Pop Icon Joins Johns Hopkins

Johns Hopkins U.

Thomas Dolby
March 31, 2014

The Johns Hopkins University wants the world to see more than its science.

That’s one reason it hired Thomas Dolby, a digital-audio entrepreneur and the pop icon behind the 1980s hit "She Blinded Me With Science." Mr. Dolby, the university’s first professor of the arts, will be involved in the creation of a center to foster filmmaking and the arts in Baltimore’s entertainment district.

Even aside from his role as a pop star, Mr. Dolby, 55, is an unusual choice for any professorship, having never attended college. After graduating from high school, Mr. Dolby—"pretty much the black sheep" in a family of academics, he says—jumped straight into the music business. As he gained experience in that industry, he began to wish he "had somebody like me to help me when I started out." That thought motivated him to get into academe.

At Johns Hopkins, Mr. Dolby will teach a yearlong "Sound on Film" course, in which students will learn how to create film soundtracks. He will also serve as artistic director of the university’s Sound on Film program at its new center, which is meant to serve as an experimental base benefiting all of the university’s endeavors in the arts.

A drop in the cost of production technology has made it more important for all aspiring filmmakers, not just those interested in audio, to study his subject, Mr. Dolby says. A film studio’s budget is no longer needed to produce a professional film, and independent films are proliferating. That means those breaking into the film industry need to be able to handle more aspects of production.

For a dozen years, until 2012, Mr. Dolby was musical director of the TED conferences, which feature speeches on technology, entertainment, design, and other subjects. In the 1990s, he founded a company that developed the polyphonic ringtone software widely used in cellphones.

He has also written music for feature films throughout his career, in recent years for movies like Mission: Impossible III and the television show Breaking Bad.

His appointment is a 75-percent-time position, which is meant to allow him time to perform.

The breadth of Mr. Dolby’s experience appealed to Katherine S. Newman, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

Ms. Newman says the school was contacting people in the film industry to seek candidates for the position when Mr. Dolby got in touch after seeing an advertisement on the university’s website. "We were in orbit when we found out," she says.

Mr. Dolby’s stature should bring more attention to the university’s effort to revitalize the Baltimore neighborhood a mile south of its campus, known as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, Ms. Newman says. In partnership with the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Maryland Film Festival, the university is renovating an abandoned theater to serve as a kind of arts incubator, which provides space and resources for artists to showcase their work.

The goal, she says, is to make the area "both the epicenter of our academic and film-arts-related programs and industry-friendly to the independent film industry, to television production, and to the electronic-gaming community."

Mr. Dolby says that the position will be a challenge, but that it will also provide a few years of stability in his varied career. He says he can’t remember a point in his career when he knew what he would be doing for the next several years.

He expects that any questions about his days in the pop-music limelight would be more likely to come from his fellow professors who are old enough to remember the 1980s than from students. His students, he says, should be prepared to work.

"I’m serious about this," he says. "I’m going to be a tough prof."