Reflections on the First Five Years and the Path Forward

By Virginia Sapiro, Dean of Arts & Sciences

September 10, 2012 — Early this summer, I completed my first five years as Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and agreed to continue serving this great College and University. How could I not? It has been a great privilege to serve this institution, its students, faculty, staff, and alumni. As much as I cherished my earlier life as a scholar and teacher and felt that the impact I had gave me the satisfaction of making a difference—to me, the signal definition of a meaningful life—the impact I can have serving Boston University and the College of Arts & Sciences as a dean is an opportunity for which I am grateful.

Through my work here, I can help expand the difference this institution makes in the education of future generations of undergraduates and graduate students; in creating the conditions under which our faculty, teachers, and scholars can use their skills and energy to change the world of human knowledge and creativity. Through this work, I can serve to make this a better place for all of us to work. And through the breadth of CAS, I can serve the impressive breadth of knowledge and discovery with which we are connected, across the arts and humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. This is truly a privilege, so how could I not agree to continue to see what more we can accomplish together?

Together, we—the CAS faculty, the CAS staff, the CAS leadership team, and the leadership of the University as a whole—have moved this University so far in such a short time. There are all sorts of metaphors (mostly clichés) that express how difficult it is to change the direction or pace of a large institution—turning the ship around, herding cats—pick your favorite. This is an institution that has been changing and growing for a long time. While preserving many of the crucial parts of our long and distinguished heritage, BU began changing direction and pace in important ways 30 years ago, as President Brown often tells us. But in the past seven years, there has been remarkable change, and it was exciting to be brought here to help that happen.

Let me review just a few of the developments in CAS that make a real difference in the experience and opportunities of our faculty, staff, and students, and that are connected to the work that lies before us in the next few years. There are many things I could choose from, but I will only pick a very few.

First, let me draw your attention to a document we have passed out that contains two pieces of the CAS Strategic Plan, Creating Our Future, 2010-20 (CAS Mission and Commitments 2012). On one side is the central portion of the CAS mission and values statement that pointedly rededicates us both to an updated version of a classic commitment to the value of a liberal education, and to a specific version of a liberal education: the liberal arts and sciences. On the other side is the list of fundamental commitments of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, from which the rest of our plan flows. Together, this statement of mission, values, and fundamental commitments is the framework that guides everything we do. It is the framework I think about every time I play a role in determining, directly or indirectly, how to invest our precious human, capital, and material resources. To move an institution this big, we cannot just lurch from opportunity to opportunity, decision to decision, considering those outside of a larger context. We have to make choices among excellent things to do, because we can’t do everything, not even all of the excellent things we might do.

Throughout my time here thus far, I have worked to put in place structures and systems and processes that help us work together to make difficult choices in a manner that systematically looks to the longer term future, balances priorities, and considers our decision-making in a larger context than our own particular needs and interests, narrowly construed. We have worked together to institute structures and processes that are more explicit and transparent about how things happen, how to get heard, and what standards and norms we apply. We have worked to make sure these principles and processes are applied equitably across departments and programs and across faculty and staff. We have worked to develop clear statements of policy and practice that anyone can read, and placed them where they are easily accessible, on our website in the CAS Faculty & Staff Handbook.

We have changed the leadership model of CAS, bringing more faculty explicitly into leadership at all levels, and in particular, changed the leadership system in the departments and programs, where the real day-to-day business of a college takes place. All senior faculty members who are competent to do so should be taking their turn at leadership in the departments over time. We have been moving our departments and programs toward the same principles of clear, transparent, and equitably applied standards and procedures for governance, where the faculty meet together to deliberate about their way forward. Certainly, departments and programs require the leadership and facilitation of a skilled chair or director, and we are providing them with more support and professional development opportunities to become more skilled at this job. However, it is incumbent upon the faculty of each department and program to deliberate together and to create the future of their academic programs. This was true in some departments and programs, but by far not all of them.

In the past five years we have built out the support system for getting the work of the College done: for being able to respond to departments, programs, faculty in a timely way and for creating the room to be proactive in finding ways to do better by our College. This is a huge College. Just getting its work done in a timely and responsive way is unbelievably difficult. But to get ahead of that constant grind of making the clockwork tick to find the time to envision what we need to do to be better, to make our education, research, and academic experience even more successful and valuable—that is harder still, although critically essential to the health of the College and University. Very often, the big differences are the result baby steps taken over a prolonged period of time.

Consider just one example: When I arrived, I found that offer letters to new faculty had little or no start-up support for research and professional development outside of the natural sciences. Our offer letters contained anything at all, it was likely to be funding for a library pass at another local University. So quickly we incorporated into the agreements of all new faculty hires not a start-up account—common at many universities—but an annual research account to help support new faculty members’ work in a flexible way, allowing them to plan and make choices over time about their own professional needs.

Next, we extended research accounts to all junior faculty members in fields where such support is not routinely provided. We did this make sure all of our pre-tenure faculty members have the same level of support, regardless when they were hired with respect to implementation of the new research accounts.

We then reconfigured the College budget to let those assistant professors keep their research accounts as tenured faculty, so as to avoid congratulating our newly tenured faculty by taking away their research accounts. Finally, as of this year, we have managed our budget so that all research-active tenured faculty members now have annual research accounts. This took time and planning and made us examine our finances and the trade-offs needed to accomplish this change. But it is important to our faculty to have the wherewithal to support more of their research on a not-mother-may-I basis. And we did this at the same time as expanding our central support for professional travel. I am proud that our research account system is not standard practice across research universities. It is a difference that puts us out ahead.

This change, our dedication of a part of the budget to individual research accounts for research-active and productive faculty members, underscores another positive change. We are now clear and explicit about the fact that we expect all tenured and tenure-track faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences to be active and productive in scholarship and research at a level that is appropriate for a major research university. This is why we now provide ongoing research accounts, and why we have extended research accounts to tenured faculty members who are research active and productive scholars. In addition, we are reviewing other investments that will support our ability to assist faculty who are contributing to the prominence of BU as a research university and have already launched some.

I am proud that CAS visibly promotes and supports the different crucial branches of knowledge—the natural and social sciences and the humanities. We have heard a lot about how many universities are investing in the sciences and cutting back in the humanities, perhaps, for example, by restricting the focus on languages. Far from being the case in CAS, we are growing a selected balance of fields in the major branches knowledge—the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences. Of course we can’t support every important and interesting field—no university does. And we will choose to do what we do well, and not dribble a bit of expertise here and there to cover a wide field. We are well beyond the question of whether we can or whether we should engage in interdisciplinary as well as discipline-based work. The answer has been obvious for a long time, and while there are logistical and structural challenges to overcome, interdisciplinary work is a part of normal life here.

Consider some of the developments of the past few years: While other universities are cutting language studies, we have expanded our commitment to specific language/culture areas, selecting carefully while establishing standards for what constitutes minimum support for a language/culture area. We have built new area studies centers—the BU Center for the Study of Asia and the BU Center for the Study of Europe both came into being in the past five years. All of our area studies programs are widely interdisciplinary and support multiple programs. Two years ago, a task force examined the Women’s Studies Program, which resulted in a refreshed and expanded program, now called Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

This fall, for the first time, we have what truly looks like a BU Center for the Humanities, newly relocated to CAS 105 (the suite of offices that formerly housed CAS Academic Advising). Now, all of this year’s Humanities Center fellowship holders have their own offices to form a real… Center. In other areas, we have made investments that are growing our reputation in Neuroscience and in Materials Science. Thanks to a number of initiatives, including the Earth Systems Forum discussion, which two years ago brought together faculty from around the University and continues to frame planning for research and education; the creation the year before that of the Biogeosciences Program, and the formation of the new Department of Earth and Environment, we are on track to become a premier home for research and education in earth systems, geosciences, and environmental studies. Recent and future investments will facilitate our continued growth in excellence in the observational sciences of earth and universe, including our new relationship with the Discovery Channel Telescope and our continuing prominence in remote sensing. We are involved in collaborations across the University that demonstrate our capacity in computational research across the various branches of knowledge. These are only some examples; by no means do they cover the gamut.

We have a great heritage in undergraduate education, and we have been moving forward to make sure we do not rest on our laurels because, which of course we can’t do, because we’d lose out in attracting great students. And we are attracting better students than ever. The class of students that matriculated this year is the best we have ever brought in (which has been true of every new class for quite some time). They have better academic credentials measured by class rank and SAT/ACT, and they are an increasingly diverse group of students—in other words, they are getting more interesting as a group and bring with them a diversity of experiences that enriches the class as a whole. They are more international and more varied in their racial profile, and the University continues to use its precious financial aid dollars to ensure that they are diverse in their socio-economic profile as well. This change is shaped by our presidential leadership and the skilled work of our partners in the offices of Admissions and Financial Aid, but no strategic communication could achieve this uptick if the quality of the education we offer was not worthy of these great new classes of students.

Student retention rates also continue to rise and are impressive, although we are not yet in the league of the top institutions in this area. In fact, CAS lags behind other schools and colleges at BU in retention for many reasons, one of which is that we are now a backup school for high school students whose first choice is Ivy class, and some of our students try to work their way into those schools. Paradoxically, our biggest retention challenge is among students with high GPA’s rather than lower ones. Consequently, a new goal for us is to work together to make the CAS academic and co-curricular experience more engaging, challenging, and compelling for those students from the beginning. I thank those among the faculty and departments that have been putting significant effort into improving their gateway courses in recent years, for example by building in more discovery, interaction and hands-on learning. They are moving those gateway courses away from the models that are not as likely to engage and excite our best students, and I challenge all of you to move forward in this way.

Students vote with their feet, both in the way they distribute themselves among our courses and in whether they stay at this institution. At CAS, we are no longer willing and able to continue supporting courses that can’t attract students, and we are trying to address the problem of the small minority of our faculty members who have trouble attracting students to their classes. We are looking very carefully at how we deploy all of our teaching personnel so that we cover our curricular needs in the best ways possible. This will become more of an issue as we increase the size of our faculty and decrease the size of our student body, and every department and program has to consider what that changing ratio means for intelligent curriculum development. The Annual Academic Planning Exercise we instituted in 2007—which should be familiar to all continuing faculty in the College if their department chairs have been holding appropriate discussions among the faculty—means looking forward three years at all times to determine how to shape the curriculum to the best advantage and how to make sure the faculty are supporting those curricular needs in the best possible way.

At the same time, we have launched what will be a several-year project to take a refreshed look at the fundamental threads of the liberal arts and sciences curriculum. We want to make sure that the CAS College Program is not just a matter of required courses in writing, computational skills, foreign language, and the like, but that we are where we should be regarding the competencies we require and that our graduates have the competencies they will need after graduation. Each year, we will address a different competency at one of our CAS Faculty Meetings, to be followed up with more specific discussion as needed. We opened a discussion at our recent annual orientation for chairs and directors on the assessment of teaching and pedagogy. With our classrooms increasingly brought up to a more contemporary standard, we may now focus on refreshing the teaching methods and pedagogies we use. A lot has been happening in higher education at the great research and teaching universities, especially in moving beyond the traditional passive pedagogies of Chalk, Talk, have a little Discussion, and Test. Moving to PowerPoint, Talk, have a little Discussion, and Test isn’t much of a move forward. We are all proud of the many interesting examples of the pedagogical transformations we are seeing around the College, many fueled by the Provost’s Office RULE grants.

We are well into the process of having all departments and programs examine their majors to ensure they are designed in the most appropriate and compelling way, and we will be doing the same for our graduate degrees. We have launched a new system of honors programs in the major that complement the more broad-reaching and interdisciplinary Kilichand Honors College curriculum. We have designed exciting new majors, and have built some that are single-handedly attracting students to BU who might not otherwise have come a few years ago. Neuroscience and Marine Science are two examples. We will continue to look at how we organize our academic programming for students, eliminating majors that don’t attract students, updating and refreshing those we have, and designing new ones that match our ongoing faculty expertise to student interests and market demands.

We are supporting the academic life and experience of our students to a greater degree than we have before. Our advising system—a singular source of complaints among our students in the past—is not everything it should be, but we have invested to make it more comprehensive and responsive. Every student now has his or her own advisor from the moment of arrival, a specific individual to get to know and trust and with whom the student can develop an ongoing relationship. We have amplified this initial match with a range of advising methods. We have established the CAS First Year Experience as a framework to give our freshmen an academic and social foundation that will serve them well. There are many pieces to this initiative, and we have only begun, but we know it is making a difference. Where we go with it will depend on our success in the capital campaign. We now have a proactive support system through Student Programs and Leadership for the co-curricular aspects of the lives of CAS students. This is crucial for retention and academic success, for making sure students receive developmentally important leadership experience, and for ensuring that our students feel engaged with the College now and long after they leave. Beginning this semester, these functions and our students have a spectacular new home: two floors of the magnificent Center for Student Services house, respectively, the CAS Writing Program and Writing Center and CAS Student Academic Life. If you haven’t been over there, go.

We have made smaller progress in our graduate programs. We have some great new programs, quite a few programs have begun that important program of self-examination to determine whether we are doing the best we can. We have been limited in what we can achieve in transforming graduate study in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences because the BU budget model has not been conducive to supporting PhD programs. That will change, possibly by next year. But far from meaning that all programs will have a sudden infusion of fellowships to bring in many more students, the support of doctoral study—the thing that defines us as a research institution—will become a very expensive venture for the University. Support for PhD graduate study will be understood as investments that must be done where they will make the most difference, meaning where we already have the best evidence within the limitations of available resources that we can attract the best possible students, where the faculty run programs according to the standards of the best in their areas, where the students finish their degrees in a timely way, and where they are placed in excellent academic or other professional positions fully appropriate to the PhD they earned.

We have laid the groundwork for transformation by changing the structure of leadership in the Graduate School, instituting a faculty committee to guide our discussion of policy and practices, clarifying how we use funds that support graduate students, and developing mechanisms beyond the curriculum for supporting the professional development of our doctoral students. These developments should convent to our PhD programs the urgency of looking carefully at the practices and standards of the best programs in their fields today and making sure CAS programs are competitive.

We are not rich—not by a long shot—but we are financially healthy. In recent years, while some major research universities haven’t seen merit increases and others are cutting back on programs, we’ve done more increases and less cutting and are doing better generally. At the same time, we’re creating new efficiencies in the way we use our resources at the College and departmental level. The total CAS unrestricted budget rose from about $83 million in FY08 to about $103 million this year (FY13). The vast majority of that is salaries, of course—over 90 percent of it—but we manage a very large operating budget. Despite the size, there is no slack. We manage our resources in a careful and forward-looking way, thanks to our new “delegated budget” model, through which the Provost delegates to us both the opportunity and responsibility for making the most of our financial resources. True, we can no longer go to the Provost with special requests to supplement the line item allocations we were given at the beginning of the year, nor can departments or individual faculty members as in days of yore. Instead, we have the benefit of being able to think strategically about our priorities and make decisions about our needs. We now do “all funds budgeting,” which makes us look at all of our resources—restricted and unrestricted—to do the best we can to cover our needs and plan accordingly. Our departments and programs are required to do the same.

We are now prepared for a capital campaign—the first in the history of Boston University—that will be launched visibly and volubly in two weeks. We are making good progress in CAS with respect to fundraising. We have already attracted some impressive gifts that will make a substantial difference in the quality and qualities of the education and research that takes place here. We have more in the works. We have been building the underlying structures it takes to complete a successful campaign, and many faculty members are already committed to taking part. We are training chairs and directors how to be a part of a successful campaign. We are refining how we tell our story in a way that is compelling and true to our mission and will entice our alumni and friends to join us in our effort to make a difference. I have spent considerable time traveling to meet donors over the past five years, and I expect to spend much more time on the road over the next few years.

One resource that is especially problematic in CAS is space and facilities. We have grown our faculty and our staff, and we have run out of room in many parts of the College. There simply is no more physical space at our disposal. We have been as smart as we can in shoehorning functions into our existing space, and we are defeated by the simple truth that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time unless one of them is a vision or hallucination. We have plans for a new building on Comm. Ave. that will take in a couple of our major departments, Computer Science and Mathematics and Statistics, and the backfill will have a major impact. The when of that happening depends on funding. Likewise, there are other plans—and dreams—that we hope to make material. The space issue is challenging and frustrating. I can change a lot of rules in the College, but not those governing the dimensions of space and time.

We will face some real resource challenges over the next couple of years. The harsh economic times are catching up with the BU budget, and while I don’t yet know what the FY14 budget will be, it is unlikely to be better than in recent years. The choice points will be tougher. We will have to be patient about fulfilling our vision over time, rather than regarding every need as a crisis that must be fulfilled today. The campaign mantra we have chosen is Our Impact, Your Impact. The story we will tell will focus on the tremendous investment of effort, intelligence, skill and resources we have made here on campus. Thanks to our faculty, our staff, our leadership, CAS already has made a huge impact. Now, turning to our alumni and friends, our message is, it’s your turn to match us by making a major impact on this institution’s ability to shape education, discovery, creativity—the world of tomorrow. As I said in my opening remarks today, it is all about impact and the ability to make a difference. And we are about to ask our alumni and friends to join us in that.

Let me close with the change I see as the most important, the area where we have all had the most impact, and where I am most excited to continue my work: the refreshing of the faculty. The transformation of our faculty, the ability we have had literally to shape the face of CAS as it will be 10, 20, 30 years from now, is astounding. When President Brown hired me, he told me that one of my primary tasks was to hire the best new faculty we could, to create a new generation of scholar/teachers who would be at the top of their fields, recognized world-wide for their original research and scholarly creations, able to work together across fields in ways that were not true among earlier generations of us, and who would be the kind of teachers who would ensure that BU makes a real difference in the preparation of the next generations of leaders, creators, citizens. We got glimpses of our enormous success earlier in this meeting when we met our newest group of colleagues.

We have hired well over 150 new tenure-track faculty members since President Brown made that promise. Our goal is to increase the size of our faculty by 100 members net (that is, above and beyond replacement hires) within 10 years, and we are slightly more than halfway there. Over a quarter of our faculty has been hired during this period, and, as you know from your own departments, these new professors are fabulous. They are well trained. They are already earning their disciplines’ top awards, honors, and grants. They are recreating their fields. They are forward looking.

Universities are long-term institutions: They must constantly regenerate themselves, or they will atrophy and die. The College of Arts & Sciences belongs to these new generations of scholars. The people we have hired in the past few years in such large numbers—larger numbers than almost any other university has managed—own the future of our College and our University. They will transform us, and they will change the University in ways that the most senior of us may not imagine and might not find comfortable. Well, that’s just fine. After all, we old folks did the same to our predecessors. Serves us right. It will certainly serve Boston University right as our newest, smart and exciting generation of faculty begin to make their dreams reality.