Boston University | April 27, 2006
Remarks given by Dr. Robert A. Brown, President:
To Mayor Menino, State Treasurer Cahill, members of the Boston University Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, and guests, I stand before you humbled by your response, touched by your participation in today’s events, and grateful for the warm welcome that the entire Boston University community has extended to Beverly and me.
People who know me well realize that I don’t change settings easily. I am a creature of habit and connections. It was approximately a year ago when I began conversations with members of the Boston University family that led to us being here today. The members of the Presidential Search Committee, led by David D’Alessandro, expressed their deep connection to Boston University and conveyed their hopes for the future. They drew me into the opportunity to serve the university and I am deeply grateful for their confidence in me. It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to serve Boston University as your president; I pledge to do everything I can to earn the trust you have placed in me.
I must pause here to thank the most important person in my life, my wife and sweet heart, Beverly, for her unyielding support during our 37 years together. She is my standard for the highest quality of character, my constant friend and soul mate, and my companion and confidante on this great adventure. I am truly blessed to have her by my side.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge my two sons, Ryan and Keith, who are my greatest source of pride and two people who can humble me in any number of ways.
There are many things that I want to say this afternoon to the entire Boston University community, our faculty, staff, students and alumni. My remarks will focus on Boston University, as today’s events are a time for:
Celebrating Our Legacy, Forging Our Future.
I believe these words eloquently capture the Boston University I have come to understand, where the study of our past is important to defining the core values of the university, where we take stock in our accomplishments as an institution, and where there is palpable excitement and gathering energy to move forward and define our future.
From its roots as a Methodist seminary, Boston University has been a story of continual growth and transformation. From a collection of buildings scattered about Boston at the beginning of the 20th century, Boston University is now a teeming campus stretched along Commonwealth Avenue and a modern healthcare complex in the heart of Boston’s South End. From a university that began serving local residents who commuted to class, Boston University has grown into a residential campus attracting students from all across America and from around the world. Today, our faculty and students form a community of teaching, learning, and discovery rich in intellectual diversity. Our impact has been enormous with 260,000 living alumni of our undergraduate and graduate programs and our family is continually expanding.
Our legacy is as a private university with wonderful breadth and depth. For undergraduates there is a kaleidoscope of opportunities, each built on a liberal arts core and with specializations across the spectrum of disciplines; we offer a classical liberal arts education, with all manner of concentrations in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, and more professionally focused degrees in communications, management, performing arts, education and engineering, to name just a few opportunities. Everywhere we strive to graduate educated, informed citizens who can reason about important issues in the world, who can take their place in a global economy, and who can lead our society. At no time in history has the mission of educating our youth for the challenges of citizenship and for participating in a competitive society been more important to this country and to the world.
In parallel with the commitment to undergraduate education, there are nationally known professional programs in the age-old triad of law, medicine, and theology, as well as the relative newcomers, such as business, communications, public health, and the performing arts. At Boston University, as elsewhere, professional and graduate education are cornerstones of the modern research university.
Across both campuses, Boston University is blessed with faculty who work at the leading edges of their disciplines, producing research and scholarship befitting a great research university, but who also care deeply about education and student learning. Great faculty who care about teaching! And what variety of faculty we have: world-class high-energy physicists, talented musicians, award-winning journalists, historians, philosophers, doctors, dentists, and, even, engineers.
To the faculty: you are the university’s most important resource and I pledge to support your efforts aimed at continuing excellence in education and research.
Diversity and inclusion also have been cornerstones of our legacy throughout the history of Boston University. For example, when Boston Medical School opened its doors in 1873, it admitted women and African Americans. Moreover, Boston University was the first American university to award a Ph.D. degree to a woman, Helen Magill, in 1877; the first woman to join the Massachusetts Bar was an 1881 Boston University Law School graduate, Lelia Josephine Robinson; and the School of Theology awarded the first degree in theology to a woman in 1876, Anna Oliver, although the Methodist Church would not ordain her. The sculpture, Free at Last, by Sergio Castillo that adorns the plaza of Marsh Chapel as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the interdenominational services that are performed inside the Chapel are continuing recognition that the legacy of inclusion lives on.
The university’s accomplishments and impact are intertwined with the City of Boston. Today over 12,000 undergraduate students live within Boston University’s residential community, but when these students walk out of their residences or classrooms they quickly arrive on Commonwealth Avenue, see the B-Line and know they are in Boston. Mayor Menino, we revel in being Boston’s university. We are extremely proud of our heritage of engagement with and service to the City. Our engagement is visible today in many ways; most notably through our partnership with Boston Medical Center (BMC) in providing healthcare for all of the people of Boston and in medical education, through the continued access of Boston residents to the university, through our efforts in managing the Chelsea School System, and through a myriad of other educational programs and services that engage our students and faculty with city children and residents.
Today students come to Boston University because of the high quality and variety of our educational programs, because of the quality of student life, and because of Boston; they are engaged. Under the masthead of “Every Bug Does Its Part,” our students organized an inaugural gift that has resulted in over 41,700 hours of service to the community and has made the bright yellow Bobby Brown tee shirt a campus icon. I am deeply grateful to all for this outpouring of community service in my name.
Our legacy of engagement and our entrepreneurial spirit has spread Boston University’s impact around the globe through international programs for Boston-based students and for students in their home countries. What began as engagement with Boston has spread to undergraduate programs in London, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Dresden, to education programs focused on public health in Africa, and research on emerging infectious diseases around the world. We should be extremely proud of the leadership that Boston University is demonstrating in the focus on infectious disease research. These diseases, many of which have been characterized as Third World problems, have been under-studied in this country. Our conviction to invest in research will lead to much needed treatments and vaccines.
The 3rd president of Boston University, Lemuel Murlin, said in his 1911 Inaugural address that the goal for our University was to be “in the heart of the city, in the service of the city.” We have fulfilled President Murlin’s goal and accomplished much more.
Today we can boast that Boston University is a great private research university in the heart of the city, engaged in the city and the world.
It is my honor to acknowledge the presence on the podium of three past presidents of Boston University; each has played pivotal roles in shaping our institution: Aram Chobanian, Jon Westling, and John R. Silber. These gentlemen, especially Dr. Silber, have helped mold the Boston University that I have described to you and have set the foundation for our future.
First, let me begin with a little personal evaluation of myself. As has been noted many times, I am an engineer, and with this background come my instincts to jump in and work to help people “solve problems.” I do have this inclination, probably to a fault. I also have a propensity for numbers; I am known to say “where is the data?” I try to communicate an understanding about the university to all who will listen, in the hope of creating shared understanding and common cause. This is not a simple goal, because of the complexity inherent in the operation of a large private university. I also strive to live according to Albert Einstein’s dictum of “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler,” although I have mixed success.
What is less appreciated about me is that behind this analytical facade I have a very active imagination. In my earlier days as a faculty member, I imagined the solution of mathematical problems arising from research and lectures that fit perfectly together. I admit these were strange dreams, but they were harmless in that they were only shared with a few colleagues; with either the graduate student who was toiling in research or the students in a class who were struggling with my not-so-simple explanations of concepts and techniques.
Today I am in the highly exposed position of sharing with you my imagined hopes for Boston University. I will do my best to make it simple.
In my short time here I have begun constructing an image of what our university can become for us and for the future students and faculty who join our community. I cannot give you a prescription for the institution, but I can talk about five words that are shaping the images: learning, excellence, connectivity, engagement, and inclusion.
Above all other descriptors that I imagine, learning describes Boston University today and in the future. We have been and will continue to strive to be a learning community for all faculty, students and staff. Learning flourishes here in the traditional classroom settings; however, equally as important, learning occurs by engagement of all of us in our campus community, in Boston and the world around us. This learning community encompasses the undergraduate student who will help generate almost 42,000 hours of community service for a gift to the university, the student who rides the BU-Bus to the medical campus to work on an undergraduate research project, the dental student who participates in the APEX program that gives dental service to under-served communities, or the law student who volunteers at a legal clinic. It includes all the students who study away from our Boston campuses and those who intern in Boston and around the world. It includes the spectacular evening lectures by Professor Elie Wiesel and the readings sponsored by the Creative Writing Program and other campus organizations.
I imagine Boston University becoming known for this broader definition of learning. I can think of no better university to have this goal and no better way to enrich the education of our students.
Instilling the never-ending drive for excellence in everything we do has been and will remain a central theme of our university. Whether it is promoting excellence in teaching, scholarship, and research, or in providing dining for our undergraduates, we must insist on the highest quality, just as we demand the same quality from our students’ work. We will continue to build academic excellence on the pillars of our faculty and graduate programs, as it is the individual creativity of our faculty and the energy emanating from their research and scholarship which inspires and nourishes our learning community.
Perhaps the most challenging vision I have is for Boston University to be known as one connected, integrated community of scholars and students, researchers and learners. While representing excellence in our individual disciplines, while educating the next generation of scholars and leaders, we have an enormous opportunity: we can become the large private university known for thinking about the whole.
This concept takes many forms, from connecting the Boston University alumni community to their university, to connecting students from the schools and colleges across our campuses, to strengthening our connections to the city and the world, to bringing together our intellectual breadth to focus on challenges in research and on undergraduate education.
We have the opportunity to lead in interdisciplinary research; this initiative is already well underway, especially in interactions between the Medical Campus and academic departments on the Charles River Campus. Here colleagues have joined together and successfully launched collaborative initiatives, including major programs in biomedical engineering and bioinformatics. We are at the forefront of these efforts because our faculty foresaw the blurring of the boundaries between traditional biological science, physical science, and mathematics in modern research in life science and human health. We will build on these successes and create more opportunities for collaboration and interdisciplinary innovation.
In a larger context, we all agree about the magnitude of the challenges faced by society and we agree that significant progress will require innovation that goes well beyond any single discipline; for example, consider the challenges of developing an environmentally sustainable energy policy, and of providing affordable, quality health care for us and for the world. Boston University will play a role in shaping the dialogue and defining the approaches to these challenges by bringing together the strength and diversity of the university. The Pardee Center’s successful conferences on global health and human development and on the role of religion in the longer-range future are indications of the enthusiasm of our faculty for truly interdisciplinary collaboration.
Perhaps our greatest opportunity for connectivity lies in the potential to create a truly unique undergraduate educational experience. We have the opportunity to fuse a 21st century liberal arts education with opportunities for students to concentrate in professional disciplines. Today our undergraduate education does not demand a choice between becoming well educated and preparing for a professional career; we work hard to balance these objectives. But we can go further: we can pioneer the new educational balance between professional and personal development and develop a set of opportunities that resonate for students across all our schools and colleges.
We can be increasingly known for graduating teachers with rich foundations in science and mathematics, performing artists with liberal arts backgrounds, engineers and managers with the humanities and social science underpinnings needed to work effectively in international settings, and journalists with a deep understanding of historical and socio-political context. In my image of our undergraduate environment, we can apply Boston University’s enormous resources to create nearly boundary-less educational possibilities, with the Arts and Sciences at the core, but not the limit of the undergraduate experience.
As a newcomer to the campus, it is with great trepidation that I think about the future of undergraduate education at Boston University, as many university presidencies have died on the mountain of educational change; but, discussions with our faculty have convinced me that there is energy here to take on this challenge. We will.
A university in the 21st century cannot be an ivory tower. Creating knowledge for society and educating our future generations is a “contact sport.” Our university, our students and faculty, must be engaged in all facets of the world. I imagine Boston University being known as the place for students and faculty who clamor for this engagement, whether in Boston or abroad. Said another way, if you are looking for adiabatic academic cloisters, don’t look to Boston University!
There are many questions. What forms will engagement take in the 21st century? How will we best educate our students for participating in the world? What will Boston University’s role be in the development of global private higher education? I believe the answers to these questions are interrelated; the concept of a university is changing as the world becomes more interconnected, as our students look toward their education to prepare them for full participation in it, and as more students around the globe are seeking the kind of education offered by Boston University. It is timely that we develop a unified strategy for Boston University’s role in the evolution of global higher education.
The legacy of Boston University demands that we do everything in our power to make our campus inclusive of all people who have the intellect and drive to be members of our community. Inclusion means men and women faculty of all races and backgrounds working together in research, education, and leadership. Inclusion means students of different races, nationalities, and socio-economic backgrounds learning and living together.
A great university must be a meritocracy based on openness and empowerment for all its faculty and students. The founders of Boston University had this dream and we must honor it.
To achieve this goal with our student body, we must aggressively recruit and find financial support for students who do not have the resources to attend this university. This hurdle will be one of our biggest challenges, as we do not have a large financial endowment to be used for funding student financial aid. We must raise funds to support the undergraduate student financial aid required to increase access to Boston University for students from all socio-economic backgrounds. I will be asking our alumni and friends to help us take on this challenge.
The focus on access also comes together in efforts to increase the flow of qualified city students to our universities. We can make a difference in this crucial arena. It is inspiring to share this goal with so many at Boston University who are already involved in outreach to K–12 education in our cities. These colleagues bring the same passion to making a difference in the lives of young inner city children as in their teaching and research on campus.
Today, Boston University is one of the premier large private universities in the world. Focusing on learning, excellence, connectivity, engagement, and inclusion can make us a better place to learn and discover.
I truly believe that universities are places where dreams come true; where having an imagination is paramount; and where hard work and intelligence are all that matters to excel in education and research. My most profound goal is to help Boston University be this type of institution for our students and faculty. I commit my energy and I look forward to joining with all of you to make our vision for the future a reality.
Thank you again for joining me to celebrate Boston University today.