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Ron Daniels: ‘Keep surgically focused on your highest priorities’

Ron Daniels, 58, of Toronto, became president of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University in 2009. He is a professor in its department of political science and in the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In its RCMP uniform, my (1.5-metre-tall) moose sits by a window; every so often students ask what it's doing in the president's office. My wife and kids got me a Toronto Maple Leafs' jersey so we might put it over its shoulders to get the total Canadian effect. Because Hopkins teams are called the Blue Jays, when I got here and the students yelled, "Go Blue Jays!" I was entirely with the bros (Toronto Blue Jays).

I was born and grew up in Toronto; always interested in public policy, my undergraduate degree was in economics and political science. I was drawn to policy issues. I saw a significant role for law and legal institutions explaining policies and the role lawyers play in the public-policy arena. For me, it was important that responsibility, public engagement and community service be part of a rounded legal career. Another part of that is my family coming to Canada in 1939, literally on the eve of the Second World War. Having escaped Nazi persecution gives one a strong sense of the strength and frailties of legal institutions.

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A manifestation of a rounded career is Pro Bono Students Canada, started when I was dean at University of Toronto's Faculty of Law; 21 years later, it's a national organization in every law school. I started a summer program for high school students, also a program at two city schools. I welcomed that first class in our lecture theatre by saying, "My hope is some of you are here years from now, welcomed as members of a starting class." Seven years later, sure enough. And, visiting last year, I took a campus shortcut. There was this big tent with some ceremony – a graduation ceremony for kids from that program. These are beautiful moments for me.

In 10 years as dean, I helped boost endowment from $1-million to $57-million. What one learns is to keep surgically focused on your highest priorities – and find creative ways to build public-private partnerships that fuel the core mission. One of my themes, from my U of T experience, is an interdisciplinary ethos, where 40 per cent of faculty were cross-appointed to another department or school; law was deeply suffused. You could take on issues important to society, not just through the prism of a single discipline.

When I got to Hopkins, I went to Mike Bloomberg saying Hopkins has several campuses, but here's the next best thing – let's recruit the best and brightest but tether appointments to multiple schools, make them essentially human bridges to link disciplines. Mike was very supportive; he invested $350-million in Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships. You can have the loftiest of dreams but if you don't have the resources to fuel them, well…

The people here surprised me the morning I was going to Washington to get the Order of Canada [in September]. My office was strewn with Canadian flags; they even had Tim Hortons doughnuts – the chocolate melted, though, so people didn't get the full experience.

I still don't understand how – I say this hopefully – we don't have comprehensive and universal health care here. We're spending twice per capita that Canada is, not delivering universal care and outcomes are poor. On every dimension, this is a system where there's lots of room for improvement. Hopkins has tentacles of excellence in so many areas. For me, it's extremely interesting to figure out – in the context of a large, integrated health system – how we're able to provide good accessible care to patients, at the same time fuelling core educational and research missions at the heart of academic medicine.

A university can help a city in various ways. We're a key stakeholder in a $1.8-billion East Baltimore project. In loving public policy, the nexus among government, university and corporate sectors allows me to see possibilities and ways we can make connections. People see creative collaborations they never would have thought of previously. Cultural touchstones in Baltimore are authentic and extraordinary, with an exciting narrative bringing millennials to the city. The other, much more sobering, narrative is violence, poverty and strife. What I find exciting about being able to lead this institution is community engagement – linking narratives. We adopted a comprehensive program, HopkinsLocal, with clear measurable targets in hiring, procurement and construction – with significant impact in resolving conflict – such great and tangible initiatives, when the city was still reeling. We're creating economic opportunity and inclusivity, bringing jobs and security to more people.

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