What We're Proud Of

Boston University is long on history and short on memory.

There are several good reasons. First, although our roots go back more than a century and a half—to well before the Civil War—we share our corner of the world with institutions (some of them excellent institutions) that look back to colonial days.

The celebrated BU/Framingham Heart Study—now in its second half-century—has yielded more information on how to prevent heart attacks than any other research program in the world. Today, its data are being mined to explore genetic approaches to personalized medicine.

Second, for much of our history, we were a commuter school, rather than a residential college. We were less about the traditional New England college experience—ancient trees shading quiet quads defined by brick and stone buildings, undergraduate hijinks, and the sipping of sherry—and more about meeting the practical needs of ambitious young people getting on streetcars and getting on with their lives.

BU has always been an urban experience. Cities change, especially those as dynamic as Boston has been in recent decades. We change along with Boston. If the physical past is largely gone, why look back?

Third, we have effectively remade ourselves, especially during the tenures of Presidents John Silber, Jon Westling, and Aram Chobanian, which collectively spanned more than a third of a century. We are so different today from what we were in 1971, at the beginning of John Silber’s presidency, that it sometimes feels as if looking back and taking stock must be a pointless exercise. Isn’t what we are today mostly a recent invention?

Finally, there’s an indisputable restlessness in our psychological make-up. Where some schools are slow-moving and complacent, we are eager to get on with it. It’s sometimes said that we have sharp elbows. We pushed our way into the top ranks of universities in the United States in recent decades because we wanted to be where the action was—and because we wanted to help define where the action would go next.

In fact, we specialize in looking forward. The Photonics Center, launched a decade ago, is only one example at the nexus of research and education. The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL), now nearing completion, is the most contemporary of examples.

If you’re good at looking forward, why look back?

Again, there are several answers. First, the past is always there with us, whether we appreciate it or not. Also, it’s easier to build on strong foundations if you understand those foundations. Conversely, if you choose to go against the grain, it’s a very good thing to know which way the grain actually runs.

Perhaps the most remarkable poetry workshop in American history kicked off in 1958, when Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck gathered for instruction by poet Robert Lowell, who began teaching at BU in 1954.

Just as important, more than ever before, Boston University needs to cohere and pull together as a whole. Moving into the top ranks of U.S. universities in a short span of time was an incredibly difficult task; moving up within those ranks is likely to prove even more difficult. Meanwhile, we’re simply far bigger and more complex than we were even a decade ago. Cohesion can’t necessarily be taken for granted; it has to be planned and nurtured. For Boston University to succeed, its whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.

In the face of these kinds of challenges, it’s important to describe our shared traditions—the kinds of things that we take for granted about Boston University, but which in fact distinguish us from anyplace else. And it’s equally important to define the values that lie behind those traditions.

Asking ourselves what we’re proud of is a good place to start.

Marsh Chapel, flanked by the original main buildings along Commonwealth Avenue.

Our tradition of inclusiveness

We owe an enormous debt to abolitionists, Methodists, and merchants: our distinctive cast of founding fathers.

The first black woman physician in the United States, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, was a graduate of the New England Female Medical College. The first African-American psychiatrist in the United States, Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, was an 1897 graduate of our School of Medicine.

LaRoy Sunderland, an ardent abolitionist and leading figure in Boston’s Bromfield Street Church, in 1839 persuaded his fellow church members to found the United Methodist Church’s first seminary. Their collective goal, we should note, was to provide a higher quality of training to their ministers than was then available.

The school was founded in Vermont and relocated several times, in 1867 reopening on 30 acres in nearby Brookline as the “Boston School of Theology.” The president of that school, William Fairfield Warren, persuaded three of the school’s trustees—all wealthy Boston merchants—to petition the Massachusetts legislature in 1869 to charter “Boston University.” The petition was granted, and today’s BU was born.

“No instructor in said University shall ever be required by the Trustees to profess any particular religious opinions as a test of office,” the new University’s brief charter read, in part.

BU faculty member Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was a prolific and widely read writer in the 19th century. She published more than 50 works of fiction and poetry, many concerned with the role of women in society, and served as a lecturer in Modern Literature.

Thanks to the Methodists’ strong belief in social equality, the new University would be accessible to all members of society, without regard to race, class, sex, or creed. Warren also laid out what may have been the first “need-blind” admissions policy in the United States: Thanks to the school’s generous scholarship policies, any admitted student would be able to attend. Unfortunately, financial realities made it impossible to continue this policy for very long.

These values—quality of thought, openness, inclusiveness—recur time and again throughout our history. Our School of Medicine was founded in 1873 through a merger with the New England Female Medical College, the first medical college for women in the world.

Today, we talk a great deal about “inclusiveness.” Although it’s a modern word, it represents one of our oldest and proudest traditions.


Our tradition of practical engagement and service

In 1995, the School of Medicine received the Award for Outstanding Community Service from the Association of American Medical Colleges for its work in Boston.

The farsighted President Warren also set us on our track of productive and practical engagement with the world—literally. He initiated the first international exchange program, which opened the doors for BU graduates to study at the National University in Athens and the Royal University in Rome.

During World War I, the School of Medicine established Base Hospital 44 in Pougues-les-Eaux, France, for the Red Cross. More than $30,000 was raised locally for this effort, and 32 BU doctors served at the hospital.

Mickey Cochrane, Class of 1924, played five sports at BU before going on to win the American League’s MVP award in both 1931 and 1934. He had a lifetime .320 batting average, and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947.

Meanwhile, of course, we were deeply engaged in our home city (as we still are today). In 1875, our physicians and medical students created the “Home Medical Service,” the first such program in the U.S. (It’s still active today, and we are still active in it.) Our students helped establish Epworth Settlement in the late 19th century, combining charitable work with religious services for the urban poor.

One of our School of Theology graduates, the Reverend Edgar J. Helms, used his Boston base to found Goodwill Industries in 1902 and Morgan Memorial in 1905. Helms’s personal motto—a chance, not a charity—soon resounded in charitable “franchises” across the country.

Helms dreamed his dreams on the grand scale. In 1934, he approached the Roosevelt administration with a sweeping proposal: If the federal government would make a $5 million grant to Goodwill, his organization would put every unemployed American to work. (The government did not take him up on his offer.)

Since 1989, we’ve worked with Chelsea, Massachusetts, to rebuild that city’s public school system, with the goal of establishing a model for urban school reform nationwide. The contract between BU and Chelsea was extended twice (to 2008) at the unanimous request of both the Chelsea School Committee and the Chelsea City Council.


Our entrepreneurial streak

Boston University likes to venture. It likes to tinker, push, explore, and build stuff.

Even our losing ventures like to venture. The short-lived School of Oratory, which folded in 1879 after only seven years of operation, nevertheless managed to invest in the experiments of a young professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution: Alexander Graham Bell. In 1875, the School advanced Bell a year’s salary; in the following year, the young professor introduced the telephone.

At the request of the FBI, the School of Medicine recently created a two-year master’s program in crime-scene investigation.

In the aftermath of World War II, when the NATO commanders in Brussels sought an educational partner to train officers among the occupying forces in Germany, BU bid on the contract and won it—initiating a relationship that continued for decades.

One reason we’re entrepreneurial is that we have to be. Lacking a substantial endowment, we have to make money through investments and operations. The closing of fiscal year 2007 marks the 36th year in a row in which we’ve registered positive financial returns from our financial operations.

Bringing this story up to the present, we can point to BioSquare, the $350 million business park being developed jointly by Boston University and the Boston Medical Center Hospital to support innovation in science and business.

Even our archivists are entrepreneurial. Dr. Howard Gotlieb, founding curator of BU’s Special Collections, spent 42 years acquiring the papers and personal effects of some 2,000 public figures. Perhaps more than any other individual, Gotlieb pursued papers, manuscripts, and artifacts to help define 20th-century American history.

As with most entrepreneurs, it’s about drive and desire, as much as the outcome.


Our unique portfolio

“In this action,” President Marsh wrote in 1947 of BU’s decision to create the School of Public Relations and Communications, “the University is maintaining its reputation for pioneering; for this is the first school of its kind established anywhere.”

From our Methodist and theological roots, Boston University has grown in multiple directions—some fundamental and others highly practical. The result is a university that blends the best of the New England tradition of liberal arts and sciences with professional education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. And the result is a university that has both a deep commitment to general education and a substantial portfolio of professional educational offerings.

Our School of Music—founded in 1872, and today one of the three schools in our distinctive College of Fine Arts—is the oldest degree-granting music program in the United States. A year later, the College of Liberal Arts (today’s College of Arts and Sciences) was organized around the kernel of the School of Music.

Sargent College—founded in 1881 as the Sargent School of Physical Training—came into the BU fold in 1929. Today, it offers basic and advanced professional degree programs in more than 15 specialized areas, ranging from speech pathology to nutrition to physical therapy.

As far back as 1906, Boston University’s leaders invented ways to help teachers who were working full time continue their own educations. The School of Education (founded in 1918) grew directly out of this effort. Meanwhile, we continued to explore ways to help working professionals advance themselves. Metropolitan College, founded in 1966, not only meets the needs of large numbers of adult learners and working professionals in the Boston area—with enrollments increasing by 30 percent between 2002 and 2004—but also is emerging as an international leader in interactive online distance education programs.

Our College of Business Administration was founded in 1913, in part to attract more young men to BU. (Inclusiveness was important.) Evolving into the modern School of Management, it has continually served as an incubator for an expanding palette of distinctive programs.

Our School of Social Work (originally a department in the School of Religious Education and Social Work) grew out of a 1939 decision by the American Association of the Schools of Social Work to put professional social work training on a strictly graduate basis. Our School was formed a year later.

BU received its first research grant in 1933: a payment of $275 from the National Academy of Sciences to the School of Medicine.

Our College of Communication began offering professional education in public relations, journalism, broadcasting, and film in 1947—only six years after standards for education in that field were first drawn up.

Many more schools and departments could be mentioned here. But these illustrations serve to make the point: BU has always looked for ways to offer a quality education, mixed with practical, hands-on training, to talented students of all ages. We have responded quickly, and opportunistically, as new fields of professional training have emerged. We have helped professions elevate themselves.


Our ambition

Our ambition is expressed in countless ways, most importantly in our high standards.

The earliest discussions about founding the institution that would become BU were about quality: Where could Methodist ministers get a better education than was available to them in the late 1830s in Boston?

In 2003, BU’s School of Medicine received an $8.4 million grant from the NIH to create the “BU Autism Research Center of Excellence,” and mount one of the largest autism research efforts ever undertaken.

When newly elected President John Silber articulated his dreams for BU back in the early 1970s, one of the first things he said was that he intended to ensure that the University was an “institution of excellence” in its every endeavor—both in research and teaching.

In fact, this was far from a new conception of BU. We have always been demanding. Our School of Law was the first to establish a three-year curriculum, and the first to introduce mandatory, written, graded final examinations. Our School of Medicine was the first to demand examinations from applicants who were not college graduates. It was also the first to offer a four-year course of study (1878) and to make the four years compulsory (1890).

Our ambition also reveals itself in our determination to be on the frontier of every field in which we involve ourselves, and to have that stature validated by the accolades our faculty members earn and by a robust and growing stream of research support from outside granting agencies.


Our flexibility

Boston University learned early on about dealing with adversity and making tough choices. We learned to be flexible.

Between 1952 and 1967, nearly half of all doctorates earned by black students in the United States in religion and philosophy were awarded at BU. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of those students.

Take our campus, for example: One of the original three BU trustees was Boston fish merchant and Methodist layman Isaac Rich, who died in January 1872, leaving his vast fortune—mostly in the form of downtown Boston real estate— to the University he had helped found. His will stipulated that for the first ten years after his death, his estate would grow in a trust to benefit BU. It would have been the largest donation ever made to an American college or university, up to that point.

But fate intervened. In November, less than a year after Rich’s death, the Great Boston Fire destroyed all but one of the buildings in Rich’s estate—and bankrupted all the insurance companies who supposedly stood behind them. BU’s plans for a central campus on Aspinwall Hill in Brookline had to be abandoned. Instead, the University dispersed across Beacon Hill, and subsequently into Back Bay and Copley Square.

Today Boston University houses almost 12,000 undergraduate students in residences ranging from brownstones to high-rise apartment buildings.

In the 1920s, we tried again, buying and improving 15 prime acres of riverfront property between (the relatively slow-moving) Commonwealth Avenue and the Charles River. Then the state took away the land along the river by eminent domain for the construction of Storrow Drive.

We built our first building in 1939—coincidentally, almost exactly a century after our founders first committed themselves to creating the institution that would become Boston University. We would no longer be hermit crabs (to cite President Marsh’s analogy); henceforth, we would have a permanent home in which to pursue our destiny.

That home continues to take shape, and at an accelerating rate.

Great things are worth the wait—and the work—they require.

Continue reading: Where We Are Today