When asked yesterday what advice he would give his successor as president of the Johns Hopkins University, Dr. William R. Brody quipped: "Don't screw it up."
He was quoting New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, perhaps Hopkins' most famous living alumnus and a generous donor. Bloomberg recalls the quote rather differently - "I probably said it a little more vulgar than that," he said - but the words of wisdom might be apt for anyone taking the helm at an American university.
Hopkins officials are about to begin a national search to replace Brody, who announced yesterday that he will retire in December after 12 years as president. They'll need someone who doesn't just avoid mistakes but a scholar with impeccable credentials, business acumen, management skills, fundraising prowess and the political genius to negotiate Baltimore politics and international relations as Hopkins continues to expand to places such as China.
"Institutions are no longer isolated the way they used to be," said Claire Van Ummersen, the former president of Cleveland State University and former chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire. "There really is not an ivory tower any longer. Presidents need to walk on water. That's usually what they're looking for."
As universities have expanded their academic roles to become major cultural, athletic and economic engines, their presidents have come under the sort of withering scrutiny normally reserved for politicians.
Their salaries have become a spectator sport and their words parsed for every objectionable insinuation. Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers resigned in 2006 after a national uproar over comments he made about women and science. More recently, Duke University President Richard Brodhead has received criticism for his handling of rape accusations falsely leveled against members of the men's lacrosse team.
"In a job like this, you get an opportunity to make a mistake every day," said Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar. "I think [Brody has] avoided them more than most."
Bloomberg, who became a billionaire by launching a financial news empire, said running a university is "one of the most difficult jobs in the country."
During his tenure at Hopkins, Brody has had to contend with the occasional scandal that visited unflattering attention on the Baltimore campus. He has emerged relatively unscathed, largely because of swift administrative response.
The undergraduate who posted a racially offensive Halloween party invitation online was immediately suspended (though the punishment was later reduced). So was the financial aid chief implicated in a national scandal. She later resigned. When Hopkins had its ability to conduct human experiments suspended, Brody's administration got it restored in three days.
"We certainly have had our share of public issues," Brody said yesterday. "We had the death of a [human experiment] volunteer. Two students were murdered. One lacrosse player was accused of date rape.
"The public judges you by how you respond to these things. ... My philosophy of life has always been transparency and candor. We try to own up to issues when we have them and try to be pretty upfront about them."
The consensus among his peers yesterday was that Brody's will be difficult shoes to fill. Far from just avoiding missteps, Brody has substantially expanded the institution's profile, locally and internationally.
"Hopkins can and should and will be looking for somebody who has the whole range of qualities that enabled Bill to succeed," said University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann. "A great academic who has great ambitions for Hopkins and who knows how to partner with the city and also engage globally. The full range of qualities. I don't think Hopkins has to settle for anything less than one of the greatest academic leaders."
University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan said he believes one of Brody's lasting legacies will be that Hopkins continues to attract to Baltimore high-caliber leaders.
"There will be no shortage of people interested in the position," Kirwan said. "I think it's a credit both to him and to the university that it is one of the most attractive presidencies in higher education."
For the record, Bloomberg says he has "zero" interest in the job.
"No. 1, I am not qualified," he said. "You'd have to be a great academic, and I was not a great student. No. 2, I've got a job. And No. 3, I'm much too old."