POV: My Reflections after 18 Years as BU President

Photo: President Brown, a white man with white hair and a thick, white mustchae, stands at a podium with two mics directed at him. To his right and behind him, there is a light production with BOSTON UNIVERSITY with stars in the background.

Photo by Cydney Scott


My Reflections after 18 Years as BU President

“Our plan is working,” President Robert A. Brown writes in his departing words

May 16, 2023
Twitter Facebook

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!

  • Share this story
  • 17 Comments Add


POV: My Reflections after 18 Years as BU President

  • Robert A. Brown

    Robert A. Brown is president of Boston University. Profile

Comments & Discussion

Boston University moderates comments to facilitate an informed, substantive, civil conversation. Abusive, profane, self-promotional, misleading, incoherent or off-topic comments will be rejected. Moderators are staffed during regular business hours (EST) and can only accept comments written in English. Statistics or facts must include a citation or a link to the citation.

There are 17 comments on POV: My Reflections after 18 Years as BU President

  1. Alumni

    The alumni are grateful for the improvements and level the university has reached during his tenure. The student academic experience and excellence is a major reason for the rise in ranking. Along the way the President’s office became less and less transparent, less accessible to alumni and students. The President is a different person today than when I first talked to him at an alumni event ten years ago. The front office with legions of support staff is now the most bloated in the history of the school. The head count in the office of the president and office of provost are enormous. It is a symptom of less student engagement and an emphasis on being insulated. During his tenure students working within the summer orientation were mistreated for years in the summer orientation program and demonstrates how out of touch the front office and staff are with the campus. Alumni are still talking that but for the Free Press writing an article about the summer program, the mistreatment would have remained.

    1. I second the comments.

      The president in 2005 was a pensive, open-minded individual looking to understand the strengths and deficits of the university, and seeking data-driven solutions to the university’s structural problems.

      Over the years, as the university prospered financially, the administrative bureaucracy at Boston University has grown beyond any comprehension, with no tangible benefit to either students or faculty (indeed, in many ways, the leaner administration of 2005 was much more effective). The President and Provost have both increasingly sequestered themselves from the broader university community, both structurally and personally, to the extent that, in large part, they are blind to many of the challenges that we face on the ground.

    2. I have two degrees from BU and have been on staff for 25 years this year, and I wanted to chime in to agree with this comment. For better or worse, BU is Brown’s University, the way it was once John Silber’s. I think he was a remarkable, necessary leader for many years and accomplished things previous administrations only dreamed of. I also think that Brown’s initial comments regarding George Floyd, the Shiney James disaster, the Ben Shapiro debacle, the hostility to the grad student union, etc. are example of how out of touch he (and Jean Morrison) became from their own students over the last few years. The layoffs coupled with the record-high endowment – and the rush to reopen BU right before the omicron wave of COVID hit – alienated numerous faculty and staff over the last couple years. This is the right time for him and the Provost to both step down.

      1. Alumni

        It is interesting that the alumni not on campus saw the same things as the staff. When a leader pays more attention their bloated inner staff than to the students, there is the problem. Chiefs of staffs, assistants, deputies, more assistants came in to being and we’re added and compounded the isolation from the student body. The students would benefit from a compete reduction and overhaul of that inner office.

      2. I think you misunderstand the role of the president if you think he’s supposed to be constantly “in touch” with students. You’re essentially asking him to micromanage the Student Affairs Division and Dean of Students, specifically. There’s a reporting structure for a reason.

        The president’s job is to set strategic priorities, manage up with the Board of Trustees, play ball with the Mayor of Boston and Governor of MA, and, most importantly, fundraise for the longevity and health of the institution.

        As more and more universities fold or struggle to enroll students, I am THRILLED that Brown’s leadership has ensured job security for me as an employee, and raised the value of both of my BU degrees. Demand for a BU education continues to rise, and I feel very fortunate to have been present for the Brown era. Thanks, Dr. Brown!

        1. I think you are very mistaken. President Brown made far-reaching medical decisions for the entire BU community during COVID. One cannot do that without a clear and intimate understanding of the effects of these decisions on the people impacted.

          A governor who relies upon reporting structure to understand her constituents is a governor who is easily mislead and manipulated by her subordinates’ agendas.

          1. Huh?

            The President of the United States, Anthony Fauci, the CDC Director all made far-reaching medical decisions for every citizen of this country, too.

            My point is Brown can’t do all jobs all the time. He meets with students routinely, but should he be meeting with them on the daily and undermining the function of his Associate Provost and Dean of Students? I think not.

  2. “Bob…” I am a double Terrier (CLA ‘82 and MED ‘86) and a 19-year part-time BU employee (co-founder of the MD/MBA dual degree program, Director of New Ventures in the Office of Technology Development, and co-founder of the Leadership in Medicine and Business [LIMB] program). I am also a member of the Keefer Society and former member of the BUSM Dean’s Advisory Board. I speak with MED students often to discuss their career plans and have hired numerous BU graduates in companies I have started over the years. I want to thank you for building BU into the powerhouse institution it is today. I take great pride when folks ask me about my academic background and I mention BU. I am also a graduate of Harvard Business School, but I mention that to folks only after I mention BU …Seriously, I am a very proud Terrier. You always took time from your busy schedule to meet with the various groups I worked with at BU over the years and always offered your sage advice. You were never, ever too busy to meet with me and my groups in your office, even on short notice. At 64 years old, I wear my Terrier shirts and hats with pride….As do my grown children….Thank you Bob….I will follow the next chapter of your life with enthusiasm.

  3. I’ve enjoyed many roles at BU: undergraduate student, graduate student, and administrator (on both CRC and BUMC). Dr. Brown has presided over my entire BU experience, and I feel he is leaving this institution better than he found it. Thank you.

  4. Over a forty year career in higher education I had the opportunity to work with seventeen presidents and chancellors at four institutions. Without hesitation, I place Bob Brown at the top of that list as a president, far above all others.

    No institution has come as far as BU in the last 18 years.

    Thank you Bob.

  5. No one can understand the magnitude of President Brown’s accomplishments without having lived through the 30+ years of the John Silber presidency. Somehow President Brown was able to flip the whole culture of the institution, which during those 30+ previous years was incredibly toxic, divisive, and degrading for the BU community in general, including faculty, staff, and students. If you were part of Silber’s coterie of favorites, things were fine, even flush. If you weren’t, you could very easily be branded as an enemy and were treated accordingly.

    Silber is often credited with having “transformed” BU during his long presidency. Whatever advances made during those years, however, were simultaneously accompanied by massive damage to the fabric of the university, damage that in many ways neutralized much of the progress being made.

    Bob Brown’s accomplishments during his 18 years of service at BU in many ways dwarf Silber’s during his 30+ (Silber, for example, never mounted a capital campaign of any significance whatsoever) and he did so while slowly ridding the institution of the profound malaise that had afflicted it for so long. And he managed to bring this off despite significant resistance from much of the administrative apparatus and from powerful faculty cohorts Silber had left in place. The Board of Trustees continued to be populated by Silber supporters who wanted to prolong his institutional vision into the future (as well as some of the financial dealings in which they were engaging). President Chobanian had done important transformative work just prior to Bob Brown’s arrival, but the situation was still highly fraught, to say the least.

    I know that Bob Brown would never claim to have been perfect during his presidency, and, in all honesty, he probably wasn’t. That said, those of us who have been at BU long enough owe him a debt of gratitude for having made BU the place that it deserved to be. It’s a great university in a wonderful city…

    (The author of these lines joined the faculty in 1974.)

Post a comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *