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An alliance for all time

Four decades with Robert and Beverly Brown

In the first years of their marriage, the biggest challenge that Robert and Beverly Brown weathered may have been the weather itself.

The two married in their senior year of college; he was a chemical engineering major at the University of Texas at Austin, she a medical technology major at the former Incarnate Word College in nearby San Antonio. They each went on to obtain a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin. They then packed their possessions into a U-Haul and drove north up I-35, arriving, 1,200 miles later, at the University of Minnesota, where the average January temperature is 12 degrees and the average annual snowfall is 40 inches.

“By September 20,” Beverly Brown says, “we had no clothes that were warm enough to deal with it.”

But by that point in their relationship, the Browns had already dealt adeptly with the challenges of adolescence, college, and marriage. The life partners were born 30 hours apart in nearby San Antonio hospitals, met attending that city’s Highlands High School, and have rarely been separated since. They have shared every major personal and professional experience of their lives since 12th grade, obtaining bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, raising two sons, and rising to positions of considerable prestige in their respective fields.

Today, as Robert Brown is inaugurated as the 10th president of Boston University, the Browns face a previously unknown level of public scrutiny, both from the BU community and from the city of Boston. But each says that this step, while significant, is no more daunting to their partnership than leaving the Texas warmth for the Minnesota cold 30 years ago.

“When we did that, we were the only two graduates of our class that left the state to do graduate work,” Beverly Brown says. “That was unheard of. And coming out here was huge. We’ve skated on thin ice a number of times — we had faith that we’d be able to manage it.”

‘Like a drink from a fire hydrant’

The Browns came to Massachusetts in late 1978, after completing their doctoral degrees at Minnesota. He was hired as an assistant professor of chemical engineering at MIT, and she began a postdoctoral fellowship in neurochemistry at Harvard Medical School.

As his career progressed at MIT, Beverly Brown completed her fellowship and began her career in diagnostic and drug discovery research and development. She had realized early on that she didn’t want to be a doctor, but the idea of doing research that could actively help patients was exciting.
But family life played a role in the paths they chose, as well. “If you have two people in academic jobs going for tenure, kids throw a real monkey wrench in the priority mix,” Beverly Brown says. “I knew we wanted to have kids, so I said, ‘I don’t want to go after tenure — I’m going to go into industry.’”

Their sons, Ryan and Keith, were born in 1982 and 1984; Robert Brown became a full professor at MIT, the head of the chemical engineering department, and the dean of engineering; Beverly Brown continued her work in the medical technology industry, working with various companies, such as Dupont and Baxter Healthcare, advancing within the field to become first a director, then a vice president of business development.
He became provost of MIT in 1998 — an experience, Beverly says, that was like “a drink from a fire hydrant.” In 2004, she took a position as the special projects officer at the Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology; in June 2005, he was named president of Boston University. “And we said,” Beverly says, “‘Well, this is Niagara Falls.’”

The vistas ahead

In reality, both say, it was a perfect opportunity. Robert Brown wanted a challenge, he says, a place where he could come on board and be more than a steward. Beverly says that now that their children are grown — Keith, the younger, graduates from MIT this June — they were “both looking for the next mountain range,” and that this was a way to “reinvent ourselves, in a very positive way.”

The challenge at BU, as the Browns see it, is to help build a community that has been, at various times, fractured socially, politically, and academically. Robert Brown has asked the students and faculty to consider the things they value most about BU, to look beyond individual schools and colleges, and to start taking pride in the University as a whole. Beverly Brown, seeking new ways to connect with the student community, opened their new home, Sloane House, to students in the visual arts programs at the College of Fine Arts — paintings by a number of student artists are displayed throughout the first floor. “I want students to come here and be engaged, to seek more opportunities for them,” she says. “Right from the get-go, we were trying to make the presidency, and this house, accessible.”

Beverly Brown is still working full-time at CIMIT — “I don’t know how she does it,” her husband says — but says that her responsibilities at Boston University are her first priority right now. Traditionally, the president’s wife takes on a leadership role with the BU Women’s Guild; Brown plans to do so and hopes to establish the guild as a resource for female students, faculty, and staff who are interested in discussing the issues many women face as they balance their lives and careers. She is keenly aware of the challenges awaiting women who want careers in the sciences. “I’m not sure we can change the situation, but that’s exactly what I’d want to discuss with people — why I’ve made the choices I’ve made,” she says. “We can develop forums for women to come together and share the issues. Sometimes just telling someone you’re juggling all these balls is comforting.”

The Browns are busier than ever before, but over the years have become proficient at carving out family time — “Thirty-five years will get you that way,” Robert Brown says. And although there was some sadness at leaving their home in Winchester, which they built 20 years ago, they love their new neighborhood and seize the opportunity to walk around the city whenever possible. Their sons, they say, became comfortable with the move once they were assured that Sloane House had room for their things.

Neither expected to arrive here, both Robert and Beverly Brown say, but they are happy to have arrived. And both, hiking enthusiasts who used to bring their young boys to Mount Monadnock, use the same language to describe the journey.

“You see something, a plateau, and say, ‘That’s the top,’ and you get up there and realize that’s not the top; you need to go down and around again,” she says. “This was not the mountain range we had our eyes on.”

“We have taken forks in the road without a grand plan,” he says. “We have the history, together, of this random walk.”