Steven Muller, former Hopkins president, dies at 85

Steven Muller, former president of the Johns Hopkins University and a major figure in American higher education, died Saturday of respiratory failure at his Washington home. He was 85.

A child refugee from Nazi Germany who went on to earn a doctorate in political science at Cornell University, Dr. Muller became the president of Hopkins in 1972. Over the next 18 years, he directed the most ambitious growth of the institution since its founding in 1876, enhancing the national and global prestige of the institution he shepherded.

"A man of both substance and impeccable style, Dr. Muller is credited with moving the university into a new era while preserving its tradition of leadership among research institutions," Hopkins' current president, Ronald J. Daniels, said in a statement.

"He was a no-nonsense leader who was more formal than informal, more bold than quiet, and more personable than pushy."

As president of the university and the sprawling Hopkins medical complex in East Baltimore, Dr. Muller increased the school's annual operating budget from $88 million to $770 million. He took the financially troubled Peabody Conservatory of Music under the Hopkins wing, reopened the nursing school, and inaugurated a joint graduate center with China's Nanjing University.

Dr. Muller also helped secure the location of NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute on the Homewood campus and presided over a $400 million fund-raising campaign in the 1980s — then the largest fundraising campaign ever undertaken by a U.S. university.

Dr. Daniels pointed out that the campaign for Johns Hopkins brought in more than $600 million, well exceeding its $450 million goal. And that was on top of an earlier campaign that raised more than $109 million for the university and hospital between 1973 and 1976.

"His connection with his audiences motivated many people to step forward and support Johns Hopkins at levels not seen previously, which resulted in a much larger endowment, increased faculty and students and new facilities on the institution's campuses," said Ross Jones, a friend and university secretary emeritus.

Dr. Muller was born in Hamburg, Germany, on Nov. 22, 1927, the son of Werner Adolph Muller, who was Jewish, and Marianne Hartstein Muller.

When Steven was 11, his father was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Hermann Goering got him out, according to a close family friend.

Mr. Muller had won the Iron Cross, a German decoration for valor, in World War I. Goering, though one of the leading despoilers of German Jewry in the 1930s, had long been resentful of the way his comrades in arms had been treated by the German population after World War I.

It was, perhaps, this resentment that led Goering to free from concentration camps those Jews who had won the Iron Cross during the 1914-1918 war.

After the elder Muller was set free, he and his family fled to England in August 1939, two weeks before Germany invaded Poland, triggering the start of World War II.

The Mullers stayed in Britain for a short time, then went to New York and later to California.

There, young Steven became a teenage actor, playing youth parts in several movies and radio dramas. He was said to be the first actor who ever kissed Ingrid Bergman on the screen. It occurred during a scene in "Adam Had Four Sons," when Ms. Bergman, playing the role of a governess in the movie, was about to die. Steve kissed her goodbye.

"In speaking extemporaneously, he had the ability to capture the moment. He could speak right to you and be charming. I think it was his experience as a child actor," said Dr. Paul McHugh, a friend who was psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1975 to 2011. "He did much to strengthen both the East Baltimore and Homewood campuses."

Though his acting roles earned needed money for the family, the young scholar didn't allow them to derail his academic interests. He graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1948 and, after being selected for a Rhodes scholarship, studied at Oxford University, where he earned a Bachelor of Literature degree in 1951.

That same year he came to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he eventually received his doctorate in 1958. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1949.

He taught at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., and then joined the Cornell faculty, first as an assistant professor of government, and later as an administrator.

As vice president for public affairs at the university, he was one of two Cornell officials who negotiated an end to the occupation of a campus building by a group of armed black students in 1969.

In 1971, Dr. Muller was invited to Johns Hopkins as provost, the No. 2 academic post on the Homewood campus.

The following year, 1972, Dr. Muller took office as the 10th president of the university and, a few months later, was tapped as the president of the Hopkins Hospital. He was the first to hold both posts since Daniel Coit Gilman, Hopkins' first president.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 13 years, Jill McGovern; two daughters, Julie M. Mitchell of San Francisco and Elizabeth M. Casparian of Princeton, N.J.; and five grandchildren. In 1999, his previous wife of 48 years, Margie Hellman Muller, who had been state banking commissioner, died.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.