One-on-one with Robert Lieberman, the new Johns Hopkins provost

Image caption: Robert Lieberman


The university's new top educator has embarked on a crash course on all things Johns Hopkins. He admits there is much to absorb, but what would be the fun if there weren't?

Robert Lieberman, a distinguished political scientist and former academic administrator at Columbia University, became the 14th provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins on July 1.

As provost, Lieberman is the university's chief academic officer, responsible for working with the deans of Johns Hopkins' nine academic divisions and overseeing research at a university that for decades has received more federal research and development dollars than any other.

Before joining Johns Hopkins, the Boston-bred and Yale-and-Harvard-educated Lieberman had been a faculty member at Columbia since 1994, becoming a department chair in 2007, vice dean for academic affairs in 2009, and interim dean of the School of International and Public Affairs more than a year ago.

In announcing Lieberman's appointment, Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels praised the new provost's track record as a "creative academic leader."

His skill and experience leading an interdisciplinary school at Columbia will undoubtedly serve him well at Johns Hopkins, which is broadly committed to collaboration across disciplinary and organizational boundaries. As part of this commitment, JHU will over the next few years appoint 50 Bloomberg Distinguished Professors whose expertise crosses traditional academic disciplines and anchors collaborative, cross-disciplinary research.

Lieberman's first book, Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State, won the 1999 Lionel Trilling Book Award for the best book by a Columbia faculty member. He has since published Shaping Race Policy: The United States in Comparative Perspective and co-edited a Johns Hopkins University Press title, Democratization in America: A Comparative-Historical Analysis. He also co-editedBeyond Discrimination: Racial Inequality in a Postracist Era, released in August by the Russell Sage Foundation. Lieberman and his wife have three children, 11-year-old twins and a 17-year-old son who is currently shopping for colleges.

The Gazette recently sat down with the provost to talk about his first few months on the job, the challenges that lie ahead for Johns Hopkins, and his new book.

So, on top of what must be a busy schedule, you're out shopping for colleges with your son.

Shopping for colleges has been much more fun than I anticipated. I particularly like to visit other campuses. My son is a math/science/computers kind of guy, at least for the present. I know how these things change. I was a physics major when I started college, but a year of physics put the kibosh on that.

Did you ever think you'd become a provost of a major university?

No [laughs]. That's not something one thinks about, growing up. In some respects, I backed into being an administrator. An opportunity arose at Columbia in that there was a new dean in the School of International and Public Affairs. He asked me, on the advice of some other colleagues, to become his vice dean for academic affairs. It is sort of a chair position that faculty rotate in and out of, and my number was up. The new dean had come from outside of Columbia and needed someone who knew the place, and he asked me to do it, and I agreed.

Was it an easy transition?

I had a very good time. We were able to do some very productive things. I thought at the time, and now, that what we did made the school a better institution. And that was fun, being able to help articulate a strategic direction for the institution and then try and put it into place.

What specific things did you do?

The curriculum had grown over the years by accretion and without any strategic sense of what a curriculum of a public policy school should look like. We had like 19 concentrations and things on the books that we really didn't have faculty in or courses around. It was bad business and not serving the students well. So, we sat down and started to think: Given what a public policy education should look like and what strengths we have here at Columbia, where do we want to make strategic investments? We formed a curriculum, and that essentially became a strategic plan. We focused on hiring new faculty, building research capacities, creating student programs, and the whole array of things that led to what I never thought I would spend my time thinking about when I started my career.

Many significant initiatives were launched under the auspices of the Provost's Office before you arrived, such as the Gateway Sciences Initiative and Individualized Health Initiative. Can we expect them to continue, or change in any way, under your leadership?

One of the reasons I took the job is that Johns Hopkins is a place with enormous potential. This is a university on the move, and I think those initiatives that are under way under Ron's leadership, and started by the Provost's Office before me, are all the right things to do and push the university in the right direction. Individualized Health, which is one of the signature initiatives of the university's capital campaign, is an example of the kind of innovative, cross-disciplinary platform for teaching, research, and scholarship that I think Johns Hopkins is ideally placed to be a leader in.

Where do we stand with all the initiatives?

There are five signature initiatives tied to the current campaign: Global Health, Individualized Health, Water, the Science of Learning, and American Cities. They are all making progress, and in all different ways. Individualized Health, for example, has very strong leadership under [former Vice Provost for Research] Scott Zeger. The initiative has some initial funding to undertake projects. My hope and expectation are that, as with all the initiatives, we'll really see it take off in the next year or so.

The first round of the Bloomberg Professorships was announced last spring, and most of the proposals that were approved were tied to one of the initiatives. Our hope is that in the next year and half we'll be able to announce exciting new faculty hires to give that and other initiatives a big boost.

You arrived July 1. Tell us about your first two months on the job.

It's been an amazing whirlwind. After 19 years at another institution, I had to get my head down here. I've had probably hundreds of meetings with my new colleagues, and that has been the lion's share of my time. I've met with deans, faculty members, and other administrators, just building up the network of contacts within the university, trying to figure out who does what.

How do those conversations go? Is it, "So, tell me what you do?"

A lot of it is exactly that. Tell me what you do, and how our office and your office interact. And what you expect from me, what you might need from me. Of course, I spend a lot of time with Ron Daniels just understanding what his core concerns are, and what his expectations are for what the Provost's Office will do. There are a lot of matters on the academic plate that the university is dealing with—the Bloomberg Professorships, the strategic initiatives, issues specific to the schools and divisions of the university. So, there are a lot of expectations that we'll be able to make progress on these matters and help the schools solve problems, and help divisions move to the next level. So for me, organizing the office is pressing, to make sure we have the capacity to get things done.

We have two "young" schools in the Carey Business School and the School of Education. That must present its own challenge, helping them get to the next level.

That is one of the fun things about the job, that there is such a wide array of issues and challenges. There are, as you say, very young schools like Carey and Education that have amazing people and extraordinary potential. We're trying to help them along and grow them into the brand.

And then there are the established schools, the marquee established Johns Hopkins units. We also want to get them to the next level and help them meet new challenges. One of the things I've already spent a lot of time on, and will continue to do, is learning the nuances of the medicine and health sciences world, which is not my own background. We need to help them in what is a very unsettling time, from the research funding front and uncertainty on clinical care reimbursements and all of the things that are facing academic health centers. That is a huge learning curve for me.

Tell me some of the key challenges the university faces—you might have already touched upon some.

Obviously, it's a very challenging research environment for big institutions that rely on federal funding like Johns Hopkins does. We're the No. 1 recipient of federal research funding in the country. That is a testament to the fundamental greatness of the institution, but it's also its vulnerability. Between the sequester and the political environment, federal funding is shakier than it has been in a while. But it's also an opportunity. The federal dollars and interests are shifting to different areas, and we have to figure out as an institution how to capitalize on new opportunities, which might look different than the old individual investigator model. How do we create the infrastructure and the platforms at JHU so that we can compete in a research environment that is more cross-disciplinary and requires teams and collaboration in areas like big data? It's a big challenge, but it fits the needs of the university, this push to develop team and one-university approaches and structures.

A lot of what you're talking about involves recruiting faculty, which falls to the individual schools. How does the Provost's Office fit into this effort?

I see the Provost's Office, in addition to other things, as the guardian of academic quality. The thing that will make Johns Hopkins the best, as it has in the past, is that it's a great academic environment. It's a university that across the board takes that commitment to quality very seriously.

Prospective faculty members know, or should know, that if they come to Johns Hopkins, they will have the best colleagues the country has to offer and the best students the country or the world has to offer. And they'll have the facilities, the labs, the libraries, and so forth that will make them productive and make this place a hive of academic activity at the highest level. So that is what I see as this office's mandate. The hiring happens at the school level, yes, but it's the Provost's Office's job to support these efforts and enforce that high standards are being met and to help schools find the resources to make it all happen.

How do we stand out in such a competitive higher education landscape?

President Daniels talks about selective excellence: Where are the areas in which Johns Hopkins can really be distinctive and aspire to be the very best in the world? Those are the areas we need to think about investing in and directing the institution to. We also need to think about what has made Johns Hopkins great for 137 years and what will continue to make us great. One of the things that attracted me here was the history of Johns Hopkins. I'm an historian, so I think about how Johns Hopkins is the first research university in the United States, and how graduate education as we now practice it was invented here, and that this is where some of the social science fields came of age. We're in a moment where higher education is changing, where research is potentially undergoing a series of changes. So we have to think about such things as what it takes to be a great research institution in the age of online and digital education when there is so much concern about the cost of higher education and access to a diverse student body. These issues are all really urgent.

Do you foresee big changes coming to higher education, or will it be gradual?

I think we can see all the issues that will affect higher education, and Johns Hopkins will be affected just like everybody else. Online education is a big business and a big opportunity. But it forces us to think very carefully and clearly about what it is we do here at all the JHU campuses. What is the value of a residential education? What can we do online, and what can we do onsite?

It's not just about distance learning. It's about rethinking how students learn. Higher education is a business where there haven't been a lot of efficiency gains in a long time. Since Socrates sat under the trees and the students listened to him, education has been pretty much the same. It's a single faculty member in a room with students imparting some knowledge. Digital opportunities can revolutionize that because now that imparting of knowledge and information can be done much more quickly and effectively in other ways. So what is the best use of the limited time that students have in a classroom or lab with a faculty member? From there you get to the "flipped" classroom, where you expect students to have done a fair bit of the work before they come to class and that [class] time is used to critically examine things you have already mastered, or for deepening and broadening the student's experience.

Tell me something we may not know about Provost Lieberman.

I'm something of an opera buff. I have been for quite a while.

Do you play an instrument?

I used to play the bassoon, but I haven't played in a long time.

Did you know many people at JHU before coming here?

I knew some people in the Political Science Department and at SAIS through other colleagues. But, no, not too many people. But an interesting side note: When I came out of graduate school, I was interviewed for an assistant professor position in the Political Science Department here, a position which I did not get.

And now look at you, you're academic top dog.

[Laughs.] Yes.

Describe your relationship with President Daniels.

Fantastic. From the moment I met Ron, I knew this was someone I wanted to work with.

What makes the relationship work?

I think we are temperamentally similar. What I was impressed with the first time I met him was how clear-headed and articulate he was about what is already great about Johns Hopkins and what we can do collectively as a university to make us better and build this one-university concept. I felt his vision for the university is exactly right.

You have a new book that you co-edited called Beyond Discrimination. Tell me about the inspiration and the goal for this work.

My whole teaching and research career has been about the history and challenges of racial discrimination in American politics. This book began with a series of conversations with colleagues at Columbia around the time of the 2008 presidential election, about the excitement of electing the first African-American president of the United States and what that might mean for the politics and policies surrounding racial inequality. After Obama's election win, however, the politics of racial inequality become very complicated very quickly, and that seemed worth an extended conversation and look. How is it that under the first African-American president, we are still not talking about discrimination, we are still not talking about inequality in a straightforward and direct way? So we organized a group of scholars from a bunch of social sciences disciplines who were all thinking about this problem.

What is the problem?

The problem is this: Fifty years ago we had the March on Washington. Since the civil rights movement, most kinds of racial discrimination are illegal; expressions of racist feeling and attitudes have declined dramatically. And in some ways racial inequality has declined, but in other ways, it seems more entrenched and persistent than ever.

In the old world, the pre–civil rights world, there was an easy explanation. Racism and discrimination seemed like sufficient explanations for inequality in lots of arenas of the economy and society and politics. Those are supposedly gone. But things haven't panned out in a lot of ways. So the question is, Why? How do you explain the persistence of racial discrimination and inequality in this new post–civil rights world where the obvious legal and attitudinal barriers to inequality seem to be gone? So that is the puzzle.

What is the solution, or what is the book's conclusion?

We hope the book will get people thinking about solutions. What are the social, political, and economic mechanisms that we can find that help explain this?

One of the chapters in the book is by an historian who looks at the practice of auto insurance ratings in California by ZIP code. From the insurance companies' point of view, this practice is pretty good shorthand for identifying where people live and what the risks of insuring them are. But it turns out that because of residential segregation, ZIP code rating treats African-American, white, and Latino drivers very differently in terms of their insurance rates.

It's not anyone's explicit intent to discriminate on the basis of race in writing insurance policies, but that is the effect of a mechanism like that. What seems like a standard market-neutral mechanism has a negative impact.

You can find other ways that markets or government policies work in everyday normal life that seem at their face to be neutral but actually have racially damaging consequences.

It's not so much face-to-face discrimination anymore.

Exactly right. That problem has been a preoccupation of mine for some time. This book is a collection of really smart people thinking about this problem in a variety of different domains and policy areas. We hope people read it, and it gets people thinking about this problem.

Will you promote the book much?

I will, some, but I don't anticipate being on The Daily Show [laughs], although I would love to. Funny aside: SAIS Dean Vali Nasr was on The Daily Show not that long ago and I got to tell my oldest son, "You see that guy with Jon Stewart? I'm sorta his boss now." That won me some street cred.