Letters

State of the University, Fall 2013

By Robert A. Brown | September 30, 2013

Dear Colleagues,

I hope your academic year is off to a wonderful start. I want to use my annual fall letter to the community to review some of the highlights of the last year and to update you on steps we are taking to face the challenges that I described to you in my letter dated February 28, 2013, especially as we update our 2007 Strategic Plan, a process which is currently under way.

Highlights

I begin with the highlights:

This September we welcomed the news that Boston University gained 10 positions — to 41st from 51st — in the US News & World Report Ranking of National Universities. No ranking fully captures the quality of the programs, faculty, and students of a comprehensive research university, but the US News ranking is widely cited. Taken together with other indications of our progress over the last year — such as the invitation to join the Association of American Universities, the large increase in undergraduate applications, and our new membership in the Patriot League athletic conference — the jump in the US News ranking is validation of our progress toward our aspiration to be (and be recognized as) a great private research university.

I would especially like to highlight our progress on two important fronts: undergraduate admissions and our comprehensive campaign.

In early September we welcomed 3,813 freshmen into the Class of 2017, the smallest freshman class since 2001. Because of the large increase in our applicant pool (up by nearly 20 percent to 52,700 applicants), our selectivity for the class improved to a new low of 37 percent. The academic qualifications of our entering freshmen continue to rise: in our degree-granting schools and colleges the median score for the three-test SAT is 1950 and the median high school GPA is 3.62. Both of these are new highs for Boston University.

Last year also marked the first public year of our comprehensive campaign, Choose to be Great, which we launched in September 2012. We completed Fiscal Year 2013 (ending June 30, 2013) with a campaign total of $532.5 million in gifts and pledges, up more than $150 million from only a year ago. In the last fiscal year, the University also received cash philanthropic support of $116.9 million, by far a new high.

The campaign’s impact is already tangible. In the fall of 2012, we celebrated the magnificent $18 million gift from Sumner M. Redstone that named the new building now under construction for the School of Law. Other examples of the campaign’s impact include a total of 39 new professorships and career development professorships and new undergraduate and graduate scholarships.

The campaign has led to major improvements on our campus. Last month we opened the New Balance Field on West Campus and Kilachand Hall (formerly Shelton Hall) as the new home of the Kilachand Honors College. Work on the new Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) is under way at 750 Commonwealth Avenue and will be completed by January. The new Admissions Reception Center at 233 Bay State Road (a renovation of the former Hillel House) also will open in January.

New Balance Field
New Balance Field on West Campus
Kilachand Hall
Kilachand Hall (formerly Shelton Hall)
Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC)
Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC)
Admissions Reception Center architechtural rendering
Admissions Reception Center at 233 Bay State Road

As mentioned above, the construction of the Redstone Building for the School of Law is under way. The project is on schedule for occupancy in summer 2014. This building promises to be a spectacular addition to our campus. I want to thank everyone for accommodating the noise and inconvenience caused by such a major undertaking in the heart of our campus. The second phase of the project, which will begin in fall 2014, promises to be even more challenging as we relocate the faculty, staff, and teaching functions from the Law Tower so that it can be totally renovated. I appreciate how understanding people have been as we plan to execute these temporary relocations. More information on the tower renovation will be forthcoming during the academic year.

One component of the campaign that has a direct impact on our students is the establishment of an endowed scholarship program. Last fall we launched the Century Challenge with the goal of raising $100 million for undergraduate financial aid. To date we have raised $14 million and have already initiated 44 new scholarships. We have a long way to go to reach our goal and to significantly expand the amount of financial aid that Boston University can provide. This fall Boston University awarded $201 million in undergraduate financial aid, with only $6 million (just 3 percent) supported by either endowment or annual philanthropic support.

Boston University’s membership in the Patriot League athletic conference began this fall. We look forward to working with our partner institutions in the Patriot League to strengthen our athletic programs while maintaining high academic standards for student-athletes. Our athletes already are seeing benefits from our membership in the Patriot League, which supports the development of leadership training programs at member institutions. This month, we are launching the Bloom Family Leadership Academy, supported in part by a stipend from the league and by a generous endowment gift from alumnus and Overseer William Bloom and his family. In the academy, athletes and coaches will have opportunities to develop leadership skills while reaffirming their commitment to our core values.

Our accomplishments have been made against the backdrop of the challenges to all of higher education that I described in my letter last February. My letter focused on three topics that will dominate the landscape for research universities over the coming years:

  • Concerns on the part of parents and students, as well as the federal government, about the value of a residential university education, as cost increases outpace inflation and student debt continues to rise.
  • The availability of increasingly sophisticated web-based educational tools and the potential for online instruction to enhance or supplant traditional instructional methods, resulting in better learning outcomes, greater programmatic flexibility, and potentially lower costs for students.
  • The likelihood of a significant decline in federal government support for research, with no clear prospect of a significant resurgence in the near future.

Over the last year we have expended considerable effort on these three topics. Some of what we have done is described in the section below entitled Looking Ahead: The Challenges and Updating Our Strategic Plan. Before turning to these topics, I would like to focus on our financial performance last year and our budgeting going forward, as well as summarize some of the transitions in leadership that occurred recently.

Fiscal Years 2013 and 2014

As we reported several times last year, a decline in enrollment in some of our graduate professional programs made FY 2013 financially challenging. This downturn caused us not only to forgo funding some new initiatives in the schools and colleges, but also led to modest academic and administrative budget reductions for FY 2014.

We have sought to make these reductions strategically by focusing on initiatives that would change the way we work and by generating cost savings. For example, support staff for desktop and laptop computers were consolidated across the Charles River Campus into clusters of professionals who serve specific geographic rather than programmatic areas. The goal of this reorganization is to provide more uniform and cost-effective service using state-of-the-art online diagnostic tools. We are also working to cluster financial, budgetary, human resource, and some administrative functions with the same goal in mind. This is a significantly more complex exercise because of the wide variation in local needs and support models.

We closed FY 2013 with reserves of $101.1 million (compared to $107.7 million in FY 2012), of which $64.6 million was distributed back to the schools and colleges in accord with various agreements and to support initiatives. Remaining reserves were allocated for University-initiated projects, including funding for EPIC, the new studio classroom in the Metcalf Science Center, additional classrooms in the School of Management, and other capital projects. We also allocated funding for faculty hiring and retention, the modernization of the data center in Information Services & Technology, and support of the Center for Regenerative Medicine in the School of Medicine.

Our endowment climbed to $1.4 billion based on a combination of new gifts, transfers, and a preliminary return of 11.5 percent for FY 2013. The endowment spending distribution rate increased by 3.1 percent and the gross distribution will total approximately $47 million in FY 2014. Even so, this distribution is less than 2.5 percent of our all-funds budget for the year, which totals $2.043 billion. Our reliance on tuition and fees still amounts to 58 percent of our revenue and couples our financial performance directly to the value proposition we offer our students and their parents. As you know, we began this year with a 3.7 percent undergraduate tuition increase.

We have entered FY 2014 with an overall budget that is only 1.3 percent above the budget for the same time in FY 2013. This relatively small increase in our budget results from lower-than-historical increases in tuition, slightly smaller enrollments in graduate professional programs on the Charles River Campus, and a projected decline in research revenue. Our research revenue in FY 2013 declined by approximately $9 million, or 2.3 percent compared to FY 2012. As a result, research expenditures were only $351 million in FY 2013. The ending of federally sponsored stimulus programs and the impact of sequestration account for some of this decline.

The modest growth in revenues projected for the current and coming years contrasts with accelerating costs of employee benefits. These are projected to increase by almost 7.5 percent based on our latest forecast for FY 2014. Health care costs in particular are increasing significantly; these costs are projected to increase in the FY 2014 budget by 6.6 percent. Benefit expenses are the fastest growing portion of employee compensation and now total over 30 percent of employee salaries. Going forward, the University will need to make difficult choices between limiting increases in health care benefits to employees and moderating salary increases.

Leadership Transitions

This past year saw several changes in the leadership of the University. Andrei Ruckenstein returned to teaching and research in the CAS Physics Department after serving as Vice President and Associate Provost for Research for five years, during a time of enormous growth and change. Gloria Waters, previously Dean of Sargent College, became Vice President and Associate Provost for Research on July 1. Simultaneously, Andy Horner became our first Vice President for Research Finance & Operations. We have expanded the leadership of the research enterprise with the goal of providing broader and more effective administrative services and support for our faculty. Finally, Michael Donovan became Vice President for Real Estate & Facility Services, a role in which he has responsibility for campus planning, the purchase and sale of real estate, leasing, building design and construction, and facilities management, reporting to Gary Nicksa, Senior Vice President, Operations.

We saw several decanal transitions over the past year. In July, Dr. Arun Upneja became Dean of the School of Hospitality Administration. Both a practitioner in the field of hospitality management and an experienced faculty member and administrator, he comes to us from The Pennsylvania State University, where he was a Professor of Hospitality Financial Management and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Schreyer Honors College. Following Gloria Waters’s appointment as Vice President and Associate Provost for Research, we named Kathleen Morgan as Interim Dean at Sargent College. Professor Morgan has been serving as Chair of the Department of Health Sciences at Sargent since coming to Boston University in 2006. Professor Natalie McKnight is serving as Interim Dean at the College of General Studies, following the retirement of Dean Linda Wells. Dr. McKnight has served as Associate Dean for Faculty Research & Development since 2011, and as Chair of the Humanities Division from 1997 to 2011. Finally, Dr. Tanya Zlateva, Metropolitan College’s Associate Dean for Academic Programs and an Associate Professor of Computer Science, has been serving as Interim Dean at MET since January.

Looking Ahead: The Challenges and Updating Our Strategic Plan

The three large trends in higher education listed above affect all research universities and require thoughtful responses in order to best serve our students and society. I believe the best way to formally craft this response is to update our Strategic Plan, which was originally promulgated in 2007. This process has begun with the involvement of the deans of our schools and colleges. I do not see this process resulting in a major shift in strategic direction, especially with respect to the core commitments of the University, but more as a mid-course correction that helps us organize strategic priorities in light of what we have accomplished and changes in our external environment.

Issues being addressed are:

  1. Exploring how we can further enhance undergraduate education to increase its value and effectively account for shifting student interest in specific academic programs.
  2. Re-envisioning our residential campus in the context of an evolving student body, as well as changes in the means of delivering educational content.
  3. Examining our research activities and identifying disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas for strategic investment where we can or may be national or international leaders.
  4. Assessing the importance of digital learning as a major initiative within the University.
  5. Identifying capital investments for renovations and additions that align with updated priorities.

The work of academic leaders — particularly deans — on this update will include efforts to facilitate conversations within our schools and colleges that will inform our revisions and adjustments. We are also engaging our Board of Trustees in the discussion of how we should update our Strategic Plan. We hope to conclude the exercise by late spring, and I intend to review our progress at the fall Faculty Assembly meeting on November 4.

In the remainder of this letter, let me highlight accomplishments in the last year in the context of three of the challenges laid out above: the value proposition for our students and their parents, the digital learning environment, and our focus on excellence.

Our Value Proposition for Undergraduate Students

We continue to work to increase the quality of our undergraduate programs and to improve measures of student success. In addition to the very positive gains in admissions for the fall 2013 freshman class, we also saw some improvements in undergraduate student retention and graduation figures. This year’s freshman-to-sophomore retention rate was 92.5 percent, up from 88.4 percent 10 years ago. Our 6-year graduation rate was nearly 84.4 percent, up from 75.4 percent 10 years ago.

We should be impressed by the work ethic of our students, especially those who make the extra effort to take full advantage of opportunities across the entire University. Among students in the CAS Class of 2012, for example, 24 percent graduated having completed two or more majors. This is one of the highest percentages of multiple majors among research universities, and a testament to the ambition of our students.

The cost of an undergraduate education, student financial aid, and debt remain critical concerns for every university. We continue to work to keep tuition increases as low as feasible, to provide the majority of our financial aid on the basis of need, and to carefully monitor the debt levels of graduating students. The domestic students in our incoming freshman class received more aid per student than any class in our history. More than 58 percent of the class received aid and the average aid award was $27,500. For our graduates from May 2012 (the year for which we have the most current data), the average debt level is $36,150 for those who borrowed. BU graduates from 2009 are running at less than a 1.5 percent level of default on their student loans, compared to a national average of 13.4 percent, according to figures from the US Department of Education Office of Federal Student Aid.

Even with this level of financial aid we cannot meet full financial need for all our students. We are forced to decide how to distribute aid among admitted students. For students with similar need, we do this on the basis of academic merit; students who are more academically accomplished get a larger fraction of their need met than those with lesser qualifications. Given limited resources, there seems no fairer way to distribute aid.

The Digital Learning Initiative

As you have heard, we are moving quickly to become active in the application of digital learning for our residential students and to address new cohorts of students around the world. In May we joined the edX consortium, a group of 29 schools that are focused on utilizing an open-source software platform as the foundation of the digital learning environment (see BU Today story and the edX website). As part of the edX consortium, we are initially developing five MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

The Council for Educational Technology & Learning Innovation (CETLI) was formed in fall 2012 to help develop a strategy for our digital learning initiative, and its report was submitted this past summer (download report; Kerberos password required). The report calls for a multifaceted approach to developing and integrating web-based material into our instructional model. The three major recommendations are:

  1. Create a Digital Learning Initiative (DLI) as an organization that will enable us to integrate the edX platform. DLI will serve as the creative team for the development of MOOCs within edX and also for developing ways we can use the platform for the instruction of our residential students. As announced in July, we launched DLI under the leadership of Professor Chrysanthos Dellarocas of the Department of Information Systems in the School of Management.
  2. Establish a seed grant program to facilitate faculty members' development of digital learning material for their classes. This program is being launched this fall by DLI and CETLI (see website; Kerberos password required).
  3. Develop a Teaching Resource Center (TRC) for all faculty members and academic units interested in using digital learning resources in their teaching. This recommendation is under discussion.

Focus on Excellence: Faculty

Increasing the excellence and impact of faculty-led research and scholarship requires our continued commitment to faculty hiring and support, doctoral-level graduate education, and the availability of world-class facilities. We continue to recruit outstanding faculty; in the last year we hired a total of 41 new faculty members on the Charles River Campus. Of these, 33 were at the rank of assistant professor and 8 were at the ranks of associate and full professor. This year, we have been able to create and fill 5 new faculty positions. On the Medical Campus, faculty appointments are made throughout the year, and a significant number of these appointments are initially at the level of instructor. Of those appointed with unmodified titles, 63 were assistant professors, 6 associate professors, and 3 professors, along with 45 instructors.

Several outstanding senior faculty have joined the University, including:

  • Anthony Janetos, Professor of Earth & Environment and Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. Professor Janetos has devoted his career to exploring the science and policies around significant global change. He has held appointments at NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other institutions. He comes to BU from the University of Maryland, where he was Director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute.
  • Alice White, Professor and Chair of Mechanical Engineering. Professor White comes to the University from Bell Labs, where she was Chief Scientist, with expertise in materials science and optical component fabrication. She also served Bell Labs as Director of Integrated Photonics Research and Vice President of the Physical Technologies Research Center. She holds 5 patents and is the author of more than 125 publications.
  • Christopher Chen, Professor of Biomedical Engineering. Professor Chen comes to BU from the University of Pennsylvania, where he served as founding director of the Center for Engineering Cells and Regeneration and a Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering. He is recognized as one of the world’s leaders in tissue engineering and mechanobiology. He is a specialist in applying microfabrication and nanotechnology techniques to cell and tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine.

We anticipate that hiring will continue at a similar pace for the current year.

As part of our continuous process of improving the quality of the faculty and instruction, we are moving to standardize the use of contingent or part-time instructors or lecturers across the University with the aim of increasing the quality of these teachers when they are necessary and replacing them, when feasible, with full-time faculty and teaching staff. As part of this process the University Provost has centralized the appointment of part-time faculty in her office and is constituting an ad hoc working group on part-time faculty, which will make recommendations for improving the quality of instruction and working conditions for our part-time teaching staff.

The outstanding quality of research and scholarship conducted by our faculty garners external recognition throughout the year. The invitation the University received last year to join the Association of American Universities was to a significant extent a reflection of faculty achievements.

The individual honors and awards earned by faculty over the past year include:

  • James Collins, a Warren Distinguished Professor and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
  • The American Academy of Arts & Sciences elected Aurelio Professor of Scripture Emerita Paula Fredriksen and Professor of Economics Larry Epstein, both of CAS, to its class of 2013.
  • Anthropologist Robert Weller of CAS received a Guggenheim Fellowship to support his study of religious pluralism in China.
  • Michelle Johnson, a COM Associate Professor of the Practice in the Journalism Department, was named Educator of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists.
  • Early career awards have gone to two CAS assistant professors: Jonathan Appavoo, Computer Sciences, by the National Science Foundation, and Ramesh Jasti, Chemistry, by the Sloan Foundation.

Internally, we have recognized both young and well-established faculty in a number of ways. This past summer, we named Keith Hylton of LAW and Catherine Costello of MED as our newest William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professors. Theodore Moustakas of ENG received BU’s 2013 Innovator of the Year Award, by which the University recognizes a faculty member whose research and ideas have led to the formation of companies that benefit society. A total of 31 faculty members were promoted to full professor, 17 on the Charles River Campus, and 14 on the Medical Campus. On the CRC, 12 faculty were awarded tenure, including one associate professor, 10 assistant professors who were promoted to associate professor, and one assistant professor promoted to full professor. On the Medical Campus, 7 assistant professors were promoted to associate professor.

We are very pleased to be able to help our junior faculty accelerate their work through various career development professorships that have been established through the generosity of supporters. We recently named the eighth class of the Peter Paul Career Development Professorships: John Marston, CAS Archaeology; Tyler Perrachione, SAR Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences; and Erin Reid, SMG Organizational Behavior. In addition, Cornel Ban, CAS International Relations, was named the Stuart and Elizabeth Pratt Career Development Professor; Nachiketa Sahoo, SMG Information Systems, was named Reidy Family Career Development Professor; and Hui Feng, MED Pharmacology and Medicine, was named Ralph Edwards Career Development Professor. We also named two outstanding junior faculty to Innovation Career Development Professorships: Ramesh Jasti, CAS Department of Chemistry, and Ahmad Khalil, ENG Department of Biomedical Engineering.

A comprehensive listing of faculty honors, including external awards, internal career development professorships, promotions, and tenure awards, can be found on the Provost’s website.

Focus on Excellence: Doctoral Research Programs

A major accomplishment last year was the reorganization of how we fund PhD students across our programs on the Charles River Campus to better align our support with the goals of attracting the best graduate students to our programs and giving them the resources to succeed. In our new funding system, PhD candidates who are making good progress are guaranteed five years of support. This includes a stipend, tuition remission, and payment of mandatory fees. The stipend support will come through a combination of teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and fellowships. As part of this effort, we will monitor the quality of entering students, their success through completion of their degrees, and their placements upon completion to ensure that the University’s support is effective in fostering excellence.

Focus on Excellence: Facilities

We continue to invest in research infrastructure. Last fall saw the completion of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke, Massachusetts. This center is a partnership among BU, MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, and the University of Massachusetts, along with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and business partners EMC Corporation and Cisco Systems. This facility, which utilizes renewable hydroelectric power, consumes 25 percent less energy than typical data centers. With its opening, we began migrating many of our research computation centers to the MGHPCC, freeing up space on our campus and decreasing power consumption. Simultaneously, faculty members from the Hariri Institute have led an initiative in the development of cloud computing, where both computers and software are virtualized.

Our next major addition to the physical infrastructure for research is the design and construction of the Center for Integrated Life Science & Engineering (CILSE), which is planned for the space adjacent to Morse Auditorium. CILSE, which will accommodate approximately 20 faculty in the life sciences and some 200 students and staff, will facilitate collaborative interdisciplinary research efforts for which adjacent space is essential. The space is initially programmed to accommodate research groups working in synthetic biology and in systems neuroscience. Additionally, planning is under way to locate a neuroimaging facility in CILSE for use in support of programs across the Charles River and Medical Campuses. The architecture firm Payette Associates began design work on CILSE this fall.

Center for Integrated Life Science & Engineering (CILSE)
Center for Integrated Life Science & Engineering (CILSE)

Also, as a result of a competition, KPMB Architects of Toronto has been selected to design the new computational sciences center that will be constructed on the parking lot at the corner of Granby Street and Commonwealth Avenue. This facility will house a new teaching complex for the College of Arts & Sciences, the Department of Mathematics & Statistics, Department of Computer Science, and the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering.

Finally, we have made progress on the long-awaited opening of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) on the Medical Campus. Last spring, the office of the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs issued a certificate clearing the way for final state approval necessary for conducting Biosafety Level 3 and 4 research. We are still awaiting a decision in federal court, and we recently filed briefs in state court; decisions in those two venues would open the way to the final approval process necessary for conducting BSL-3 and BSL-4 research, which would come from the Boston Public Health Commission. Once these hurdles are cleared, we will pursue work that has the potential to make major contributions to public health in the United States and around the world.

Summary

The academic year is full of promise for all our students and faculty. Our students are deepening their understanding within a chosen discipline and are exploring new fields, while pursuing experiences outside our classrooms, laboratories, and studios. Our faculty members are leading this community of learners while breaking new ground on the frontiers of research and scholarship. I believe that this community is more vibrant today than at any time in Boston University’s history, and I am confident that our plans and efforts will move us along the path to continued success as a great private research university.

Sincerely,

Robert A. Brown
President