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“BU is ready to move forward”"

An interview with the president

Robert A. Brown will be formally inaugurated as the 10th president of Boston University on Thursday, April 27, but he has already spent an academic year in the office, learning about life at BU, talking to the community, and making plans for the University’s future. He spoke with BU Today about his first year on the job and his hopes for the years to come.

BU Today: What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned about BU in your first year here?

Brown: I thought I had a pretty good understanding of BU’s breadth and depth, of the variety, the programs, the different things that people do here, and of the quality of faculty, students, and staff. I didn’t understand how deeply affection for the University ran through faculty and staff. They have a deep feeling of connectedness, and you can’t get that off of the Web site.

It’s best said in an anecdote: last fall in the Sloane House, my wife, Beverly, worked with students in the College of Fine Arts, in the painting program, to put up a display of their work. To see the quality of what they did — you can’t get that off the Web, how good people are, how selective the program is.

And on Tuesday night [April 18], in the concert at Carnegie Hall, the quality of the symphony — in that space, you close your eyes and you’re not sure if you’re hearing the Boston University Symphony Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic.

That relates to something you said last fall — that BU is a “hidden jewel” and one of your first goals as president was to “take BU public.” How will you do that?

Many of the steps begin inside, with understanding how good we are ourselves. We’re getting more internal recognition of that — that feeling good about yourself starts at home — and we need to start communicating that to the outside world. BU’s reputation is really strong, but does the public have an image of the variety and are they aware of what goes on here?

You’ve spent decades working in higher education and living in the greater Boston area. What was your image of BU before you came here?

Not much of one. I tend to be very focused on my environment, and BU was not known in my field, chemical engineering, and I was not a great reader of the popular press. You might have said I was living on the moon.

When I became provost at MIT, BU came in on my radar screen — how good we are in the humanities, because that was something MIT was developing, and in biomedical engineering, because BU was leading in that field and it was something MIT was getting involved in as well.

What made you want to come here?

The opportunity — I need a community of people who want to do something. I think BU is much better than it thinks it is, and it’s ready to move forward. In higher education, you want to make a difference.

How do you start that process?

As an institution, we have to realize where we want to go, to articulate our plans. We have a set of disciplines; we have the quality of faculty and of staff and students. The planning phase is about deciding where to put the emphasis, programmatically, and we’re poised to do that. We went on a retreat with the deans; we went on a retreat with the trustees; we started building a skeleton for how it comes together. The goal is to have a document by September, and we’re working through the tactics of how to do that.

You established a new research area, the Council on BU and the Global Future, early on. Why was that a priority?

It comes from the bottom up, from each school, college, or department, this input about the issues. We have to pick things that are important, and in terms of our role in international development of higher education, we are — the best word is inundated — inundated with opportunities. The question is, do you deal with these one at a time or do you step back, deal with an overall strategy. I saw it as, the University is ready for that.

It’s the first of what I think will be two or three councils. We have a huge opportunity in undergraduate education — we’ve developed this school- and college-based system that offers a professional degree, and it’s an opportunity to articulate the balance between a liberal arts education and a very professional education. We have these two types, but don’t articulate how these two things are interacting and what it means at BU. These are big challenges.

What’s your response to BU’s reputation as a place that lacks community?

I believe a lot of this comes about from how the freshman and sophomore years are structured. If you talk to seniors, if they haven’t checked out already, they don’t feel that way, but if you’re a freshman in COM, taking one class at COM and the others at CAS, the question is, when you’re over in CAS, how you make that part of the overall BU experience.

What about the graduate schools? How do they shape our identity?

We have very, very strong professional schools, the business school, the School of Dental Medicine, the law school, a full set of really rich professional programs. It’s hard for a university of our depth and breadth to be good at everything, but we need to continually put resources into building the reputation of programs, and it will be hard.

But if you talk about these things as part of the image of the University — as an example, the medical school, and Boston Medical Center, and the dental program are engaged in the city and create the identity of us as a city university.

We’re a city university, but our tuition rate makes BU inaccessible to a lot of the city’s population. How do you balance that level of energy and interaction with our costs?

We do have that engagement, and it really comes up from the student body — but we have a cost structure that looks like anybody else’s. We don’t have the luxury of a large endowment, and as we climb in the rankings, the hurdle to get into the University goes up, and it makes it very hard for us to reach out to a public school–based community.

This is an issue I’ve asked a group of faculty to think about — how to reach out to the community and try to help that accessibility on the knowledge side. We don’t need more students — we’ve got 32,000 applicants for 4,000 spots — but the biggest issue is how we prepare students from Boston to come here.

If each university figured out how to do that — in a funny, self-serving way, say, “We are a university in Boston, and we want students from Boston to come here” — if everyone did that, the supply would increase, and the net result is everyone’s self-serving goal would be met.

You’ve brought on a new chief of development and alumni affairs, Scott Nichols — what are your goals in that area?

We need to change our core practices at three levels: one of the biggest priorities for me is raising money for financial aid. Typically, students get named scholarships, and when you get one of those named scholarships they come back to you and say, here’s a fund that you can contribute to. We haven’t done that. Two, build resources that attract and retain the very best faculty — faculty chairs, funds that make their quality of life very good, that make their school and research go well. The third comes out of our strategic plan, about trying to raise money for those.

What do you hope people will come away with after the inauguration?

I hope people come out of everything just feeling that BU’s in a wonderful place. This is not about me; it’s about the community. When we were planning this, we talked about doing it in October or April, and if we did it in October it would be about me, it would be an introduction to someone you didn’t know, and there would be some level of apprehension.

What I hoped to do by moving it to April is open a discussion about different topics, and that would make the University feel much better about itself and this celebration.