William Brody

Engineer, Medical Doctor, Professor,

University President


His current job running a major research university has provided an ample stage for Brody's protean talephotos by Tom Fedot Courtesy of the Tech Gazettents. Since he took office in August 1996, the problem-solving skills of the engineer have come in handy on a daily basis. And, as in Bose's problem, logic alone does not always rule the day in a highly intellectual and creative community. "You have to have a high tolerance for dissonance and ambiguity," Brody says.

Given the autonomy of Johns Hopkins's various academic departments, Brody likens his job to that of running a holding company. He eschews the corporate model of top-down management and praises Hopkins's decentralized power structure. "For a university to operate efficiently, the key decisions must be made at the lowest level in an organization," he says. "The role of the administration, other than to make sure the books balance and the place operates efficiently, is really like the role of a wine taster. You have to have an exquisite nose for quality so you can hire the very best people and then let them do their jobs."

For all his accomplishments, Brody retains the air of a modest and approachable professor. Visitors to his Garland Hall office do not speak to a distant figurehead behind an imposing desk. Rather, they find themselves sitting across a seminar table from an alert, kindly man who enjoys a good joke.

Brody lives only a short walk from his office. Hoping to maintain a close connection with students, he is the first Hopkins president to reside on campus in 25 years. "Being on campus creates a different level of interaction with students," he says. "Here my wife and I can hop out after dinner and catch the second half of a basketball game or a concert or lecture." He hopes to make Hopkins his home for some time to come. "For one thing, I'm just tired of moving," he says. He's heard that the average tenure of a university president is probably five years, but the optimal life is more like eight to 10.

He says he often finds himself thinking about the "chicken test" that Rolls-Royce developed after a jet plane flew into a flock of pigeons and crashed. Since then, a new jet engine design isn't deemed flight-worthy unless it still functions after a chicken has been thrown into it. "I liken my job to the chicken test. You're walking down the street and you never know when someone's going to throw a chicken at you," he says with a smile. "It may be a financial scandal, it may be a union strike. Whatever it is, you try to be diligent." Given Brody's record, it's hard to imagine an inbound challenge that would hinder his flight.

Viva Hardigg is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C