Address to Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce

by Robert A. Brown | October 7, 2008

Thank you, Nate [Nate Pusey], for that kind introduction.

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be with you and to have the opportunity to speak to leaders of the Boston business community. I am impressed that so many of you have come to hear a university president speak. I would like to think that your attendance here this morning is based on a sincere interest in the topic, rather than a residual sense of guilt from cutting early morning classes during your college days!

I would like to use my time to talk about Boston University, and about the important roles that large private research universities play in the economy and the future of Boston, the region, and the nation. I also want to tell you about some plans and projects that we have at BU that can contribute to the betterment of our community and the world.

This is a wonderful forum in which to have this discussion, as I am sure all of you have an appreciation for the role of higher education in the region. Hopefully, my remarks will broaden your understanding of how universities, especially Boston University, play an important role in our economy.

Before I begin, I should take a moment to tell you a bit about the job of a university president. There are three common factors that I share with most of my peers:  we live on campus; we walk to work; and we beg for a living. Now, “living on campus” might sound convenient – who wouldn’t like to have a big house close to the office? The reality is somewhat different. My wife, Beverly, and I host many, many functions every week:  teas for alumni, receptions for dignitaries, dinners for potential donors, and so on. As I like to say, we actually live in a small apartment above one of the best restaurants in town!

My perspective on research universities has been shaped by my 26 years as a member of the MIT faculty as a researcher, educator, and leader, and by the three years that I have had the privilege of serving as president of Boston University.

Research universities represent the pinnacle of American higher education. They are not only centers of education, they are also centers of innovation. These institutions couple a commitment to education and scholarship in all academic disciplines with a quest for advances in science and technology that are, today, at the heart of American economic growth.

I know that the current economic crisis has everyone worried; I can assure you that without new ideas generated by research universities, our long-range prospects for a healthy economy would be far dimmer.

Boston University is a large version of the research university enterprise. Undergraduates study liberal arts and sciences and a broad range of professional disciplines, including management, engineering, communications, and fine arts.

At the heart of BU there are 16,000 undergraduate students in our programs with just over 4,000 new students joining us each year; for fall 2008 our students were recruited from a pool of over 40,000 applicants. We also have some 16,000 graduate students. At commencement last May we awarded more than 5,800 degrees, nearly half of them advanced degrees.

Among our 17 schools and colleges we have a large College of Arts and Sciences, and a host of professional schools including management, law, medicine, dentistry, public health, engineering, theology, and a fine arts conservatory! We enjoy a breadth seen in very few other institutions. This breadth is one of our competitive advantages and it is also perhaps our largest hurdle — describing Boston University to others is a challenge.

Boston University is among the top 15 largest employers in Massachusetts. We employ 8,000 people, including 2,400 faculty on our Charles River campus and nearly 1,200 faculty on our Medical Campus in the South End. Our combined number of students, faculty and staff would put us in the top 10 percent of Massachusetts cities and towns, ranked by population.

In this fiscal year, the Boston University budget is just short of two billion dollars. Our annual budget differs from those of our Ivy League neighbors as we have a relatively small endowment for our size. Yes, we have an endowment of a little over one billion dollars, at least we did at the end of the last fiscal year. In Massachusetts, there are nine universities with endowments above this mark that all seem to be painted with the same brush. Now there are many ratios one can create to scale the endowment to the size and activity level of the institution. One ratio that I find particularly interesting is to compare endowment simply to the amount of undergraduate financial aid that an institution awards. This year our undergraduate financial aid will top $170 million; as a simple ratio, this aid is in excess of 15 percent of our endowment. Clearly, this is ridiculous calculation as normal distributions from endowments range between 4 and 5 percent, but it makes the point that for institutions like Boston University, our endowment plays a very small role in the operation of our programs. My major point is that discussions of endowment size must be much more sophisticated that what you usually see in the press.

Where does our revenue come from? Over 50 percent comes from tuition and fees from graduate and undergraduate students, with another 13 percent from auxiliaries associated with our operations. Our reliance on our consumer, our students and their parents, explains why we are potentially more dynamic in our reactions to changes in the economy. Our announcement last week to freeze hiring and capital spending until we have a better grasp on the magnitude of the recession was simply being prudent in the face of the uncertainty we all face, but especially considering the potential impact of the recession on parents and students and their ability finance a private university education.

Literally, Boston University is a city within a city. We have over three hundred buildings, including classrooms, offices, laboratories, restaurants — both large dining halls and many small retail operations — and student housing. Today, and this development is relatively new, Boston University is a predominantly residential urban student community. When we open the new high-rise residence that is under construction on the west end of our campus — you can see it from Memorial Drive, Storrow Drive, and the Turnpike — we will house almost 85 percent of our undergraduate students.

One feature of BU that is sometimes not fully appreciated is the magnitude of our research enterprise. Research and scholarship occurs across all disciplines within the University. In some areas, especially in the social sciences, humanities and arts, the volume and impact of this work is difficult to quantify as the output is in papers, articles and books, or theatrical plays and musical compositions authored by our faculty and students. Much of this work can be done with relatively modest amounts of funding.

However, research in science, engineering and health sciences requires significant funding and so, for many, the dollars spent by the institution become the measure of research activity. By our 2008 fiscal year numbers, with over $350 million of sponsored research performed on our campuses and almost $90 million awarded to our medical school faculty based in Boston Medical Center, we are among the top research institutions in the country, and the third largest in Massachusetts behind our two sister institutions in Cambridge.

Our research universities, especially the private institutions, are a special asset to New England and the country. I say this not only from the perspective of my window overlooking the Charles River, but from the vantage point of someone whose research activities have involved European and Asian collaborations, and who advises governments on policies and organizational structure for research and higher education. These institutions feed the American innovation engine and supply the highly educated human capital needed for our continued economic leadership. The Greater Boston area, with its collection of universities, hospitals, and other research institutions, is the envy of leaders around the world.

It is easy to think about the local economic impact of these universities in terms of the billions of dollars spent through salaries, services purchased by the institutions, and student spending. These are real and important effects. But of equal importance is the opportunity for the region to use the brainpower of these institutions, and their graduates, to power the economic engine of Boston and New England. In the balance of trade, we are a net importer of talent into the country and the state.

You might be surprised to know that students from Massachusetts are a relatively small percentage of the Boston University student body. In our fall freshman class, less than 20 percent are from Massachusetts, whereas 16 percent are from New York and almost 9 percent came from California. This year we had 11 percent of our class who are international; this is, simply, a reflection of the demographics of our applicant pool, where we saw last year a 29 percent expansion in the number of foreign applicants. This last statistic underscores the high value placed internationally on an undergraduate education in American private universities and that this education is quickly becoming more attainable for the growing middle class in many emerging countries.

I have a proposal for you:  I propose that it ought to be our collective goal, a goal shared by universities and the business community, to keep as many of these students, once they graduate, as we can in New England in order to fuel our economic growth. For this to happen, attractive jobs must exist across all sectors:  health care, manufacturing, financial services, and information-technology, to name a few. Our challenge is to work together to identify the educational backgrounds needed by your companies in the next decades, in order to guarantee opportunities for our graduates while at the same time meeting your needs.

Other regions of this country, as well as other countries, are not sitting still, but are working to create programs and policies which will attract jobs and the people who can best fill them. For example, many countries, and in particular cities, are supporting efforts to build university research facilities and to attract leading faculty and students. They are doing this in order to attract R&D laboratories of multi-national corporations as partners of research university clusters. The global competition is already fierce and will get fiercer.

Talented graduates will go to the best jobs, where they are welcomed, and where the quality of life is best. Recently, I attended a thesis defense — the final step for achieving a doctorate — for a student who was defending his research and thesis in computational materials science; please, don’t ask me to describe his project. The faculty members agreed that the candidate had accomplished his task and congratulated him. During the handshakes someone asked the newly minted doctor where was he going to work? The answer:  a GE laboratory — not in upstate New York, but in Shanghai, China. Yes, the student is of Chinese origin, but that is not the point; a decade ago he would have looked for a job in the US, because the option of returning to China and finding such an opportunity there would not have existed. Today things are different, and students are being presented with international options offered through our career centers.

What does all this have to do with you? The great universities in New England and Boston are aggregators. We bring together talent from around the country and from around the globe to study, to do research, and to live and work. How long they stay in New England, or in the United States, is not a given; it is dependent on the opportunities and the quality of life here. For example, our international scholars face limits and delays on visas and immigration quotas, and the receptiveness of our nation to an international work force isn’t always strong. For everyone, there are the challenges of the cost of living, driven by housing and health care. There is also the issue of transportation.

Transportation is a major challenge for Boston and all the businesses within it, especially for our employees who must commute through Boston traffic each day. In the morning and evening when I walk by the BU Bridge and the interchange over the Mass Pike, I see cars fighting their way into and out of the city, and cars struggling to get back and forth from Cambridge to the Longwood area and elsewhere in Boston. Congestion is a critical problem for you and even more so for BU, as it not only affects the lives of our faculty, graduate students, and staff commuting to our campus, but it also degrades the sense of community that we struggle to build on our urban campuses. We move students and staff continually between our Charles River and Medical Campuses through this traffic, and also between the east and west sections of the Charles River Campus, which stretches over a mile-and-a-half along Commonwealth Avenue.

We have a plan that would transform the mangled intersection where the BU Bridge spills traffic onto Commonwealth Avenue and the Turnpike crosses over Storrow Drive and a rail bridge crosses the Charles. We believe that, working with the city, the state, and other institutions, we can turn that concrete wasteland into a pedestrian-friendly intersection, complete with green spaces, and construct a major new transportation hub that would serve the region. This proposed transportation hub could accommodate the first phase of the urban ring (a bus route), connecting directly with the Green Line for over 100,000 residents of Boston, Brookline and Cambridge, who live within a 20-minute walk. Many of you have seen our plans and if you have not, we would be happy to show them to you; our team of planners has been in meetings all over Boston and surrounding communities talking about our plans to everyone who will listen.

Two points are critical:  First the leadership of Boston businesses and institutions must work together with local and state agencies to bring the urban ring into existence. We all would benefit from the urban ring. We need better public transportation into and around the city if we are going to thrive as a place where people live and work in the decades ahead.

My second point is equally important, but more Boston University-centric; it is that, irrespective of the development of the urban ring, Boston University is and will remain committed to the development of Commonwealth Avenue as a pedestrian-friendly corridor that serves as the spine through our campus. It is paramount to us that we continue to invest in and improve the urban streetscape along Commonwealth Avenue, and the quality and integrity of the campus that we have been able to create within the narrow strip bordered by Commonwealth Avenue, Storrow Drive, and the eyesore that is the Mass Pike. We are investing heavily in our campus; I hope you travel up and down Commonwealth Avenue and have seen the improvements sponsored by the University and the City.

My final remarks concern the research enterprise of our universities. Research and scholarship spans all academic disciplines, especially in the sciences, medicine, and engineering, but it is our emphasis on life science that distinguishes the large institutions in Boston. Without a doubt, Boston is one of the leading life and health science research centers in the world. Our collective position has been built, for the most part, by each institution, acting alone, investing in faculty, facilities, and programs.

Going forward, I believe, our collective goal must be to sustain and grow this cluster, just as my goal is to keep Boston University as an important element in it. The Governor’s Life Science Initiative is critical recognition of the importance of this industry and these institutions to the State’s economy. Although the support from this initiative is very welcome, there is no doubt that the largest driver for research and development is the federal government, primarily through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to the educational and medical institutions in our community. The “eds and meds” drive this piece of our economy.

After being buoyed by the doubling of its budget between 1998 and 2003, the NIH has seen its longest period of stagnant funding, resulting in erosion in the support of the researchers in our institutions. Boston University has fared reasonably well during this period, because of the quality of our faculty and programs, but the present economic crisis will dampen federal discretionary spending going forward and decrease our momentum and those of our sister institutions.

More than any time in the recent past, institutions will have to make hard choices about where to put emphasis and resources to really make a difference. The faculty and staff of Boston University spent the better part of 18 months thinking about our future and crafting our new strategic plan. Some elements of it will have wide impact, such as our emphases on faculty quality and undergraduate education, and some elements are very strategic, such as picking the first set of schools, colleges and research programs to which we will add resources. In fact, the plan really ended up being about choices:  choosing which commitments and investments would best foster the quality and impact of the university, especially in the area of research and scholarship.

These are classically strategic decisions that each institution has been making independently. I don’t feel we can afford to do this any longer. The institutions along the Charles River must work more collectively to integrate our strengths and resources. There have been successes that show what we are capable of accomplishing. While provost at MIT, I had the privilege of working with the leadership of Harvard University, with Chuck Vest, President of MIT, and Professor Eric Lander, to bring the Broad Institute into existence, as a collaboration between the two universities and the Harvard teaching hospitals. By any measure the Broad Institute has been an outstanding success, and has propelled Boston into international leadership in genomic-based medicine.

We must repeat this success again and again. One such area in which we have a similar opportunity is in research into infectious diseases.

I would guess that this is the area of Boston University research that is most on people’s minds because of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, or NEIDL, that is nearing completion on Albany Street at the Boston University Medical Campus. The NEIDL is a unique, state-of-the-art, national facility that will house critical studies of research on infectious diseases that are important to the world and to all citizens of the United States. I will address some of the issues about the NEIDL, but I first want you to consider for a moment the impact of infectious diseases. We all recall the impact of SARS on Asia and Canada, and about the threat of Avian Flu. A few years ago no one in the United States ever talked about West Nile Virus because the virus was not present in North America, but the mosquitoes that can transmit it were. The death of a few crows followed by a few human cases on Long Island signaled the unwelcome arrival from the Middle East of this virus, which has now spread across the country and become entrenched in the mosquito population. From coast to coast we now have thousands of cases of West Nile Virus infections and hundreds of deaths every year with no available vaccine or treatment. And we are forced to spend millions of dollars screening our blood supply so that the virus is not transmitted by blood transfusions.

I also hope you have followed the human tragedy that is on-going in Brazil caused by an epidemic of Dengue Fever. Estimates put the number of cases of Dengue Fever in 2007 at over 500,000, with the number of confirmed deaths near two hundred. Although discussions like this are not great breakfast conversation, as with West Nile virus the mosquitoes that transmit Dengue virus are here in the US but the virus remains offshore. And similar to West Nile virus, we have no vaccine or treatment for Dengue fever or its more serious form called Dengue hemorrhagic fever. The mosquito does not respond to a “not in my backyard” political position and we must learn from SARS and HIV and drug resistant tuberculosis that serious infectious diseases that appear exotic are only a plane ride away from becoming a dangerous health problem right here in Massachusetts.

Simply put, the NEIDL is designed to be a state-of-the-art facility for conducting research that will find the means to prevent and cure diseases such as Dengue Fever, and others that can be passed either from human-to-human or through insects and animals and that can hop continents thanks to modern travel. We like to think of these diseases as someone else’s issue, but it is only a matter of time before they arrive in the U.S. Research is the only answer.

The location of the NEIDL in Boston is controversial because it includes what is termed a BioSafety Level 4, or BSL-4, laboratory in which we can work with small samples of the most virulent diseases known today. Because of this feature, the NEIDL is a highly secure facility. The NEIDL also includes state-of-the-art BioSafety Level 3 (BSL-3) facilities that are used to study many of the better known, dangerous pathogens, such as HIV, multi-drug-resistant TB, West Nile Virus, and Dengue Fever. BSL-3 research facilities are common in our health science research community, where research on these diseases is critical and on-going.

I want to assure you of two things.  First, Boston University is committed to the absolute safety and security of this laboratory. Presently, the National Institutes of Health have constituted a Blue Ribbon Panel to assess the safety of the laboratory and its location. I hope that this panel will exhaustively study the safety of the NEIDL for the conduct of BSL-4 level research and produce what we can all agree is a definitive report. I am confident that this study by experts will show that Boston University can safely conduct the much-needed research in the NEIDL.

I am equally confident that our greater life science community is positioned to become the global leader in the research into causes and cures of infectious diseases and that in the years to come we will herald this leadership as a critically important contribution by the institutions in the Charles River Basin to global health.

I hope that my remarks have reinforced that research universities are not ivory towers, isolated from their communities and the world. We recognize the value of working in cooperation with government, with our neighbors, with our sister institutions, and with the business community to seize opportunities to make Boston a better place for all of us.

I have very much appreciated the opportunity this morning to share my thoughts. Thank you for your attention.

I will be happy to answer any questions.