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President Robert Brown discusses BU’s efforts toward growth and development

President Brown in his office on Silber Way. PHOTO BY ANDRES PICON/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Over the course of the last year, the Boston University community has taken steps to transform the institution’s physical and academic landscapes. In a period of time marked by a marred political climate, natural disasters and acts of terrorism that have caused contempt and frustration, the university administration has begun to implement new initiatives that will bring people and ideas together.

Among the most significant announcements in the last 12 months was that of the upcoming merger between BU and Wheelock College. BU announced its acquisition of the small education and social work-oriented college in August, with BU President Robert Brown saying it would lead to “enhancement of our programs, while also maintaining the exemplary mission of Wheelock College.”

The merger will add the Fenway Campus to BU, including residences and potential teaching spaces, but the Charles River Campus itself also saw its fair share of new facilities meant to unite programs and disciplines.

The Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering, the product of a $115 million donation, the largest in BU’s history, opened in September. Three months later, the Joan and Edgar Booth Theatre opened its doors for the first time. The new production and performance center brought the School of Theatre to a more central location at BU, and the goal is to eventually create a partnership between it and the Department of Film and Television.

Socially and academically, new initiatives like Innovate@BU, the BU Hub and the planned expansion of the Howard Thurman Center to the Peter Fuller Building have shown that the wheels are turning in terms of bringing members of the community together to help each other and to generate new ideas for problem-solving and change.

In an interview with The Daily Free Press on Thursday, Brown discussed the successes and challenges of this new trend of growth and development on campus, as well as the motivation behind it. In the following conversation, the discussion of just some of BU’s recent efforts and struggles is broken down into three categories: institutional growth, broader-scope challenges and student development.


Institutional growth

The Daily Free Press: In less than a month, Boston University and Wheelock College will merge, and some students have expressed their disapproval of the merger on social media. What’s in it for BU?

Robert Brown: I know our students were unhappy, because if you look at [their] SATs and GPAs, the students that are in Wheelock did not meet the same requirements that our students met. It’s true … but I think when people look back on [the merger] in five years, people will say the result of it, in terms of our commitment as an urban university and in K–12 education, will be strengthened by that.

Wheelock’s two major programs are in teacher training and social work, places where we’re very strong. Adding us and Wheelock together gives us much more penetration and integration in the city of Boston and the communities.

Our School of Social Work now will have more positions, more clerkships, more opportunities for a Master’s of Social Work … With respect to education, I’m hoping … that we can become the premiere private university with a linkage to a large, urban, public school system, and that’s Boston Public Schools … Wheelock had a big one, which we have now incorporated into us.


Broader-scope challenges

DFP: In the last year, there have been efforts by student groups to get BU to divest from fossil fuels and firearms manufacturers. How does the administration handle these student-led movements when they challenge the university’s actions or inaction?

RB: I applaud the students developing their stands on these really important social issues we have, and in many cases, we see petitions and calls, and many times we react positively, but we usually react within our process. The word “demand” is one we don’t deal well with. No universities do.

If you look at things like [divestment], whether it’s things like firearms or fossil fuels, the Trustees have [decided] that the endowment is not a political instrument, and they’ve set a very high bar for when we will divest … We actually dealt with the firearms issue after Sandy Hook. … That actually led to us setting the standards in our Board of Trustees for when we would [divest]. We did not do what many universities said when they said they would never divest for a social issue. We said, ‘No, there are bars under which we would do that.’

If you go back and read the statement from when we decided not to divest in firearms, it … was all around the constitution and how we should play as a university relative to what the constitution allows. We believe in very strong regulation of firearms and our campus is a zero-tolerance place. But the question is, ‘What is a university’s place for where the endowment is used as a political instrument to make a statement?’ Because once you go down that path, where do you stop? Sugared drinks? It’s a slippery slope. But we didn’t say, ‘Never do it’ … You should never say never.

There may come a day when there’s enough inaction in Congress and enough inaction in states where [the Trustees] would reconsider the firearms issue. There may come a day when it’s become so blatantly obvious that the fossil fuel companies are doing bad that they would divest.

We try to interface … to try to find those issues that are really critical and figure out how to have dialogue around them, knowing that the student perspective is a shorter-term perspective than the university perspective.


Student development

DFP: What has been the driving force behind BU’s recent efforts to promote and facilitate student projects?

RB: When you’re a residential university with high quality education, what are the next things you do to enhance both the community and the educational experience? You end up with a set of things that I would call co-curricular … I mean co-curricular in that learning how to live in a diverse community — learning how to be around people who think differently than you — should not be an extra-curricular activity. It should be a co-curricular activity.

For the Howard Thurman Center, what we’re doing is putting resources in to expand and make more visible that community … to make it visible and connect the whole university together … Innovate@BU is really recognition that there’s a set of problem-solving skills, people skills — it’s not about accounting or so much being an entrepreneur — but how do you solve problems that are not ones that you saw in a textbook? How do you frame a problem when, if you’re a scientist, isn’t totally a scientific problem? How do you take different points of view into account when you’re posing either the problem or the solution?

It fits right into the view of the Hub … The Cross-College Challenge will be a curricular issue. Innovate@BU is a co-curricular issue. But I bet in three or four years, you’ll see those two things have fused — that you’re able to meet the Hub’s Cross-College Challenge by doing things at Innovate@BU — and that’s pretty cool. Those are the kinds of things we’re investing in. [We’re] not de-investing in the academic side … You can become a chemistry major anywhere, but being a chemistry major at BU should be different.

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