Q&A; -- KRISTINA JOHNSON

The Baltimore Sun

Kristina Johnson has been a pioneer before. This time, it is becoming the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Johns Hopkins University. She took over as provost in September.

In one way, she certainly came to the right place. That's because one of her previous pioneering efforts was when she entered Stanford University 32 years ago and helped establish the first women's team in - you guessed it - lacrosse.

"I love sports," says Johnson, 50, a native of Denver. "I loved field hockey and I loved lacrosse. I guess my first love was field hockey because that was already a varsity sport when I got to Stanford. But I helped found the lacrosse program."

She has already checked out the Hopkins women's team in their fall practice.

Johnson arrived at Hopkins from Duke University, where she was dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. That is not an area known for a high percentage of women, but, interestingly, one of the previous high-ranking women at Hopkins was dean of its Whiting School of Engineering: Ilene Busch-Vishniac, recently named provost at McMaster University in Canada.

Before coming to Duke in 1999, Johnson was on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder. She got her bachelor's and doctorate at Stanford.

Johnson's specialty is electrical engineering, particularly research in the field of smart pixel arrays, which are used in high-resolution displays and sensors such as cameras. As provost, she succeeds Steven Knapp, who became president of George Washington University in Washington. What exactly does a provost do?

It is the chief academic officer of the university, so you oversee faculty appointments, chair tenure and promotion committees and look out for the quality of the academic programs.

The way I like to think of the position is that you try to coordinate the excellence of individual units across the whole institution. You look for opportunities for several units to join together so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. If 10 can work as one, that one can be greater than 10. So you try to see the opportunities where we as a university can work as one. Do you think having an engineering background helps you to be an academic administrator?

I think so. An engineer applies the principles of design to solve problems in society. A lot of that involves understanding how systems works. For example, a transportation system is more than vehicles and roads: It's energy, routing and traffic, weather maintenance and all sorts of other factors. They are all interconnected. What always made sense to me is that you try to optimize the individual parts of a system, while understanding the impact on the overall system. That's what you try to do in a university.

Some systems are connected in a straightforward linear way. If one things happens, you can probably predict what the outcome will be on the rest of the system. But in complicated systems, you get all sorts of connections, linear and non-linear. It is more difficult to predict outcomes, but if you do the right thing, you may get a much greater response. That's the beauty and joy of a job like this, to see possibilities that might not be evident. I am very excited about this opportunity. Hopkins is known for the independence of its units, its schools and departments. Doesn't that make what you are trying to do more of a challenge?

There actually is a lot of cross-disciplinary work at Hopkins. What I've been told that describes this place the best is the term selective excellence. Aristotle said that you are what you do repeatedly. At Hopkins, what everyone does is strive to be excellent. Do that repeatedly, as people do here, and you will be excellent. That is exciting for any provost can work with.

But you really have to be on your game. People move quickly here, they work hard and they are committed to so many different things, in the community, the nation and on the international stage. It's a pretty exciting place. A recent internal report decried the paucity of women in leadership positions at Hopkins, somewhat ironic at a time when more and more schools, including several in the Ivy League, have women presidents. Obviously, you are part of changing that at Hopkins. Is this a challenge for the university?

I am new to Hopkins, so I don't really know about the history. But I do know that [President] Bill Brody and the deans and the faculty are very committed to diversity in every form, and very commited to making Hopkins an even more welcoming place to individuals of all backgrounds. I am thrilled to be coming into that environment. There is a great will to be excellent at everything we do and we can't be excellent unless we are diverse. Hopkins is also known as a place that emphasizes graduate education and research, not undergraduate teaching. With undergraduate education becoming more and more important, particularly in the way institutions are judged, is that a challenge for you?

This is one of my favorite issues. I always think of education as being research and teaching in partnership. When you have a great graduate program, you have people on the faculty who are discovering knowledge. One of the missions is to teach the students that latest knowledge. Sometimes the textbooks are out of date.

At Colorado, Tom Cech, who won the Nobel Prize, was on the faculty. His theories were very much counter to what was in the texts, but because his students had Tom Cech, they got the right model for biochemistry.

And good research is expensive. In the sciences, I think much of the education takes place in the laboratories. I think maybe we should flip the way we teach science, giving lectures in the labs to explain what is being discovered instead of bringing occasional experiments in the lecture hall to illustrate theories under discussion.

Having state-of-the-art labs is very expensive, especially when you are trying to find out what is happening on a nano scale. It takes a huge investment of millions, even hundreds of millions, of dollars. But what better investment is there than in educating the next generation?

Even in the humanities and social sciences, you find the latest technologies being used for data mining, for bringing alive ancient texts with computationally intensive visual simulations. This is expensive. We have really got to come to grips with how we fund education in this country. Hopkins is obviously a prestige institution and as such is involved in what has become almost a mania over college admissions. How do you feel about that?

I always tell students to go to the best institution you get into and do your best. That sounds pretty obvious, but what is important in higher education is a good match between the student and the school. I say go to the best institution because it should be a place where you will be challenged in the classroom. But the best does not necessarily mean one of the houshold names.

Hopkins is a great match for students who are serious about their studies and who want to enjoy an academic environment in an urban setting. It is a place where you can work with the best in a number of areas - medicine, humanities, social sciences, engineering, public policy. You have Peabody for music. There is so much here. And it is a great city, that's a real attraction. You have sports, you have theater. Just think, Marin Alsop [of the Baltimore Symphony] conducted the Peabody Orchestra. How cool is that? A lot of neat things are going on here that students have the opportunity to take advantage of outside of the classroom. What is the biggest challenge you face?

I think the decline in federal funding for research and education. This is the No. 1 research institution in the the country so that really affects us. One metric is to look at the ratio of annual federal funding to the endowment. We are somewhere between one to one and two to one. You would be hard pressed to find that kind of ratio anywhere else.

You have a place like Harvard with a $35 billion endowment and roughly $500 million in federal research funding, not including their Mass General and Brigham and Women's medical centers. They are not going to be as affected by funding cuts. But we are really on the bleeding edge. A little bit of movement one way or the other - say, less funding from the state for student financial and other higher education programs or from the federal government for research - could be a killer. It could really do damage to what we are trying to do. That is going to be a challenge.

michael.hill@baltsun.com

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