some dilution in quality.  Finally, he was concerned about the tendency to make some awards on political grounds.  But he also cautioned that the limitations and problems of alternative university-private industry partnerships included the profitmaking culture, the absence of an overriding national interest as a basic justification, the pull of professors away from the concept of research as pure inquiry toward the goal of research for profit, the enormous cost of research instrumentation and equipment in the universities, especially in fields such as high-energy physics.  He concluded that although the future of innovation in the American economy will continue to depend on the American university, this dependence would rest far less on the results of university research per se than on the indispensability of research to the training mission of the university.  “The university’s role in the development of human talent transcends by far the university’s role in discovery.”  Steve believed fervently that the success of our country will ultimately be measured by its ability to train young minds to think creatively, deeply and independently.  He understood that one of the fundamental causes of the demise of great countries is the failure of their leaders to heed this message.

The “simple fact” that American corporations need to cultivate foreign markets more effectively on a global scale should lead to understanding that research and marketing executed and supervised by Americans who speak only English would not be a wise result.  Steve accurately bemoaned the trend in America of ignoring the importance of learning foreign languages – a problem that is far worse today than it was 20 years ago.

In “The Management of the Modern University,” Steve commented that the driving force within any university should be change – “not gradual, considered partial change, but rather an urgent, drastic, total transformation.”  Even before the advent of much of the technology and electronic devices that are de rigueur these days, Steve, 16 years ago, was writing that:  “The whirlwind revolution of human knowledge produced by electronic technology continues and inescapably storms through the university, whose sole business is knowledge.  As the scope and content of human knowledge is suddenly multiplied by orders of magnitude, and access to and communication of human knowledge becomes instant and universal, the most sophisticated human institution devoted to transmitting and advancing human knowledge must recreate itself or perish.  Inevitably, then, the university today is in the midst of the storm of self-reinvention, and therefore desperately difficult to manage.”

On a subsidiary issue, he wrote an essay called “The University Presidency Today: A Word for the Incumbents – Where are the Great College Presidents of Today?”  Written in the midst of his term as president of Johns Hopkins, Steve concluded that “We University Presidents of today may very well be inferior to our predecessors, but that what we do, how we do it, and how we are perceived are so very different from their circumstances that their comparative superiority is not wholly self-evident.”  This self-effacing attitude inspired Steve to be audacious in everything he did at the university and propelled Johns Hopkins University from an already outstanding institution to the forefront of the great American universities.  (His lesson, of course, is relevant not solely to universities but to any large organization, whether it be a governmental agency, a foundation, or a profitmaking business.) 

Baltimore was privileged to have been the home of such a giant.

Shale Stiller, a partner in DLA Piper's Baltimore office, is a longtime trustee of the Johns Hopkins University. His email is shale.stiller@dlapiper.com.