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Hopkins president-elect praised for boundless energy, can-do attitude

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA - Six months before German tanks rolled into Poland in 1939, marking the start of World War II, the grandfather of Ronald J. Daniels lost his job as a teacher in Warsaw. Aba Danilak thought he would move to Canada, where his brother lived, save some money and then send for his wife and three children.

But a travel agent in Toronto suggested that the entire family leave immediately, given the emerging persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe. Danilak obtained visas for his family, and they left for Canada in March 1939. The war began in September.

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"That my family had that good fortune to be able to get out and secure safe harbor - it's a powerful story, and you feel by virtue of my dad's and his siblings' good fortune in escaping the Holocaust, that shapes you," Daniels said. "The question for them, and in truth for me, was, 'How do you make sense of that, and how do you return something to society, how do you give something back?' "

Daniels' answer was education. In March, he will become the 14th president of the Johns Hopkins University.

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A hard-driving 49-year-old who lifts weights and runs for an hour every morning, Daniels will face the task of uniting disparate campuses, raising vast sums of money and helping the institution engage Baltimore and the world.

Early in Hopkins' presidential search, some had suggested that prominent figures such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice be considered for the job. Instead, the unanimous choice of the trustees was Ron Daniels, a young, affable University of Pennsylvania provost who had spent most of his career as a Canadian law professor and dean.

But at every step of his rapid ascension in academia, Daniels has defied expectations. In college, he worked on a key government commission in Canada, savoring the arcane details of public policy. As dean of the University of Toronto law school, he raised huge amounts to hire more faculty and boost the school's reputation. As provost at Penn, he helped make the university more cohesive, bolstered its role in the developing world and increased financial aid, while still finding time to host barbecues for students in his backyard.

In interviews with a dozen of his friends and colleagues, not a single person failed to mention Daniels' energy and enthusiasm.

He e-mails his staff in the Penn provost's office as late as 1 a.m. and as early as 5 a.m. He calls his office on the way in to get a head start on his day. Fueled by peanut M&Ms; and almonds kept in large canisters outside his office, and by the occasional food-cart hot dog, he races through back-to-back meetings.

"He doesn't need that much sleep," said George Triantis, a Harvard law professor and one of Daniels' oldest and closest friends. "I've always been so envious of him because he probably gets an extra three hours [of work in] every day, so he gets a lot done."

When Triantis and Daniels were students at the University of Toronto law school, on many nights they would gather with a third student at a restaurant where cheap Hungarian goulash was served, fiercely debating legal issues. When Triantis saw Daniels at Thanksgiving last year, Daniels wanted to talk about "why there are obstacles in getting departments to collaborate in interdisciplinary work at universities."

"In one sense, he doesn't leave his work behind," Triantis said. "On the other hand, he viewed it as a way we could just have fun."

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After law school, Daniels worked for a year in private practice in Toronto before going to Yale to earn a Master of Laws degree.

The emphasis on education was handed down from his parents; his father was a lawyer, his mother a teacher. Daniels is the oldest of four. One sister is a physician, the other is a teacher and his brother is a lawyer.

"Something that was instilled in all of us ... was an immigrant mentality that education was a great opportunity that would allow us to be full participants in society," Daniels said over a turkey sandwich lunch at Penn last week. He has not stopped his own education. This summer, he took a two-day course in molecular biology at Penn to get a glimpse into scientific research.

His enrollment in the class stunned John Gearhart, one of the world's pre-eminent stem cell researchers who moved this summer from Hopkins to Penn, partly because of Daniels' recruiting efforts. "He's the provost, and he's taking this course," Gearhart said. "I thought, my God, that's impressive."

Gearhart's reaction when he heard Daniels was leaving Penn cannot be printed in a newspaper. But he said that while he was initially wary of Daniels - because of his youth and legal background - he was quickly won over. He found that Daniels asked smart questions, was warm and personable, and supported the faculty. Daniels will need all those qualities at Hopkins, he said.

"You need somebody to bring that damn university together once and for all," said Gearhart, a medical faculty member for three decades who said the medical school is disconnected from the broader university.

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The Hopkins universe also includes the Peabody Institute in Mount Vernon and a school of international studies in Washington.

Daniels knows how to go about unifying a campus. At Penn, he worked to link the university's 12 schools on a project to provide care and support for HIV/AIDS patients in Botswana, and to help reduce that country's high infection rate. The medical school had been involved for some time, but during a weeklong visit to Botswana, Daniels found ways to involve other Penn students. Engineering students are now helping to build airstrips and those from the veterinary school are treating rhinos.

Daniels also raised the money for Penn to put up a building in Botswana to house its various efforts, impressing Steve Gluckman, an infectious diseases professor who is clinical director for Penn's Botswana Initiative. Before Daniels left on his trip, he memorized the names of everyone he would meet and learned the handshake practiced in the southern African country.

"I'm not completely comfortable with administrative types, but I'm completely comfortable with Ron," said Gluckman, who has taught at Penn for 37 years.

"He looks considerably younger than his age, and that might have something to do with his being so approachable."

He frequently invites faculty and student leaders to his home for dinner, and students chat with him in line for lunch at the food carts on campus. On election night this year, he watched the returns with students in an auditorium and moderated a discussion on the results.

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"When he started here, we had a welcome reception so he could meet the student leaders," said Mete Civelek, a graduate student in engineering. "There were niceties for 10 or 15 minutes and then he said, 'This is all very nice, but let's not waste this opportunity. I want to hear what you have to say.'"

Hearing that students wanted to feel more connected to each other, Daniels put up money for Grad Fest, an end-of-year party and cruise, and was the only top administrator to show up. He also made it easier for graduate students to take classes in schools other than their own, and increased their stipends.

Staffers say they come out of meetings with Daniels with long lists of action items. He has the ability to move with alacrity in the normally glacial academic milieu. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Daniels worked with political science professor Donald Kettl to organize a conference and then publish a book on the lessons of Katrina and how to prevent a similar disaster, all just a few months after the storm.

"There's this sense of passion he brings to what he does," Kettl said. "I've never seen him do anything casually or haphazardly. Everything he does is full speed ahead all the time."

When Kettl was struggling with a book he had been working on for eight years, Daniels offered to read the manuscript. He did, and went back to Kettl and said, "This is a great book, but you don't have a conclusion." Daniels pointed Kettl to several concepts that helped underpin the final chapter.

"He applied a kick at exactly the place I needed it," Kettl said. The book, The Next Government of the United States, will be published Dec. 1 by W.W. Norton & Co.

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Daniels says he does find time to relax, by reading, going to the movies or theater with his wife, human rights lawyer Joanne Rosen, and spending time with his four teenage children. Exercising also helps the trim Daniels unwind, and he recently began training with Russian kettle balls, weights that have handles and date from czarist Russia.

"I keep waiting for him to slow down," said Lois Chiang, Daniels' chief of staff, who has worked with him since 1998, starting in Toronto. "I say to him, 'You are aging, right?' "

His energy is infectious, if sometimes exhausting, staffers said. It can be hard to keep up with the boss' relentless drive. While constantly moving, Daniels doesn't miss small details. Last week, he asked after the health of one of his secretaries who had been sick, and then complimented her on her new hairstyle.

When he learned he was the choice of Hopkins' presidential search committee, he telephoned his old friend and mentor Michael Trebilcock in Toronto. But before sharing the good news, he asked detailed questions about Trebilcock's wife, who is being treated for breast cancer.

"He's enormously supportive and generous and kind, and this engenders over time enormous loyalty," Trebilcock said.

Daniels is quick to shift credit for his own accomplishments to people like Trebilcock and his parents and grandfather. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, Daniels went to Poland and found the apartment building where his father had lived to age 7, before the family emigrated and changed its name.

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It was moving, he said, to see "the remnants of that part of his life" and to think of his grandfather, Aba Danilak, picking up his family and taking them to a new world. Danilak lived long enough to know his young grandson, Ronald Daniels.

"He passed away when I was 14, but he was an important influence on me," Daniels said. "He had a fiery and firm commitment to education. Education was paramount, and we understood that."

ronald j. daniels

As provost of the University of Pennsylvania since 2005, Ronald J. Daniels has:

* Helped devise a financial-aid plan to convert loans to grants, allowing undergraduates to finish debt-free.

* Started Civic Scholars, a collaboration between students and faculty in community service and social advocacy.

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* Created a mentoring program for young faculty and a mid-career program to help associate professors become full professors.

* Expanded opportunities for Philadelphia youth who spend a month on campus each summer.



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