What I Learned from a College Tour: Visiting Johns Hopkins University

03/13/2015 06:24 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

I recently took a niece to visit my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. Like most of us, I tend to assume however subconsciously that institutions I have passed through remain more or less preserved in time as in my own memory. I was surprised to see how much has changed since I graduated in 1988. The progress testifies to academic research sitting at the heart of the best higher education as well as the ongoing importance of philanthropic support to schools.

Established as the first American university in the sense of offering graduate degrees on the German model, though also embracing a liberal arts curriculum for undergraduates (no longer an afterthought), Hopkins has always attracted not only nerds and geeks but also lacrosse players (with more than a few scholar-athletes who belong to both groups). Renowned for its medical school located on a separate campus, it was founded by a Quaker railroad baron who had been prohibited by their families from marrying his true love, who happened to be a first cousin; having stayed single, he had no heirs. Everyone associated with the school becomes accustomed to correcting people who drop the "s" off the given name of its founder -- it had been his mother's family name.

Always a great school if more renowned for the health sciences than anything else, Hopkins has been made even better over the past few years thanks to the extraordinary generosity of a single alumnus, Michael Bloomberg. One of those rare people who has dedicated much of his private wealth to the public good, he has become a modern-day benefactor at a level seen in higher education usually only upon the founding of a college. Describing himself as a middling student who became a leader during his time on campus, then all-male, the entrepreneur-politician's billion dollars-plus of gifts make him the leading living donor to any American college. As the press has detailed, he transformed the school in tangible terms even as he was influenced by its faculty and their ideas.

Of the construction he has enabled, what I most appreciated during a day on campus was his underground parking garage. By insisting on it, he enabled the school to create a true community. There are no roads and hence no cars anywhere on the three quadrangles. People are brought together as pedestrians who stroll the brick paths among buildings displaying a unified design (Georgian red brick interspersed with modern expanses of glass).

One of those three quads is new. Undergraduate enrollment has increased significantly according to a strategic plan; graduate enrollment has too, though that has been curtailed more recently in favor of enhanced stipends for those who are accepted. Many of the students reside in the buildings off campus that the school has purchased in recent years. But the tour guides emphasized the relationship of Hopkins to Baltimore as would not have been mentioned in years past.

What is most impressive about any institution of higher education, however, is not its physical manifestation but the intellectual work that it fosters. The ranking of the university in federal research funding (consistently at the very top) is a bragging point, as is the flourishing of interdisciplinary collaboration. Yet even better for prospective students is how the resources are being spent: everyone right down to freshmen is involved in original research. The best means to acquire knowledge is to produce it.

Perhaps my only objection to recent events at Hopkins is its use as a stand-in for another university. I suppose I am wrong to cavil at The Social Network movie, about the founding of Facebook, using the Homewood campus as a double for a rival further up the East Coast.

I envy my niece the opportunity to leave home to start her independent life. As happens during such moments, I cannot help but recall the parallel for me. I am older now than my parents were then. I wonder whether I would make the same choices, if I had known then what I know now. But I realize that I would not know now what I know if it were not for those very choices then.

The opportunity for higher education is the greatest opportunity available to any of us. While it serves us as individuals, it also advances society by making us better citizens. Mayor Bloomberg showed how it works. Those who benefit from his largesse, learning by doing, will as well.