magenta and black background pattern

Crossing Wolfe Street

Michael J. Klag, a School alumnus and former vice dean at Hopkins School of Medicine, began his tenure as Bloomberg School dean on September 1.

By Brian W. Simpson

One afternoon this summer, Michael J. Klag was waiting to cross Wolfe Street when a car stopped abruptly in front of him. Inside were several 20-somethings—students, he presumed. One astonished occupant leaned out, pointing a finger at him, and said, "You're the new dean!"

Klag smiled and replied, "Yes. Yes, I am." For Klag, the brief curbside conversation punctuated a momentous passage across Wolfe Street: from vice dean at Hopkins School of Medicine to the leadership of the Bloomberg School.

In mid-May, Klag, MD, MPH '87, learned that he would become the 10th dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The May 16 announcement culminated a year long search for a successor to Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS '73, who led the School for 15 years before stepping down to return to research.

"Since May, it's been frenetic, but it's so exhilarating. I am excited," says Klag, who received 1,600 congratulatory emails in the first week after the announcement. Klag spent the summer wrapping up his duties as vice dean for clinical investigation at the Hopkins School of Medicine and immersing himself in the Bloomberg School. To ready himself for September 1—his first official day as dean—he met with Sommer, Bloomberg School deans, department chairs, faculty, administrators, Health Advisory Board members and others. On one typical day in July, the appointments card he carries in his shirt pocket listed four hours of meetings with Bloomberg School leaders.

Klag pioneered the epidemiology of kidney disease, discovering its prevalence and risk factors, providing a basis for designing effective interventions. He also has focused on the role of ethnicity in disease, seeking explanations for the different risks of developing high blood pressure among ethnic groups. Even as he rose through the ranks at Hopkins medicine, Klag maintained close ties to public health, earning an MPH at the School, directing the clinical track of the preventive medicine residency program, helping found the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research, and holding joint appointments in the School's Departments of Epidemiology and Health Policy and Management. As a fellow at Hopkins medicine in 1984, Klag immediately came to the School to learn how to design population studies and test interventions. At a lunch with legendary epidemiologists Abe LilienfeldGeorge ComstockMoyses Szklo and Leon Gordis, Klag recalls saying to himself, "This is where I belong."

As the new dean, Klag jokes that his first mission is "Don't screw it up." The School has a $330 million budget, 485 full-time faculty and more than 1,800 students from 70 nations. In 2004, it completed a 12-year, $100 million expansion that raised the Wolfe Street building's total size to nearly 1 million square feet.

"It's clear that Al and the team he's built have set a great path for the School. We need to stay on that path," says Klag, 52. His top priorities are to maintain and enhance the School's international mission, education programs and research agenda, including the study of emerging infections and established diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria. He intends to expand the School's distance education programs to meet the increasing need for public health education among full-time professionals. And he also wants to strengthen the School's ties to the East Baltimore community.

The U.S. government's budget deficit and the expected reduction in research funding from the National Institutes of Health will not limit the Bloomberg School's future, says Klag. "If you make a decision not to grow, that hurts your future. That changes your trajectory," he says. "We have to be fiscally very responsible. We have to constrain expenses, and at the same time ask, what do we need for the future? It's my job to raise money externally, to provide more flexible moneys that help us meet our mission."

One of his major goals in the coming years will be to draw faculty in the disparate physical locations of the School—the Hampton House building on Broadway and offices in Baltimore's Inner Harbor—closer to the Wolfe Street building. "One of the great things about the School is the sense of community that we have and the cross collaborations between departments and centers. Being geographically close together is an important catalyst," says Klag. "I'm committed to getting the faculty as close to the School geographically as possible. We need another new building. There's no question about that."

To these challenges, Klag says he brings an open, inclusive leadership style. His first six months will be spent with faculty and administrative staff to gain the insider's view of the School he will need to be an effective advocate. "I manage a lot by walking around, and clearly when you take a new job, you have to go and visit the troops," he says. "I'm a good listener. I'm inclusive but not afraid to make decisions, and that's the way I'll manage the School.

"I look forward to helping the faculty, staff, students and alumni maintain our status as the preeminent school of public health," says Klag. "That's what I hope to do, and I'm looking forward to it. It's a great institution. It's got a great origin, a great history and great accomplishments. To lead this School is really an honor. It is an honor."