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Where Deans Go for Guidance

Advisory boards provide reality check, direction, funding


Karen Antman was fortunate: when the School of Medicine dean arrived in 2005, she inherited an advisory board that was eager and engaged. At her first meeting with the board, Antman asked for suggestions about how to raise money for scholarships. Her advisors brought up the possibility that decreasing costs for medical students might accomplish the same thing. One way to do that, the board suggested, was to provide below-market-rent student housing, which would not only aid the students financially, but improve their quality of life. If they lived near the medical school, they wouldn’t have a long trip home after extended rotations.

In 2010, MED broke ground on its first-ever student residence. The building, with housing for 208 students, opens this coming June. Throughout the process, says Antman, a subcommittee of the board provided crucial advice. They debated the locations and urged her to put the project out to bid while the construction industry was in a downturn.

“The more suggestions you get ahead of time, the fewer unintended consequences in the end,” says Antman, who is also Medical Campus provost. “That’s a role the board has been really helpful with.”

Deans advisory boards, some new, some reconstituted, are helping reshape Boston University in ways imagined six years ago by President Robert A. Brown. When Brown arrived at BU, only half of the University’s colleges had functioning advisory boards. Of those eight, just two were the kind Brown envisioned, made up of leaders in their fields who provide expert guidance as well as financial support.

Now, at Brown’s urging, all 16 colleges plus the athletics department and Marsh Chapel have active advisory boards. They range in size from 6 at the School of Education to more than 40 at Metropolitan College. Some boards are filled with alumni. Some also include parents and nonalum experts. But all gain from the wisdom of heavyweights in business, health care, entertainment, real estate, and engineering. They include Bonnie Arnold (COM’78), a film producer at DreamWorks Studios, on the College of Communication board, Edwin Fuller (SMG’68), president of international lodging at Marriot International and vice chairman of BU’s Board of Overseers, on the School of Hospitality Adminstration’s board, and John Abele, founder and director of medical device innovator and manufacturer Boston Scientific Corporation, on the College of Engineering Board.

“We need and have leaders on these boards,” says Scott Nichols, senior vice president for development and alumni relations. “When you have actual leaders, they don’t run away from the problems.”

Adam Wise, associate vice president for development and alumni relations, says the boards have succeeded on various fronts, and particularly when it comes to raising funds. In the past five years, nine colleges have received the largest commitment in their history from an individual. At the top of that list is the $10.5 million anonymous gift from an advisory board member and alumna at the School of Medicine. None of the gifts have been less than $1.5 million, Wise says.

The board members have also been important allies in helping deans solve problems, rethink their programs, and chart the future. They provide reality-checking sounding boards, enabling deans to brainstorm with news executives, entrepreneurs, and hospital presidents.

“Board members are smart businesspeople or artists or philanthropists and because they come from a different world, they aren’t wrapped up in the details of the University,” says Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences. “They are constructive critics who hold my feet to the fire.”

In recent years, these boards have vetted the colleges’ strategic plans and taken the lead on specific projects. At ENG, the advisory board’s suggestion led Dean Kenneth Lutchen to combine the manufacturing and the aerospace engineering departments. The SHA advisory board helped envision the school’s first building and then make it a reality. Working with Dean Christopher Muller, they are now deep in discussions about how best to brand the school.

At the School of Public Health, Dean Robert Meenan (MED’72, GSM’89) asked his board for thoughts on where the school should expand its international programs, which are mostly in African countries. Rather than add more in Third World countries, they suggested that SPH should look at India and China, where the University overall should have more connections.

“A regular form of external feedback is helpful,” says Meenan. “Otherwise you get insular, and that’s a problem.”

When MET Dean Jay Halfond was on the hunt for cutting-edge programs that would prepare the college’s students for new and burgeoning professions, he turned to his board of advisors. Board member Andrei Soran (MET’92), CEO of Metrowest Medical Center in Framingham, had two words—health informatics.

Despite the arcane name, health informatics, a broad field that includes the digitizing and management of medical records, affects everyone who’s ever seen a doctor. Soran told Halfond that the health care field needs computer scientists who understand the medical world. This fall MET debuted its health informatics programs.

At COM, Dean Thomas Fiedler (COM’71) has wrestled with how the college can better prepare students for a rapidly evolving media. Fiedler worked for two years assembling his board, which includes Jason Binn (COM’90), founder and director of luxury magazine publisher Niche Media, Harold Burson (Hon.’88), founder of the influential PR firm Burson-Marsteller, and Jay Roewe (COM’79), senior vice president at HBO.

“They are the market we are serving, and you’ve got to listen to the market,” Fiedler says.

Roewe says he was happy to join the board because it was a way to give back to the school. “It’s also interesting to go into academia and hear where people think they are going,” he says. “And I find it stimulating to be around smart people.”

The group is currently hashing out ways that COM, with its aging facilities, can integrate digital media into the curriculum. The board’s advice: build a new wing with state-of-the-art facilities on a par with similar schools. Now they are helping make that happen, Fiedler says. Board member Maya Ezratti (COM’98), director of community and public affairs for GL Homes, visited the University of Miami’s School of Communication recently to see how their facilities compared to COM’s. Ray Kotcher (COM’79), CEO of the advertising and public relations firm Ketchum, advised the dean on the kind of data he’ll need to persuade people to put their money behind the new wing.

“That’s the kind of advice that Ketchum clients pay huge sums of money to get,” Fiedler says. “I can’t overestimate the value of the advisory board.”

Amy Sutherland, What Shamu Taught Me About Life Love and Marriage, Boston Globe, Boston University
Amy Sutherland

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Where Deans Go for Guidance

  • Ramesh Kumar Nanjundaiya on 12.21.2011 at 12:59 am

    Excellent write-up indeed. Sometime ago I had posted this comment (see below) in BU Today. Hope this is of some use. Advisory Board Member – MET/BU.
    Ramesh Kumar Nanjundaiya (MET 1981) on 10.12.2011 at 12:11 am

    BU has already stepped up its pace particularly in the last 24 months. I see that Provost Jean Morrison has undertaken vital structural changes to further the momentum at BU. For one, I gather she is working diligently with each academic department to clarify and articulate the competitive strengths and to identify the initiatives necessary to further the various degree programs. Here self-assessment becomes a key with a new provost to gear up to the accreditation maintenance review. Another avenue that Provost Jean Morrison could look to do well is to assess the marketplace, the competition and student satisfaction and performance. This way, each department would have developed a clear articulation of the theoretical and practical value it provides to its students and identified the areas where the investment of incremental resources is most compelling. It may be noted that the dramatic impact of technology is not restricted to the industries but to the field of education as well. BU will do well to ensure that the classrooms have all been significantly upgraded technologically and the faculty is well trained on the latest pedagogical tools for the classroom. As BU also provides a significant amount of curriculum online, it should further develop a strategy to leverage the reach of electronic delivery systems and platforms so that this generation of students at BU take the full advantage of technology and its pedagogical possibilities, efficient dissemination of information and growth. BU should strategise further to give due importance to Interdisciplinary learning as it will become an increasingly important element for growth and will aid students to be more effective problem solvers in career and in life. I am sure Provost Jean Morrison has already set plans to further BU in the global space.

  • CarolineD on 03.06.2012 at 10:55 am

    COM85 grad myself…and what do you mean, “hashing out ways to integrate digital media into the curriculum?” YOU MEAN IT’S NOT ALREADY?? Wow, wouldn’t think a school of COM’S caliber would have fallen so far behind in professional trends. I’ll gladly sit on the Board. Sounds like they need us alums to help bring them into the 21st century!

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