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Johns Hopkins president: Legacy admissions ‘seemed contrary to merit values’

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When Ronald Daniels was named president of Johns Hopkins University in 2009, he set himself a difficult task that put him at odds with many of his own professors and alumni: to abolish his longstanding but unfair practice. “legacy admissions”, offering preferential access to students with family ties in favor of purely merit-based applications.

The legacy system remains prevalent among America’s elite and fiercely competitive colleges, allowing those who themselves attended — and often pledged large donations — an easier path for their own children. or other close relatives.

But for someone who believed strongly in justice and worried about growing divisions in American society, Daniels found the data for the University of Baltimore’s undergraduate class that year shocking: 12, 5% were alumni, surpassing the 9% low-income students eligible for Pell financial aid grants from the federal government.

“When we started talking about how inheritance seemed antithetical to the values ​​of merit and equal opportunity, it’s no surprise that some people worried about what it would mean for our ability to attract a philanthropic support and dedication of alumni to the university,” he says.

Daniels, a Canadian who studied economics and law before becoming a professor, was already in shape. In his role as Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, for more than 10 years from 1995, he had experienced – and unlike many, enjoyed – the transition from academic teaching and scholarship to management and leadership.

The transition from scholarly life to academic leadership, he says, requires you to make concessions. “There is no shortage of memes about the difficulty of running a university, and some would say the idea is oxymoronic. Universities are highly decentralized and have no shortage of constituents who feel they have the right to be consulted and to obtain their approval. There are many different points of veto. You have to be sensitive to the rhythms and cultural values ​​of the institution.

But what he loves about college is that “conversational currency is well understood,” he says. “The premium on facts and principles is the mode of discourse that we value. Although it takes time, once you reach consensus, there are very few revisions needed. And once the costs of change are faced, “you are able to move forward with some speed.”

Daniels has always sought to retain some scholarly activity, including his recent book, What universities owe to democracy, is a passionate call for higher education to reverse what it calls its polarization and self-segregation from the rest of society, and instead to engage and promote civilized debate, understanding and liberal democracy.

In the book, he recalls a Toronto alumnus and philanthropist who warned after his child was denied admission as a legacy student: one.”

When he later became provost of the University of Pennsylvania in 2005 and then president of Johns Hopkins, Daniels was instead inspired to tackle the less egalitarian philosophy of the United States. “Despite all the progress that highly selective universities have begun to make in recruiting low-income and historically underrepresented students, they continue to cling tenaciously to admissions policies like inherited preferences that confer advantages. meaningful to privileged children,” he wrote.

Abandoning the inheritance policy was just part of his campaign to make college entrance more meritocratic. It also involved a rare move towards “blind needed” admissions, ensuring that offers to prospective students are made regardless of their ability to pay. This, in turn, required a substantial assurance of financial assistance to cover the costs of low-income people.

“For me, it was really fundamental to be seen as a university supporting liberal democracy,” he says. “Given the bounty of recruiting the best and the brightest to take advantage of all the benefits we have and transform their lives, I knew the financial aid limitation was deeply constraining.”

His approach was to stick to his principles while consulting widely – and risking university funds to test the evidence for his approach. “I remember well the torturous meetings with my finance department every year, asking how sustainable the policy would be. There was a lot of concern about what investing in undergraduate financial aid would mean for our [academic] research assignment, or for graduates if the focus was on undergraduate students. Skepticism was not lacking. »

His efforts were aided by the solid reputation of the institution, which was founded in 1876 with the claim of being America’s first research-based university. This has given it financial strength, with an endowment now valued at around $9 billion, which was given a huge boost in 2018 by Michael Bloomberg, the businessman and philanthropist, who donated a record 1.8 billion dollars focused on access. The former mayor of New York was himself a former student from a modest background.

But Daniels insists his strategy was already well underway before Bloomberg’s backing arrived as an endorsement of his approach, which was leading to a more diverse and academically strong cohort. “We put a stake in the ground as a moral imperative. We decided to set a goal, think carefully about the transition to get there, and do a lot of evaluations along the way so people could see the result. We moved in a particular direction, showed the impact, and the funding followed.

Three questions to Ronald Daniels

Who is your leadership hero?

Michael Trebilcock, now professor emeritus who was one of my law professors at the University of Toronto. Although he has long avoided formal leadership roles, he is the quiet leader in every room who invokes facts and principles to bring about difficult institutional change. He is an important example of how you have to work to bring about change.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

When I was first named Dean of Law at the University of Toronto, Lance Liebman, then Dean of Columbia Law School, warned me that my relationship with my colleagues would change dramatically: some indulged in relentless aggression and criticism, others showered me with generous but unhealthy attitudes. – deserved praise. He advised me in both cases not to take the reaction too seriously: people do not react to you but to the office you occupy. I took that into account – at least for the first reaction!

What would you do if you weren’t a college president?

I would be happily settled in a faculty office, writing and teaching in the fields of law and politics.

He credits his other big accomplishments at Johns Hopkins with his admissions overhaul. One is its effort to promote civilized debate and free speech on and beyond campus, which emerges from fostering a more integrated, diverse, and socially engaged student community.

The other is to foster interdisciplinary research among scholars that respects traditional disciplines but also breaks down their silos to encourage innovative thinking, facilitated by 100 chairs (also funded by Bloomberg) that are jointly appointed in at least two different faculties.

He concedes that not all his initiatives have succeeded to the same degree. In particular, he describes the “stopping of progress” with its efforts to strengthen ties between Johns Hopkins and the city of Baltimore, with funding and staff support for projects to help disadvantaged neighborhoods around its campus in terms of housing, employment and education.

There have been heated debates about the merits of creating an autonomous armed police force for the university. However, “after months, if not years of careful consultation, we achieved overwhelming majorities in the state capitol,” he says. “Virtually all other public universities have a one-paragraph statute [which] allows armed police. We ended up with 27 pages. But as a lawyer, I welcome it.