Matriculation Address to the Entering Class: Fall 2008

by Robert A. Brown | September 1, 2008

Good morning Boston University class of 2012. It is a pleasure to welcome you to your University and also to welcome members of our faculty to the start of another academic year.

Every year in late August the energy flows back into Boston University as our students fill our residences and prepare for the first day of class. Tomorrow the academic year begins for you and all our undergraduate and graduate students. Tomorrow also marks the start of the academic cycle for our faculty, who besides starting to teach, advise, and mentor students, renew the committee work of faculty recruitment and the discussions of new academic programs and policies that lead to the organic evolution of the University.

With the anticipation of the start of all of these endeavors, I will use my remarks this morning for three purposes: to welcome you to the Boston University community; to urge you forward as you further your education here; and to introduce several important topics that will occupy the university leadership, faculty and our community over the coming months.

I ask for your indulgence, as I start with a bit of history of Boston University. Like many of the great private universities in this country, Boston University began as a Methodist seminary. It was founded in Newbury, Vermont in 1839 and relocated to Boston in 1867.

Building on that small seminary, Boston University was chartered in 1869 by its founders, Lee Claflin, Jacob Sleeper, and Isaac Rich, who were successful Methodist businessmen. (You will recognize the names!) Chartered just after the end of the American Civil War, Boston University was envisioned as a very novel institution that combined the quality of the antebellum liberal arts education that was being honed at many independent New England colleges, with the model of professional and graduate education that was emerging in German universities.

Our founding president, William Fairfield Warren (another name you should recognize), saw Boston University as an institution where students would have the best of both academic worlds. We have stayed true to this vision of the University.

Our founders also saw Boston University as an academic community that was open to all, irrespective of their sex, race or religion. Boston University opened its doors to all from its beginning. This University claims many firsts, including the first Ph.D. awarded to a woman, in 1877, and the first coeducational medical school, in 1873. Diversity runs throughout the fabric of Boston University. Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps our most famous alumnus, studied here in the early 1950s, during a period when nearly half of this country’s doctoral degrees earned by African-American students in religion and philosophy were awarded by Boston University.

Boston University also is a uniquely urban university. What other university has a trolley line running through along the spine of its campus! As the third president of Boston University, Lemuel Merlin, put it, Boston University was founded “in the heart of the city, in the service of the city.”

Today we are composed of two sprawling campuses. You are getting to know the Charles River Campus that was established in the 1930s when the University began to consolidate from locations all around downtown Boston to its home on Commonwealth Avenue. Our Medical Campus is located on its original site in the South End adjacent to the Boston Medical Center, the primary hospital affiliated with our teaching and research in health science, and the primary community-based hospital for residents of Boston.

In fact, the Boston Medical Center and the Boston University Medical Campus are so intertwined that you are hard pressed to know when you move from one institution to the other on that campus.

Today, our Charles River Campus is knitted together by the new, urban landscaping along Commonwealth Avenue and the more than 200 trees and 4,600 bushes that have been planted over the past few months. The avenue links academic buildings with iconic architecture with other facilities with very urban histories. The original buildings surrounding Marsh Chapel were designed by two teams of architects, Cram and Ferguson along with Cooley, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott, the successor firm to the great 19th century architect, H.H. Richardson. These buildings were constructed between 1938 and 1948.

The three buildings designed by the famous Spanish architect Josep Lluís Sert, the George Sherman Union, Mugar Memorial Library and the Law Tower, are examples of a new sense of integration in urban design and architecture, and the application of the technology of cast-in-place concrete, developed in the 1960s.

Around these academic buildings, the vestiges of an earlier commercial era of Commonwealth Avenue are visible from the refurbished automobile showrooms that are now the homes of the Colleges of Fine Arts and Communication, as well as the student residences in converted hotels like Shelton Hall, Miles Standish Hall, and 575 Commonwealth Avenue (more affectionately known as HoJo’s).

The campus will continue to evolve during your time at Boston University and in future years when you return to the University. For those of you who visited last spring or over the summer, you will recall that Commonwealth Avenue was still a construction zone decorated with orange and white plastic barrels and that only from drawings could you imagine the impact of the renewed streetscape on the sense of our campus.

(I keep saying the same thing about the impact of the construction underway in Kenmore Square, but I have been saying this for three years!)

The University’s Charles River Campus spreads almost two miles along Commonwealth Avenue and, when taken together with our Medical Campus in south Boston, includes 17 schools and colleges and an academic community composed of over 3,850 faculty, 5,350 staff, and 32,000 students, approximately equally split between undergraduates and graduate students.

We are a small city encompassing 320 buildings and with an annual operating budget of almost two billion dollars. We are anything but self-contained. Last year we used over 200 million kilowatts of electricity, as well as natural gas supplying 600 billion BTUs of energy, and 2.5 million gallons of fuel oil. We also generated almost 9,000 tons of waste; this last number was down by almost 1,000 tons from several years ago, thanks to the dedicated work of staff, faculty and students involved in our existing sustainability efforts.

I will return to the importance of these figures in a few minutes.

Although these facts tell you something about the scale of the University, it is our people who define Boston University as one of the great research universities and premier urban undergraduate institutions in the country today.

You might ask, “What is a research university and what does it mean to me?“

Our faculty members form an academic community where the creation of new knowledge, scholarship, and professional accomplishments of distinction go hand-in-hand with conveying this knowledge and expertise to you. Whether they are leading biologists working at the forefront of developmental biology, legal scholars, professors of foreign language and literature, or professional musicians and artists, our faculty members are expected to be both leaders in their fields of study and practice, and excellent teachers and mentors for you.

By accepting this dual mission, members of our community accept the fundamental tensions inherent in the proper balancing of these roles. We all benefit from the intellectual energy that is created by a faculty body that continually pushes back the boundaries of man’s understanding, while bringing our students along with them.

There is no more demanding position than being a faculty member in a leading research university: all professors work to balance their time among the demands of undergraduate teaching and advising, scholarship and research, graduate student mentoring and teaching, as well as their personal lives.

For you, this tension means you might feel at times that you are vying for attention from a particular faculty member with other students and the faculty’s professional activities. Faculty members are busy professionals; they are not sitting idly in their offices waiting for you to knock.

But they do hold undergraduate education as the essential core mission of the university. They also all hold office hours; use them and get to know this wonderful group of women and men. Make it your goal that when you leave Boston University you will have several faculty members who know you well. It will make your educational experience much more meaningful and it is a good idea for when you need a reference for a job or graduate school application!

You are joining a world-class research university whose faculty includes some of the finest scholars and researchers in the world in fields running the gamut of academic and professional disciplines.

There is a large gathering of the faculty at today’s ceremony. I’d like our entering students to recognize your future teachers and mentors with a warm round of applause.

There are innumerable examples of the impact of the research environment on undergraduate education and I will highlight only one this morning.

Between our Charles River and Medical campuses, Boston University has some of the leading faculty members and graduate programs in the fields of psychology, cognitive and neural systems, neurobiology, and psychiatry. All are disciplines that touch on, but do not fully encompass, the workings of the human brain, including how our basic senses, motor skills and memory work, as well as the causes and cures of disorders and diseases of the brain.

Neuroscience is also the link between the chemistry and physics of the brain and the workings of our mind, the processes that comprise our consciousness and the rational processes, such as reasoning, emotion, and choice. In its broadest and grandest definition, neuroscience links the natural sciences directly to the humanities, arts and social sciences, by exploring how we perceive the world.

Boston University faculty members are leading in many frontiers of neuroscience research and we are moving to expand this leadership. A year ago we formed the Center for Neuroscience, led by Professor Howard Eichenbaum of the Department of Psychology, to catalyze this effort. The Center is off to a very ambitious start.

However, what does this initiative have to do with undergraduate education, unless you are interested in the possibility of participating in research with a faculty member working in neuroscience?

Actually, one of the very first topics address by the Center’s interdisciplinary faculty was the creation of an undergraduate major as an interdisciplinary degree program to educate students at the forefront of modern neuroscience. The program is in the final stages of approval by university faculty committees and should formally open by next fall; students are already taking classes that will involve them in the program. Organizationally, the program is hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences and involves faculty from the departments of Psychology, Mathematics and Statistics, Biology, and Cognitive and Neural Systems in CAS, from the departments of Psychiatry and Neurobiology and Physiology in the School of Medicine, from Sargent College, and from the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering.

This is the type of exciting interdisciplinary educational innovation that is expected in a great research university and our students are the beneficiaries.

The new neuroscience undergraduate program is an example of the breadth and depth of education programs available at Boston University. It also is a starting point for me to urge you to think deeply, beginning this morning, about the most important opportunity that you have within your grasp: the opportunity to shape your education in the broadest sense.

This is your opportunity, and it is your responsibility. There are others, such as faculty advisors and mentors, parents and friends, and of course fellow students, who will offer their advice from time to time, especially if you seek it, but ultimately the decisions of what major to join, what classes to take, and the extracurricular activities to attend, are yours alone.

What do I mean by the opportunity to shape your education? Many of you have already selected a career path and have a vision of your entry point into the professional work force, either directly through a major in the College of Arts and Sciences, through professional programs in our schools and colleges, such as in Management, Engineering, Fine Arts, Education, and Communication, and many of you already are thinking about post-graduate education in fields like law, medicine, and management. I am not appealing to you to rethink these decisions. In fact, I very much hope that the passion you have for your selected career path grows dramatically over the next four years.

What I am speaking of is the rest of your college education, the portions that may appear at a time like this to be out of focus compared to your clearer goals.

Beginning in the late Roman era, and through Medieval times, students followed a very prescribed path of study known as the Trivium and the Quadrivium, which included work first in grammar, logic and rhetoric, and then in arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Upon mastering these subjects, students could then turn to studies of philosophy and theology. The seven primary subjects formed the basis of the liberal arts; their study is often referred to as an education befitting a free person.

If only life could be as simple for you today as it was for students in Medieval universities, when these subjects composed a considerable portion of what was known about our world.

Your challenges, like your opportunities, are much more diverse as you blend your personal and professional education.

I did not come this morning to give you a prescription for balancing your education. Today, some people hold the rather limited view that the liberal arts are that portion of your education which is not directly aimed at your professional development, but instead at your development as an individual and a citizen. I find this definition overly constraining, to say the least, and I would rather focus on the concepts of a broad and complete education that is more customized for each of us. For example:

For an aspiring journalist, you must learn about world economic and political history in order to understand the context of many of the stories you will write. You also will need to understand and appreciate the natural sciences, to accurately portray the impact of scientific developments and technology on the world; the science and mathematics you took in high school is not a substitute for college-level subjects in biology, physics, and probability and statistics.

For a would-be engineer, you need to balance your adeptness at engineering calculations and designs with an understanding of the evolution of cultures and civilizations, so that you can better understand the growing impact of technology in the world and hone your ability to practice your engineering art in an increasingly global context.

My appeal to all of you is to use your undergraduate education as a time to achieve this balanced education; an education that becomes your intellectual, moral, ethical, and professional foundation for the very long life that lies ahead. You can understand the traditions of thought that have informed the actions of those who came before and that are the foundation of western society and other cultures around the world. You can learn to distinguish between logical and illogical arguments, to struggle with the balances between individual freedom and collective responsibility, and between self-interest and community-interest. You can become scientifically literate in a world that is increasingly impacted by science and technology, and where the advantages and limitations of science and technology will be critical topics of public debate throughout your life.

Today this debate is all around us, from the debate over the cost of health care, to the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research and therapies, to the growing and seemingly irrefutable evidence of global warming, and, finally, and most dramatically, in the demands around the world for energy from oil, gas and coal, and the impact of limited energy resources on us and on all citizens of our planet.

The reality of gasoline at four dollars per gallon, and growing concerns over the impact of carbon fuels on the atmosphere, must inspire all of us to action.

Boston University is part of these debates and our actions must be consistent with our standards. Most directly, we have an opportunity to play a key role in examining how changes in our way of life and in how we operate the university can contribute to greater energy efficiency and an environmentally sustainable future for all of us.

In the weeks and months ahead you will hear of a major Boston University Sustainability Initiative focused on reducing our energy consumption and decreasing waste all across our campus. This effort is being led by a steering committee co-chaired by Professor Cutler Cleveland of the Department of Geography and Environment in the College of Arts and Sciences and by Gary Nicksa, our vice president of operations.

We are launching working groups in four critical areas:

  • recycling and waste management;
  • energy efficiency;
  • sustainable building development and operations; and
  • communications, education, and outreach.

We plan to make every effort to solicit ideas from the community — students, faculty, and staff — as we search for the best, most cost-effective approaches to our goals and the metrics we should set for measuring our progress.

An important component of this effort will be the establishment of a fund for the implementation of the best ideas for energy conservation, waste management and sustainable buildings. For this year we have allocated one million dollars for new projects recommended from all quarters of the community and as judged by the steering committee to have the highest impact and shortest economic payback.

I am asking the entire academic community to help us in this effort to create a more sustainable campus. You can help us plan, but most importantly, you can help us adapt. As a seemingly small, but important example, this fall most of our dining facilities will be tray-free and, as a result, we will save the water and energy used previously to wash approximately 16,000 trays daily. The water saved will be over 1.5 million gallons annually, an amount equal to 2.5 times the volume of the large pool in FitRec. When you think of how you are juggling your plates and drinks as you prepare to eat this evening, think about yourself as an active participant in Boston University’s drive for a move sustainable campus.

Let me return to the design of your years at Boston University. How do you begin to develop an educational balance? First, and most importantly, it is a path you elect to follow, not a goal you achieve. Over the next fours years, you can select elective subjects in your schedule on the basis of expanding your horizons, and not automatically preclude all those subjects taught before 11 a.m. You can attend public lectures, read books and articles that aren’t on an assigned reading list, and participate in a variety of student organizations. Through these steps you can follow a life-long journey that will be intellectually stimulating, personally fulfilling, and, perhaps, professionally rewarding.

Note that I did not hedge on the positive impact of a balanced education to you personally, but I cannot promise fame and fortune as a result.

I know that some of you would like this guarantee as a prepayment, before you commit any extra effort. Let me try another motivation for you: simply put, you cannot predict your future! There are countless examples of distinguished people who sat at matriculation events with a focus on a specific career and for whom life has turned out richly different. I am thinking of Boston University alumni like Fred Bronstein, who attended the College of Fine Arts with the intent to be a concert pianist and who is now president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; like Nina Tassler who came to BU to be an actress and is now president of CBS Entertainment; Ronald Garriques, an engineering major, who is now president of Global Consumer Products for Dell Computers, and finally there’s the example of my wife’s best friend, who started out to be a chemical engineer and now is a university president.

Your ability to make these kinds of transformations will hinge by the quality of your education, the foundation of which you will continue to lay, stone-by-stone, over the next four years.

Your education is not limited to the classroom, but, in addition, it is strongly influenced by your other activities, where you engage within the university and the world at large. Boston University has a rich history of engagement with the city and world. Whether it’s through treatment of patients by the faculties of the medical and dental schools at the Boston Medical Center, the involvement of the School of Education in the public schools in Boston, or working with the city to landscape Commonwealth Avenue and Kenmore Square, Boston University is part of the fabric of this city in uncommon ways.

You are now a member of this urban community and I hope you will actively participate in it. Some of you already have begun to do this by attending FYSOP — the First-Year Student Outreach Project. Six hundred of you spent four days last week at 69 sites performing more than 13,000 hours of community service. May I ask our FYSOP volunteers to stand? Thank you for your efforts on behalf of our community and Boston University.

There are many more opportunities to become engaged in the city and I urge you to stop by the Community Service Center, which is the home of 13 student-run service programs that involves some 1,500 students annually in their activities.

This engagement is not limited to opportunities in Boston. Students at Boston University are very much engaged in the world as part of their education. Last year 2,260 students took advantage of our 83 programs in 37 cities in 24 countries. We expect that by the time the class of 2012 graduates that over 40 percent of you will have participated in one of our programs in either another country, Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles.

(I should point out that administering our Washington and LA programs through the study abroad office is merely a convenience, and does not reflect our opinion of either city.)

We are constantly expanding these opportunities for you. As an example, last year we opened our study abroad program in Shanghai with a handful of pioneering students. This summer and academic year we have 50 students studying and interning there. We will open a program in Rabat, Morocco, next spring, and a year from now we will open new programs in Grenoble, for science; Geneva, for physics; and London, for art history.

Spending a semester or summer abroad to live, study, and work is a marvelous opportunity to both enrich and broaden your experiences with an immersion in another culture. Besides, there is a practical reason for seizing this opportunity. During your professional careers many of you will work and live abroad. You may work either for a company with an international home-base, one acquired by an international parent, or simply a U.S. company that sees the preponderance of its growth in globally emerging world markets. In either case, you will have to excel at this opportunity to succeed professionally. Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat is not about people in other countries, it is about you.

Boston University has been planning for the impact of this growing “global flatness,” in several ways. First, we are expanding our programs in languages, cultures, and societies in the College of Arts and Sciences to give our students more opportunities for study.

Second, we are moving strategically to bring a larger cohort of international students to our campus to enrich the intellectual and cultural diversity here. I am very pleased to welcome, in addition to our students from across the United States, students from 70 countries, who make up about ten percent of our freshman class.

Finally, Boston University is increasing its global footprint. In addition, to the study abroad programs that I mentioned earlier, we have begun our first school-level health science educational program outside of the United States with the opening of a Boston University dental program in Dubai. No doubt, in your time at BU you will hear of discussions about other expansions in our global footprint.

Universities are ancient institutions, dating to least Medieval times, and are full of purpose, promise, and tradition. As the class of 2012, you are participating this morning in several important Boston University traditions. You have marched with our Dean of Students, Kenn Elmore, down Commonwealth Avenue, and felt the exhilaration of stopping traffic at the BU-bridge. You sit together as the matriculating Boston University freshman class, one Boston University student body, representing eleven schools and colleges. Finally, in a few minutes we will go through our last ritual of this matriculation day when we acknowledge each academic unit and officially induct you into the student body of Boston University.

After this ceremony, and throughout your years at Boston University, you will branch off according to your academic interests and you will self-identify with a school or college. You also will joins clubs and societies, attend lectures, sporting events, and theatrical and musical performances, frequent restaurants and other social establishments, and grow a sphere of friends and colleagues. Hopefully, this process has already started. In four years, you will come together as one class at another important event: this will occur at your graduation ceremony on Nickerson Field, where you too will wear the traditional academic regalia that you see displayed by our faculty this morning.

I hope that through your studies and your participation in all facets of the life of Boston University you will find for yourselves the educational balance that I have spoken about and that through this balance you will find resonance between the joy of learning and your imagination. In many ways this is my greatest hope for each of you. Without the ability to imagine, without taking the time to dream, your education will be less than it ought to be.

I hope you pursue your dreams to the fullest at Boston University. My colleagues and I look forward to helping you succeed.

Good luck!