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“In the Service of the City”

BU and Boston: a heritage of partnership

The School of Education students working in the fourth-grade classroom could see that the children were struggling to contain their pent-up energy. Their teacher, who was going over a lesson on motion and design, had already broken up one altercation. No matter. Soon it was time for the BU students to get involved. They joined the kids, divided into groups, to help them design cars made of string, paper clips, and washers that would be used in class experiments. In minutes, the room became a miniaturized speedway, paper cars skittering like beetles or crawling like snails across tabletops. Now the pupils were thoroughly engaged.

Afterward, the teacher at the William Monroe Trotter Innovation School—one of Boston’s lowest performing public schools a decade ago—gave the BU student aides high marks. “All of you weren’t afraid to just jump right in,” she said.

It’s a scene that plays out in one variation or another every year, as BU students and experts knit their time and expertise into the fabric of Boston’s life. Community service and support, combined with the University’s extensive financial contributions—from public works projects to scholarships for public school students—are part of the mission laid out by BU’s third president, Lemuel Herbert Murlin (1911-24), who described his institution as “in the heart of the city, in the service of the city.”

For a university, that service involves careful planning. “We want to focus in on those areas most directly related to our mission,” says Stephen Burgay, BU’s senior vice president for external affairs. “That mission is education and engagement with the community.”

The program at Trotter is one of many services provided by Boston University to the city of Boston. Elsewhere in the city, the University offers potential first-generation college and low-income students in Boston free academic remediation and enrichment through the Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math & Science programs, which also house some participants on BU’s campus for six weeks of learning each summer. And the Boston University Initiative for Literacy Development (BUILD), which launched in 1997, sends 130 literacy tutors annually to elementary schoolchildren for help during and after school.

Some University efforts target increasingly important areas of knowledge, such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. In CityLab, begun 23 years ago, SED and the School of Medicine offer teaching and laboratories (both stationary and mobile) to students and teachers from grades 7 through 12. The College of Engineering sends undergraduate Inspiration Ambassadors to speak to students in Boston public schools about the role of engineering in health and safety. BU’s Artemis Project, a five-week computer science summer camp, is aimed at correcting the gender imbalance in science-related professions, a subject that has caused national angst. The program taps undergraduate women to introduce robotics, cryptography, artificial intelligence, and circuits to girls entering high school. In another age group, the University’s STEM Educator-Engineer Program (STEEP) confers joint degrees—a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in teaching—training STEM teachers for middle schools and high schools nationwide.

“We want to focus in on those areas most directly related to our mission. That mission is education and engagement with the community.” —Stephen Burgay

One of the University’s oldest philanthropic efforts is the Thomas M. Menino Scholarship Program, which began life as the Boston Scholars Program in 1973. The longest running and largest such program in the country, it gives 25 Boston public school graduates four-year, full-tuition scholarships to BU each year, with total donations from the University of more than $153 million.

Upping the ante, President Robert A. Brown in 2009 green-lighted the Community Service Scholarship Program, which pays the full financial need, without loans, of any Boston public school graduate admitted to the University—the only group of students receiving uncapped, no-loan financial aid. That program has provided more than $36 million to 348 students.

Burgay says the University views its obligation to its city as one that is not limited to education. It also includes commitments to improving health care, social services, and culture. Tapping a body of idealistic students, BU’s three-decade-old Community Service Center manages 13 programs that in the last academic year oversaw 4,000 students who did 125,000 hours of volunteer work.

Public health—in particular skyrocketing obesity rates—prompted the University two years ago to open the BU Fitwell fitness center in the city’s South End. Hundreds of families receive advice about nutrition, fitness training, and wellness programs at the site, which is staffed by experts from BU’s Sargent College, MED, and the Schools of Public Health and Social Work. The University plans to spend $1.25 million over five years on Fitwell.

For the past four summers, BU has donated 100 athletic camp scholarships to Boston youth, at a total cost of more than $66,000. Athletics department staff and coaches train young people in skills for a variety of sports. And since 2012, the University also has set aside two hours of ice time on Sundays for the Allston Brighton Youth Hockey League.

BU’s financial support of the city includes the physical environment of its campus. “We participate financially with the city on road improvements, on neighborhood improvements close to home,” Burgay says.

Some of those improvements will change the design of Commonwealth Avenue, the car-bike-pedestrian-congested backbone of the Charles River Campus and the site of many accidents. The 2012 crash that killed student bicyclist Chris Weigl (COM’13) underscored the need to make safety the priority of a redesign of the road, which is planned for 2016–2017. BU has invested more than $15 million in various stages of the work. University planners worked with the city to find ways to improve safety on the road’s bike lanes, including hosting a public forum last December that helped persuade the city to install protective barriers around the lanes.

In the 1980s, BU began doing something unfashionable then and now: volunteering to pay money to the government that it didn’t owe. Much of the nonprofit University’s property is exempt from taxes, but in recognition of the services it receives from the city, BU pioneered the practice of payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT), the first Boston institution of higher education to do so.

In its most recent payment, BU paid more than $6 million, a larger percentage of what the city requested than all but a few small institutions. In terms of nominal dollars, says Burgay, “we contribute an amount of money that dwarfs by far that of any other institution,” a fact that led a Boston Globe columnist five years ago to call BU’s PILOT payment “the gold standard” among the city’s colleges.


One Comment on “In the Service of the City”

  • Robert Hill on 10.07.2015 at 12:39 pm

    An outstanding article!

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