This is the first in a two-part series profiling BU’s tenth president, Robert Brown. The second installment will appear on BU Today this Thursday.
The list of credentials that BU’s presidential search committee considered was long and complex: the right person to lead the University should be a top-notch scholar and financially adept at running the business side of a large university. He or she should be a communicator with the ability to inspire in the BU community a renewed sense of pride. Above all, perhaps, he or she should be a leader with the vision to advance the University’s teaching and research missions through successful recruitment and fundraising.
And following a yearlong nationwide search, the committee needed to look no farther than across the Charles River, to MIT, where for the past 25 years chemical engineer Robert Brown had been quietly earning a reputation as an innovative researcher and, as that institution’s provost for the past 7 years, as a savvy budgetary manager and capital planner. Brown was named president of Boston University on June 4 and took office on September 1, at which time former School of Medicine Dean and Medical Campus Provost Aram Chobanian stepped down as president and returned to the Medical Campus as a professor and researcher.
“At the end of that year, Bob Brown emerged as the single most compelling individual to lead our institution,” says David F. D’Alessandro. A vice chairman of the Board of Trustees, D’Alessandro headed the search committee, which included seven other trustees, four faculty members, two deans, and a student. “He is a rare combination of scholar, teacher, innovator, and someone who has the vision and administrative strength to set a forward-looking tone and agenda for this very diverse, multifaceted community.”
Brown, in turn, was drawn to BU in part because of “the role it plays in Boston, which is extensive and quite different from many other private universities in the area,” he says. “BU truly is a great urban university, in addition to being a university of the region and of the world.”
Moreover, BU’s sheer complexity enticed him: “One of the things that stands out in my mind about the University is the breadth and depth of its undergraduate program and its commitment to a broad education,” he says. “On top of that base, students have the ability to launch their career in a professional school, whether studying communications, management, or engineering, or in the arts. That kind of variety is a hugely valuable part of BU. And it excites me.”
Making his mark
Raised by a working single mother in San Antonio, Tex., Brown, 53, was the first of his family to attend college. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, his passion for science and mathematics led him to pursue engineering, he says, because “I had a sense that engineers could make an impact on the world.”
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, all in chemical engineering, Brown began his career as an assistant professor of chemical engineering at MIT in 1979, directly out of graduate school. “I entered academia with a simple purpose: to teach and do research,” he says. “I kept my head down.”
But not for long. Brown, an expert in fluid dynamics who has published more than 200 scientific papers and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, soon was attracted to administrative work. He became chairman of his department in 1989, dean of engineering in 1996, and provost in 1998. “I get great satisfaction out of getting people together in a room,” he says, “getting them working together, and trying to build a consensus.”