After 18 years as president of Boston University, Robert A. Brown will step down on July 31.
In 1936 the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote for Esquire magazine in his essay “The Crack-Up,” “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
He went on to say, “I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to ‘succeed’—and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.”
Fitzgerald’s words ring true as I step down after 18 years as president of Boston University. Leading a major university requires all that Fitzgerald asked and more. To juggle opposing views on topics ranging from campus speakers to building names, and strategies for university growth. To set and to keep the University on a path for long-term success, while doing our best to see that the over 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students who are awarded degrees each year receive the very best education and experience. To respond to the changes in the world around us while maintaining our core values. To be a pragmatic steward of our resources while inspiring the community about what we are accomplishing today and the prospects for our longer-term future. And, all the while, to strive and many times fail at each of these tasks, but without, as Fitzgerald wrote, expressing futility.
I have needed to recharge my spirit many times, but it is not hard to do here. My elixirs are simple: walking around campus—as I do going to and from home each day—sticking my head in the Thurman Center, having lunch with a group of students, or meeting with a department’s faculty and staff. Hearing the accomplishments, hopes, and even the frustrations from the Boston University community connects me to the reasons why all our efforts are worthwhile and lets me bring the humanity of “Bob” to the presidential role.
When I came to Boston University in 2005, I joined a university in turmoil caused by a failed presidential search that exposed weak leadership and broken governance. A university with a dedicated and talented faculty and staff, and an aspiring and engaged student body—but with little thought about, or unity around, the prospects for the future.
The University is leading changes in our society. Groundbreaking research on traumatic brain injury changed the nation’s perspective of risk from contact sports, and BU faculty are national leaders in the push for racial equity and justice.
From this beginning, we have developed a vision of Boston University as a wonderfully interconnected private research university committed to inclusive excellence, but grounded in a gritty pragmatism that faces head on what is needed to make this vision a reality. To support a faculty of ever-increasing accomplishment and impact and a dedicated staff, the University has built strong financial underpinnings, great governance by our Board of Trustees, talented leadership, effective collaboration with faculty governance and student government, and transformative support by alumni and friends. Putting in place each piece took intentionality, effort, and time.
Shortly after I joined BU in the fall of 2005, adapting from Jim Collins’ best-selling business book, Good to Great, I began speaking about a “virtuous cycle” of delivering high-quality academic programs and residential experiences for our students, supporting the research and scholarship of world-class faculty, being frugal with our resources, and reinvesting strategically to become better, more relevant. The cycle closed with engaging our alumni and friends, who had deserted the University during the troubling years, demonstrating to them our progress and commitments, and hoping that, over time, they would engage.
The strategy was built for long-term success, building quality one step at a time and counter to placing large bets on “transformative change”—especially bets focused on a single school or college. Instead, emphasis has been on being the most interconnected research university possible. We believed the world would put a premium on graduates who excel working across disciplines and on interdisciplinary research and scholarship that offers solutions to society’s greatest challenges.
Our plan is working. We executed the virtuous cycle year after year, weathering the Global Financial Crisis and COVID-19. The cycle has become a flywheel (a description coined by Jim Collins), fueling important changes in the University, including:
And the last element in the cycle, the support of our alumni and friends, materialized at levels beyond my wildest dreams. They fueled the $1.85 billion raised in our first-ever comprehensive campaign, aptly named “Choosing to be Great,” and continue to support the University at record levels.
Equally as important, the University is leading changes in our society. Groundbreaking research on traumatic brain injury changed the nation’s perspective of risk from contact sports, and BU faculty are national leaders in the push for racial equity and justice. The drive for diversity and inclusion is embraced across our academic community. Finally, although there is much more to do, we have strengthened our focus on solving the largest existential threat to humanity—global warming caused by fossil fuels. Through our Climate Action Plan, we are leading as a model for a carbon-free urban campus.
All of these are proof points of our momentum. What fuels the flywheel? The energy comes from the talent and dedication of all of you—the staff and faculty of Boston University, each working to excel in their part of this boundless and endless effort.
On reflection, 18 years ago, I did place a big bet when I came here. It was, and still is, that Boston University—an urban, residential, private research university, built on inclusive excellence—will continue to be part of the bedrock of our society for decades into the future. I will no longer steward the bet. But I am not taking my chips off the table. I am betting that future generations at Boston University will stay on the path and keep the flywheel turning.
See you on campus!