There are times when Ronald Daniels feels like a kid with the coolest chess board in the world.
As president of the Johns Hopkins University, Daniels might spend one week in Uganda, learning how his university's researchers spent painstaking years developing methods to slow the spread of HIV. The next, he might hold a chat with undergraduates on the Homewood campus about enriching their college experience.
The beauty of Daniels' gig is that, if he wants, he can put the Africa piece and the Homewood piece together. In fact, he did something like that this year by sending 100 undergraduates around the world on newly created internships in global health.
"We're marrying the energy and optimism of our student body with the extensive and unique field network we have," Daniels says. "We're realizing the full possibilities of Hopkins."
In 16 months presiding over the university, Daniels has made several bold moves. Despite budget shortfalls, he insisted that the university shift its admissions policy so the Class of 2014 could be chosen without regard for students' ability to pay. He threw himself into advising the Hopkins-affiliated East Baltimore Development Inc. and helped shift its focus to building a $40 million community school. He hired a new dean of arts and sciences from Princeton to revamp the undergraduate experience.
"I think Ron has injected a note of personal commitment and energy that is quite noticeable," says Pamela Flaherty, chairwoman of the board of trustees. "People want to be part of an institution that is not only successful but gives back. And he gives them that feeling."
Daniels, 51, does not want to re-create Hopkins so much as combine pieces that are already part of the university and spin them off to confront the world's biggest problems. He has titled this mission "One Hopkins."
Board members and top academic officials say Daniels' zeal for synergy has not relented since he took over the university in March 2009.
"He came in and looked at us with new eyes," says Michael Klag, dean of the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "He's obviously very comfortable with change and creating change."
"He's clearly seeking somewhat of a culture change, and the first step is articulating his vision and getting buy-in," Klag says. "He's done that."
Daniels cites practical reasons for his quest.
"The most important questions of our time, social, scientific and political, have to be addressed from multiple perspectives," he says. "The complexity of the problems calls for solutions that come from multiple perspectives."
Problem solving is the other thing Daniels loves to talk about. As president of Hopkins, he has devoted large chunks of time to community building in East Baltimore. During his commencement remarks in May, he used his own pancreatic surgery (which forced him to take an eight-week leave last fall) to convey the importance of a doctor's persistence in perfecting a new procedure.
"He's deadly serious about his objectives," says Christopher Shea, chief executive officer of East Baltimore Development Inc.
'He clearly cares'
Some observers were surprised when Hopkins, known for its might in health and scientific research, chose a former law professor as its next leader.
"I was worried," Klag says. "Here I am running a public health school, and I thought it might be a real uphill battle to educate the president."
But Klag quickly saw Daniels' voracious enthusiasm to learn about health research and field work. He also learned that Daniels had grappled with many health issues through his scholarly fascination with Third World government and legal systems.
Daniels re-emphasized his affinity for the medical side of Hopkins when he named head and neck surgeon Lloyd Minor as provost last summer.
"When you get a new leader, people always wonder, will the new leader care?" Klag says. "Well, he clearly understands our mission and he clearly cares about the community, which is inspiring to many of us."
Daniels did not come in at the easiest time. Shortly before he took the job, a $100 million budget shortfall forced his predecessor to freeze salaries and hiring across much of the university, reduce top administrative salaries by 5 percent and eliminate overtime.
Though Hopkins routinely attracts more research funding than any other university in the nation, its endowment of $1.98 billion (at the end of fiscal 2009) pales in comparison to those of most Ivy League schools and other peer institutions such as Stanford, Northwestern, Duke and the University of Chicago.
Nonetheless, Daniels shifted an additional $4 million to financial aid so the university could admit the Class of 2014 on a need-blind basis. He hopes to announce a permanent shift to need-blind admissions this fall.
"We did this at a time when other universities were beating a retreat from the same position," he says.
Daniels' financial aid push was not entirely altruistic. Almost all of the university's competitors offer need-blind admissions, and that put Hopkins at a disadvantage in competing for the nation's best students. Daniels also hopes that a richer undergraduate experience will help Hopkins attract the best talent.
For that task, he recruited Princeton sociology professor Katherine Newman, a renowned scholar of poverty issues.
Daniels and Newman want to shrink class sizes in the sciences, get more undergraduates performing advanced research, nudge them into wider community service and make sure each student finds at least one close faculty mentor.
Newman says that will require more money to increase the faculty, but she also promises new programs that "no one has ever tried before in this country."
Focus on community
Nowhere has Daniels applied more focus than EBDI, the 88-acre, mixed-use development north of the university's medical campus in East Baltimore.
Daniels sits on the board of the development agency and checks in with Shea by phone every week and in person every month.
The recession slowed EBDI's plans to attract biotechnology companies and as many as 7,000 new residents to the neighborhood, which was cleared during a massive, and often unpopular, relocation effort. But Shea says Daniels played a major role in recruiting the Lieber Institute of Brain Development from New York and says he has led a renewed focus on amenities such as a grocery store, parks and, most importantly, a K-8 public school.
"I'm not aware of any other major university president who is this engaged in community outreach," Shea says. "I'm stunned by his level of involvement."
Daniels envisions a porous boundary between the medical campus and the development, with students and employees living, working and shopping in the EBDI zone. None of that can happen, he says, without a great community school to attract middle-class families. He's optimistic that three-quarters of the $40 million needed to break ground on a school will be in hand by the end of the summer.
It's early July and Daniels has recently returned from a two-week trip through Uganda, Ethiopia and Zambia with Klag and officials from the university's Malaria Research Institute.
He speaks with wonder of meeting the Hopkins epidemiologists who first noticed links between a new disease in Africa and the mysterious illness that was killing gay men in San Francisco in the early 1980s.
It's apparent from his tone that Daniels sees great romance in this story. "Just the persistence, the courage, the grim determination required to put all this together," he says.
He has another appointment, so he has to cut short his rhapsody. But Daniels stops for a moment, as if imagining all the wonderful combinations on his chess board. "I have the best job in higher education," he says.