Looking back, forging ahead
Daylong presidential inauguration symposium benchmarks BU’s impact
The Boston University community today concludes a week’s worth of presidential inaugural events by taking the measure of the school with a provocative daylong symposium titled Celebrating Our Legacy, Forging Our Future: Boston University and Beyond. Presentations and panel discussions explore BU’s roles and responsibilities as one of the world’s leading private urban research universities. The four sessions examine BU and the World, BU and the City, BU and Research, and BU and Education.
The opening session looks at the obligations of a great university to address the critical global issues of our time. Chaired by Gerald Keusch, associate dean for global health at the School of Public Health and assistant provost of the Medical Campus, and Ronald Richardson, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor and director of the African-American Studies Program, the session’s keynote speakers are Jeffrey Sachs, a professor and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (Hon.74), BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities.
“The roots of global engagement at Boston University can be found in the missionary ethos that suffused the school at its founding,” says session panelist Dana Robert, Truman Collins Professor of World Mission, of the School of Theology. “The early global consciousness of Boston University faculty and students shaped the destiny of the University.”
The panelists — who include Husain Haqqani, a CAS associate professor and director of the Center for International Relations, and BU Provost David Campbell — will discuss how BU can address today’s great global issues through teaching, research, outreach, and service. They will also examine ways the University can preserve academic freedom and resist political pressure from within and without.
The second session, chaired by School of Education Dean Douglas Sears and Karen Antman, School of Medicine dean and Medical Campus provost, deals with how a great university can be a good neighbor. Panelists will talk about how local engagement can coincide with enlightenment and how to find the right path when legitimate university goals conflict with those of the city. Joining the discussion are Fitchburg State College President Robert Antonucci (SED’83), Raul Garcia, a School of Dental Medicine professor and chairman of health policy, WBUR anchor Delores Handy-Brown, Susan Akram, a School of Law associate professor, and Tin Le (SMG’01), who is one of more than 1,600 beneficiaries of the University’s Boston Scholars Program, which has awarded more than $100 million in full scholarships to Boston public high school graduates since 1973.
Akram hails the BU Civil Litigation Program as a unique contributor to the community. The program, run jointly by LAW and MED, is the nation’s first interdisciplinary collaborative effort in a campus setting to provide a range of legal, medical, and psychosocial skills to assist survivors of torture seeking asylum in the United States. “For all the schools involved in this project,” she says, “the work presents an important, hands-on experience in translating theory into practice in a way that connects our students, our schools, and our faculty to the wider world of Boston and beyond.”
Garcia notes the value to both BU and the city of SDM’s oral health outreach programs into Boston’s neighborhoods. “By a deep engagement with communities as an integral part of their education,” he says, “BU dental students not only learn dental medicine, but also how to contribute to their city’s well-being and make people’s lives better.”
As for potential “town vs. gown” conflicts with a host city, “The key to civic engagement,” Antonucci advises, “is understanding that the conflicts are temporary, but the partnership is forever. When colleges and cities differ in their goals for civic engagement, it is only a difference of ideas — the collaboration remains strong.”
On-campus collaboration is a focus of the third session. Chaired by Bennett Goldberg, a CAS professor and physics department chairman, and Kenneth Lutchen, a College of Engineering professor and chairman of biomedical engineering, it will examine the promises and pitfalls of interdisciplinary research within universities. BU has been a leader in generating interdisciplinary research in such things as systems biology, photonics, nanotechnology, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, computational sciences, and space physics. Yet embedding interdisciplinary scientific research and education into any university’s culture is difficult.
Goldberg notes, for example, that there are ongoing challenges involving aligning curricula between departments, proper accounting of joint grants, and satisfying federal grant panels populated by experts from many different fields, which reduces the ability of high-risk, high-impact proposals from getting funded. “Interdisciplinary education is a challenge, since one must sacrifice some amount of discipline-specific depth for interdisciplinary breadth,” he says, “and that balance is difficult to achieve.”
“The new research paradigm has created a need for Boston University to make appropriate changes in its infrastructure that help promote interdisciplinary research [IDR],” says session panelist BU President Emeritus Aram Chobanian, John I. Sandson Distinguished Professor of Health Sciences and former dean of MED. “The growing importance of IDR warrants new approaches to foster such research at the University.” Chobanian is joined in the discussion by James Collins, a UNI professor and ENG biomedical engineering professor, and Gloria Waters, dean of Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
The final session explores in depth higher education’s obligation to address inequality in a pluralistic world. Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore, who chairs the session with College of General Studies Dean Linda Wells, says he is looking to have a conversation that “pushes the limits” about diversity and higher education. “What kind of liberal education,” he asks, “is expected for students entering a society and a world where, conventional wisdom and many in the higher education community agree, diversity is important?”
Also discussing the subject are Charles Glenn, a School of Education professor, Shahla Haeri, a CAS associate professor and director of the Women’s Studies Program, Theodore Landsmark, Boston Architectural Center President and CEO, and Boston attorney Kay Hodge (CAS’69, LAW’72,’77).
“I have experienced less ‘political correctness’ here than my friends report in other colleges and universities,” says Glenn. “Philosophically, we seem already to be a rather diverse institution, though undoubtedly there are pockets of knee-jerk narrow-mindedness. We need to learn to grow out of such intellectual childishness.”