Aram Chobanian reflects on first year at the helm and on University’s future
By Brian Fitzgerald
When Aram Chobanian was named president ad interim by the Board of Trustees last fall, his first mission was to steer the University through a leadership crisis. Daniel Goldin, who had been slated to take office November 1, had just reached a mutual agreement with BU that he would not assume the presidency.
BU was accused of bungling the presidential search. “There was acute unrest among students, faculty, trustees, and alumni,” Chobanian recalls.
A year later, however, he sees a vibrant and more optimistic University community, which has not only put behind it the uncertainty and negativity surrounding last fall’s events, but is also moving forward with extensive governance changes, a new presidential search, numerous building projects, and a $131 million increase in research funding. In addition, this year’s freshman class is the most academically qualified ever admitted, as measured by SAT scores, high school grade point average, and class rank. Chobanian, who has met several thousand BU graduates in his travels across the country — and the globe — also reports “record turnouts of enthusiastic alumni” at these receptions.
“I don’t think the unfavorable publicity of last year has had any lasting effect on Boston University,” he says. “We continue to move forward and build on the excellence that has been achieved in the past.”
Deflecting kudos for his leadership skills, Chobanian says that the trustees’ sweeping governance reforms, including term limits, stricter conflict-of-interest rules, and changes in board structure, were greatly responsible for assuaging faculty and staff dissatisfaction and played an important role in helping BU quickly regain its momentum. “The trustees’ actions were absolutely critical in order for BU to achieve its successes over the past year,” he says. “They were able to determine what went wrong with the presidential search and how to correct it. There were a number of other ways in which they helped the situation. For example, putting a faculty member on the board sent out a message that faculty are important to the trustees and to the governance of the institution. The new leadership on the board deserves a lot of credit.”
The former Medical Campus provost says that because he had to assume the new position with almost no advance notice, he needed to be on a steep learning curve to deal with the complex issues of the whole University. His productive interactions with the trustees, administrative staff, faculty, and students, he says, have been most rewarding. He downplays one of his most popular decisions — wiring residence halls for cable television — as “an easy one,” given overwhelming student support for the idea. Also widely hailed were raises for faculty and staff after a two-year salary freeze. “We are appreciative of how hard faculty and staff have been working,” he says, “and we felt that they needed to be compensated.”
Chobanian says that a “sound, conservative fiscal policy” enabled the University to record a $46.8 million operating surplus — the second largest in its history. Giving from corporations and foundations has grown from $51.7 million to $55.7 million in one year. He acknowledges that there was a 1.9 percent decline in alumni giving — a long-term trend in that category that he wants to reverse. “Turning this around is a priority,” he says. “We’re reaching out to alumni much more aggressively than in the past. I think there is enormous potential there. What we really want to do is bring them more closely into the fold, so that more of them make lifelong connections with their University.”
Building bridges —and buildings
Often heard during Chobanian’s presidency has been the clang and clatter of construction on both the Charles River and the Medical Campus. A $54 million biomedical research and science facility was “topped off” in September at BioSquare, the 14-acre research and business park in Boston’s South End being developed as a joint venture by Boston Medical Center and BU. Chobanian points out also that last year BU Medical Center was the recipient of a $128 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to build a national biocontainment lab, where diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments against infectious diseases will be investigated. The groundbreaking — pending city and state approvals — is expected to take place in 2005. In addition, BUMC launched a $1 million initiative to provide biomedical research and biotechnology job training to 105 Boston residents.
He reflects on the similarities — and some of the differences — between running Boston University and serving as provost of the Medical Campus, a post he held for seven years. “The Medical Campus budget represents about a third of the total University budget, so having experience managing that budget certainly served me in very good stead when I came over here,” says Chobanian, who was also MED dean for 15 years. “The Medical Campus contains almost half of the total faculty of the University, so having dealt with a large faculty was important for me to be able to adjust to a situation that I was somewhat foreign to, although I had a lot of background knowledge about the University, having been a BU faculty member for more than four decades. The differences between the jobs relate more to the fact that I was relatively unfamiliar with many of the schools and colleges on the Charles River Campus, whereas on the Medical Campus — I almost grew up there.”
Chobanian says that the sheer size of the Charles River Campus puts unique demands on a president. “There are far more students here than on the Medical Campus, and many more challenges relating to that, both with respect to selecting a high-quality freshman class, and making sure that the campus environment is appropriate for such a large group of students, a task that includes providing quality housing, meals, and other services and programs — these things were issues on a much smaller level at the Medical Campus,” he says. “Fortunately, I have a fantastic administrative team to work with. Furthermore, I’m working much more closely with the trustees than I had in the past.”
Utilizing the knowledge and opinions of others, he says, has helped with the transition to his new post. When he had to pick an interim provost to replace Dennis Berkey, who left in June to become president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he consulted with faculty before he selected David Campbell, dean of the College of Engineering. “It’s always been my style to solicit opinions from diverse groups, not just from individuals who agree with my point of view,” he says. “And we were fortunate that Dean David Campbell was available. He has done an outstanding job in handling this difficult position.”
Chobanian’s goal until BU chooses a new president is to continue to balance the budget, recruit top faculty and students, and help the University focus its research programs on more large interdisciplinary projects. “I’ve been very interested in reorganizing our research enterprise at Boston University,” he says, “to establish centers, institutes, and major programs that involve investigators from different areas working together to solve some of the important new research problems, whether it’s in the life sciences or the natural sciences.”
After successfully shepherding BU through a healing process last fall, Chobanian had his own recuperating to do recently. Recovering from heart bypass surgery in September slowed him down for three to four weeks, “but didn’t completely knock me out in terms of my work,” he says. “With the help of a BlackBerry organizer, you can stay in reasonably close contact with your office, even from a hospital bed.”
The local media have reported that some members of the BU community wish that the 75-year-old Chobanian were 10 years younger, so that he would stay in office for an extended period. But he is quick to scotch that one. “Well, for that matter, I wish that I were more than 10 years younger,” he says with a laugh. “Seriously, I think what the University needs is fresh new blood coming into the presidency. Change is very healthy.”
Still, he makes it clear that he loves his job. “I haven’t found age to be a detriment to my enthusiasm bringing in new faculty, meeting with bright students, and developing new programs,” he says. “I still get the same level of excitement doing these things as I did when I was much younger.”