“As a general matter, I’ve always liked organizing people and institutions.” So says John Koskinen, a Duke alumnus and the recently retired non-executive chairman of Freddie Mac. Over the years, he’s held an array of diverse positions, including being the Year 2000 czar (his favorite position) and the city administrator of Washington, DC (the toughest one).
He has also been president of a corporate turn-around company, the deputy director of President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the president of the United States Soccer Foundation, and the chair of the DC Host Committee that brought the 1994 World Cup to Washington. It’s an unexpected career path for anyone, but perhaps especially so for someone who majored in physics (Duke, 1961) and then earned a law degree (Yale, 1964).
Koskinen sees a common thread throughout the positions, however. “They really required you to step into the middle of a set of challenges, sort out the issues, and get people to work as a team,” he says. Some of the challenges were enormous. When asked by President George W. Bush in 2008 to become the leader of a new board of Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage company, he says he found “5500 people and $2.5 trillion in assets in the middle of a collapse.” He was City Administrator of DC during the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax scare, and the Beltway sniper attacks. At OMB, he ran the government shutdowns in 1995. While coordinating the United States’ response to the Year 2000 problem (Y2K), he ended up helping the entire world get ready.
Koskinen says, “President Clinton gave me an office and an assistant and said, ‘Don’t let the world stop,’ and left me alone.” Koskinen set up working groups to address different sectors in the United States, and invited all 50 states’ Y2K coordinators to a meeting, which motivated those governors who had not yet done so to appoint a Y2K coordinator. After he spoke about his work at the UN, the chair of the UN working committee on “informatics” asked him to do something to help other countries prepare. So he divided the world along continental lines, appointed a steering committee of 12 global coordinators, and ran worldwide teleconferences and meetings. “The art form was to harness all the organizations around the country and world and facilitate their information-sharing and working together, because there was no way I could hire enough experts to run around and fix everything,” he says.
In the end, a few systems went down for a day or two at the dawn of the 21st century, but, because there was no injury or loss of life, the public remained largely unaware of all the work that went into pre-emptively fixing computer codes around the world.
Looking back over his varied career, he says, “They were all turnaround opportunities. What you learn is to rely on experts and keep asking questions.” To Koskinen, experts include not only leaders but also the rank and file. “The people who know the most about what’s going on in an organization and what the challenges are, are the people on the front lines,” he says. “So I’ve spent my career trying to organize institutions so that you get feedback from people actually doing the work, and that information gets fed into the decision-making process.”
Koskinen came to Duke from Ashland, Kentucky, already planning to major in physics. His father had recently died, and a scholarship from Duke made attending college possible. He remembers enjoying his classes with William Fairbank and Harold Lewis. “Everybody knew both Fairbank and Lewis were established physicists, so to have them as instructors was an honor and exciting,” he says.
Even while majoring in physics, Koskinen was trying to decide between a career in science versus one in the public sector. He made up his mind one day while visiting a fellow physics major in his room. “He had a blackboard with equations all over it and Scientific American on the table and I thought, I don’t have a blackboard, let alone one with equations. If I’m going to be good at something where would I rather spend my time? While I enjoyed math and physics, I decided it would be more rewarding for me personally to be involved and engaged in the public sector—to be engaged more with people than with electrons.”
All the same, he says his physics major contributed to his success. “Physics taught me to concentrate and pay close attention to details,” he says. “You get used to being very thorough and careful and analytical. Throughout my career, both in the private and public sector, being able to analyze and understand the principles behind what was going on—the forces at work—was always very helpful.” And of course his science background came in handy working on the Year 2000 project and working on science- and research-related issues in the President’s budget while at OMB.
Koskinen chose physics partly as a patriotic reaction to the Russians sending up Sputnik in 1957. Although the United States faces different challenges today, he says science is more important than ever. “The world is becoming more technically complicated and challenged, so science—and physics in particular—are always going to be critical. My concern about where the country goes is whether we continue to have the capacity to develop the intellectual capital that brought us to where we are. I hope people will understand and remember this, even in the budget crunch we presently face.”
Through the years, Koskinen has stayed involved at Duke, beginning as a local fundraiser and then participating on many boards and committees, including as president of the Alumni Association and chair of the Board of Trustees. “While I have spent a large percentage of my spare time working for Duke, it’s never been a burden,” he says. “There’s a feeling on my part that I should give back to the university since I would not have been able to attend without the scholarship assistance that I received.” In 1999, he and his wife Pat gave a gift of $2.5 million to Duke to support female student-athletes and to enhance Duke’s recreational and athletic facilities. Duke’s Koskinen Stadium for soccer and lacrosse is named in their honor. He’s received three Duke awards: the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service, the Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Charles A. Dukes Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service. He also received the Distinguished Service Award in Trusteeship from the Association of Governing Boards as the nation’s top trustee in 1997.
In February, upon turning 72, he retired from Freddie Mac as required by regulatory policies. He’s keeping busy reading, playing tennis, and spending time with his family—including four grandchildren—and he’s still on the boards of directors for two public companies. But is he retired for good? “Most of the things I’ve done in the last 20 years have been unexpected and unplanned,” he says. “I’m happy to have free time, but if somebody calls, I’ll probably listen.”
Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.