Where We Are Today

Today, Boston University is a unique collection of relative strengths, and also of relative weaknesses.

Our strengths include the kinds of traditions detailed in previous pages, deep reservoirs of excellence among our 17 schools and colleges, outstanding faculty and students, committed and energized administrators, friendly alumni, a powerful business model, and a degree of cooperation and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries that is highly unusual in academia.

Many of our weaknesses can be traced back to a relative lack of resources, and—over the long term—a relative lack of institutional focus on outreach to alumni, effective communication with key constituencies, and fundraising.

These strengths and weaknesses deserve some individual scrutiny.

Our strengths

The irreducible core of a leading research university is its faculty. Boston University has a committed and talented faculty, composed of excellent teachers, scholars, researchers, and professionals. Their commitment to winning grants and conducting transforming research has put BU in the top ranks of research universities today. These faculty work in disciplines and programs ranging from high energy physics to creative writing, from archaeology to biomedical engineering, and from performance music and voice to physical and occupational therapy. Boston University faculty truly embrace the teaching mission of this University, serving as mentors for our undergraduate and graduate students.

Boston University research expenditures over the last 10 years.

The quantity of funded research is an important measure of our research intensity and productivity, and has the great advantage of being concrete. (It makes for compelling bar charts.) But our faculty excel by other, less easily charted measures, as well. We have deep wells of expertise in the humanities, social sciences, the “hard” sciences and math, and in professions, like dentistry, physical and occupational therapy, and performance music and theatre—the list is nearly endless. It is the blending of education, research, scholarship, and professional accomplishment that makes BU’s faculty unique.

Four of the last ten U.S. Poets Laureate studied or taught at BU.

Another reason to celebrate our faculty is that it attracts wonderful students. By and large, they are young people (and also older people) who want to be educated at a great urban university. They love having a diverse and challenging peer group. They love Boston.

Boston deserves a special word. For many of our applicants, Boston University is Boston, and vice versa. Our host city is a powerful draw. And when students enroll here, they are not disappointed. More than any other university, we are woven into the fabric of Boston, and Boston is woven into our fabric. In almost every field of intellectual and artistic endeavor—from biotech to Bach—Boston is a great place to be. In his inaugural address, President Brown referred to BU as “Boston’s University.” We are fortunate to be synonymous with one of the country’s (and the world’s) great cities.

And one reason is that Boston is a strong jumping-off point to the rest of the world. International students want to come here. Organizations around the world want to build ties with Boston, and BU. They welcome our students and faculty. Again, “Boston” is a great blessing for BU.

As for our curricular strengths, we offer a rigorous undergraduate education, mixing liberal arts and professional training. No matter what school or college through which our students enter BU, they will receive a deep liberal arts training. They will have to read—a lot. They will learn to write. They will learn to speak languages (including English).

At the same time, we offer high-quality graduate professional programs. Again, this is a unique and potent blend of offerings.

Because of our relatively small endowment (see below), we have been compelled to be both entrepreneurial and businesslike. Our business model is both simple and highly effective. We work extremely hard to run the “internals” of BU like a business. We are student-oriented. We provide high-quality services in a high-quality environment, in an effort to produce successful and satisfied graduates and generate higher revenues. We reinvest the net revenues from our operations (approximately $50 million annually) to enhance our facilities and increase the quality and reputation of our core programs.

In 2006, BU received 34,000 applications for 4,200 undergraduate “seats”—an all-time high.

BU has always been centralized. The “center” coordinates programmatic and budgetary decisions. Our lean resource base has not given us the luxury of independent, decentralized decision-making by academic units. The leadership has had the obligation to seek economies and efficiencies, which can be gained by coordination, in order to gain new opportunities. Our central coordination has given us the tactical advantage of agility. It explains, in part, why we made dramatic progress in the Silber era. We have placed large bets, and leaped forward, using our agility to overcome barriers.

Our College of Engineering didn’t have a PhD program until 1991. Today, it is ranked 41st in the country—a remarkable rise after less than two decades of operation.

Our opportunity is to hold on to this tactical agility and its strategic advantage, while achieving broad consensus about our vision for the future of the University and how to realize this vision for our community.

This raises another strength that deserves emphasis. Our deans and vice presidents are committed to the success of this University. They are proud of BU, and want it to keep moving forward. They are wonderfully collaborative—even to the extent of “waiting their turn” if some other school or department is currently higher on the University’s overall priority list.

Last but not least are our alumni. A survey of our 258,000 alumni generated 84,000 responses—an extraordinary response rate. Their responses are summarized in the chart below:

Results from 2007 survey of Boston University alumni on their attitude toward their experience here and toward the university now.

Clearly, our alumni have very positive feelings about their experiences at BU. They have strongly positive feelings about BU today, and they rate BU’s reputation highly. This is especially true for our alumni who attended BU after we became a largely residential college. Their ties to the University are particularly strong.

This is a very strong foundation on which to build BU’s future.


Our weaknesses

Let’s look first at our infrastructural weaknesses; the physical and financial underpinnings of BU.

Despite being organizationally coherent, we have spent a century or more being physically scattered, or—since the 1940s—squeezed in between our River and our Avenue (Commonwealth). We have made enormous progress at the Charles River Campus in recent years, reworking available space and judiciously extending our geographic footprint. Our campus is much improved, especially in the realm of direct student services, but more remains to be done.

Our current master planning, which looks out over the next quarter-century, calls for the creation of a major regional transportation hub roughly at our end of the BU Bridge, including the rationalization of the various roads, light rails, and railroads that traverse this very busy intersection. It also calls for a reinforcement of the “short axis” of our campus, with the thoughtful use of air rights over the Mass Pike giving us more room for concentrated growth and—just as important—physical cohesion.

These are exciting prospects. Until we can realize them, however, our curious geography remains an institutional weakness.

Many of our current weaknesses grow out of an inadequate financial base. When we measure ourselves against a representative peer group, our endowment is relatively small, and our endowment income as a percentage of our operating budget is correspondingly low. Similarly, our fundraising income as a percentage of the annual operating budget is uncomfortably low. The table below tells this story.

  FY06 Operating Budget (OpB) FY06 Endowment FY06 Fundraising Endowment Return
(% of OpB)
(% of OpB)
Boston University 1,296 916 95 4% 7%
GWU 777 964 53 6% 7%
NYU 2,402 1,775 280 4% 12%
NU 1,245 5,141 253 21% 20%
UPENN 2,390 5,313 409 11% 17%
USC 1,745 3,066 406 9% 23%
Tufts 539 1,215 205 11% 38%

FY06 operating budget, endowment, and fundraising compared with several peer institutions. Figures listed are in millions of dollars, unless otherwise noted. Endowment return is estimated as 5% of endowment value.

Another way to look at endowment is in terms of endowment per full-time equivalent (FTE) student:

Endowment per full-time student in fiscal year 2006 in $000's.

Why is this important? One answer is that our small endowment constrains our financial aid resources and impacts our students through the availability of financial aid. For many people, making BU accessible to all academically qualified students, regardless of their economic circumstances, is the strongest argument for increasing our endowment. The vision for student access to education, irrespective of financial means, expressed by our first president, William Fairfield Warren, was clear and compelling. We must raise the funds to move closer to this ideal.

Another way to measure our endowment is by the number of endowed professorships we have. Professorships are not only an important form of endowment that take pressure off operating budgets; they are also a powerful tool for faculty recruiting and retention. Relative to our peer universities, BU has a small number of endowed professorships, and this needs to change.

One fundamental challenge that the University must address is our low faculty salary scale, relative to peer institutions. The brightest young scholars and teachers want to join us, but if we can’t pay at competitive levels, many won’t. We can’t allow this discrepancy to continue if we are to compete for the very best minds. Increasing our faculty salaries to the median of our peer group will cost roughly $20 million a year in 2007 dollars. This is a significant investment, but it’s one that we have to make, as we steadily increase the quality of our faculty.

For these reasons and others, we need to increase our endowment substantially. This means two things: growing our existing endowment through effective management, and procuring new permanent capital.

At the same time, we need to dramatically increase the level of annual support that comes to BU. We are currently raising about $90 million annually through our development efforts—a small number, in terms of our large base of alumni and their relatively positive feelings toward BU. The charts below summarize our rates of individual giving and the percentage of alumni currently giving to BU:

Percentage of alumni participation and total individual giving to the university compared with several peer institutions in fiscal year 2006.

These efforts have been hampered until recently by a number of factors, including institutional turbulence at senior levels, unenergetic fundraising, and inadequate external communications. All three have been addressed in recent years, but we have much ground to make up.

Finally, our reputation and ranking need some selective shoring up. In undergraduate education ranking we have placed between 50th and 60th among all U.S. universities in recent years. This is a ranking that we can improve in the near term by increasing support focused on academic excellence, improving overall financial resources, and increasing rates of alumni giving. Several of our world-class professional schools—including Law, Management, Engineering, Social Work, and Medicine—rank substantially higher than our undergraduate programs. We owe it to these professional schools (as well as to our alumni and our current students) to bring our undergraduate rankings up to their level.

Obviously, institutional reputation, levels of institutional support, faculty recruitment and retention, student “yield,” and many other key indicators are all bound up together. When we break into this virtuous cycle at any point, we enhance our opportunities in many other realms.

This is what we are determined to do in the coming months and years.

Continue reading: The Point of Departure