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President Brown reflects on the return to in-person and more with The Daily Free Press

BU President Robert Brown
Boston University President Robert Brown speaking at the Class of 2025 matriculation. Brown spoke with The Daily Free Press in an interview Monday to discuss expectations for the Spring 2022 semester, concerns raised by student groups and more. SHANNON DAMIANO/ DFP FILE

As the first fully in-person semester since the COVID-19 pandemic draws to a close at Boston University, many have questioned what the Spring’s safety measures will look like with recent news of the Omicron variant. 

In an interview with The Daily Free Press, BU President Robert Brown spoke about his expectations for moving forward with the pandemic, and addressed several concerns from students brought up this semester, including sexual misconduct and student health resources on campus, calls for the defunding or abolishing BU’s Police Department and lacking financial aid for transfer and international students. 

Read the transcript of our interview with President Brown below. Excerpts have been edited for clarity. (Skimming for quick answers to your major questions? Find the highlights bolded in red.

How do you think BU did with switching back to the in-person experience this Fall? With news of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, what are your expectations for the following semester for testing requirements, booster vaccines and other safety measures?

I think we did very well through the Fall semester. We do the genomic testing of every positive case and right now, as of last night, we have not seen Omicron. We’ve repopulated the campus, we’ve returned to some level of normal activity, in-person learning and teaching, and research. If you look at our vaccination rate, it’s phenomenal. There’s just not enough information about Omicron to know how it’s going to affect things one way or the other. Even without Omicron, we were scheduling to start the Spring semester the same way we started the Fall. We’re recommending boosters, we’re running booster clinics, we’ll run a bunch more clinics in January, but we have not yet made a decision whether we’re going to require it, and remember that you’re only supposed to take a booster after six months of having your last shot. We are ready to pivot in that if the data comes out with something different about Omicron that we should be very worried about, we may have to pivot with those kinds of policies. But as of right now, I would say January looks like August. 

This semester, some students have reported that their professors have said they are not allowed to record lectures and post them online. 

One thing that we put a very high value on is in-person learning, and we put our policies in place for this Fall to try to get our students to come back into the classroom and have those classroom interactions. The policies about posting lectures were based on that. As we return to something more normal and as the anxiety about the classroom goes down, we’ll revisit that. 

Why did BU increase its class size this year and will this trend continue? Can the University comfortably handle much more?

We did not purposely increase our class size. Our class size was set to be the same as the year before. Our yield on admissions went up dramatically, and that’s what caused the larger freshman class. We have models and estimates about what we think will happen and it’s not what happened. There was what I would say a “flight to quality.” People move toward the larger, more multi-college, high-quality research universities and away from some of the smaller ones. The Fall was the first time we’ve ever admitted a class test optional. So we had no idea how those people would yield and we ended up with this larger freshman class. Now we have one data point and we’re working hard not to have it happen again because it’s not good for the University. We’re not comfortable right now. 

How does the University make sure it’s providing enough mental health resources, living up to Jed foundation recommendations and listening to student and parent concerns and ideas for improvement?

This is a huge concern. We’ve seen an increase in demand for mental health services from our student body. Our biggest single challenge is staffing. The staffing market for mental health professionals is incredibly tight in the New England area, so the University Provost, Jean Morrison, increased Behavioral Health resources so that they can hire five more people in the Fall. I think we are appropriately resourced if we can fill our positions. One thing I want to make very clear that I don’t think the FreeP has made clear before is we have an emergency line. So when people talk about the wait [at Student Health Services], if they say it’s an emergency, we get them right in. If they believe they need to see someone right away, there’s a way of seeing someone right away and that bypasses the wait, which has gone up over the semester. From a resource point of view, we have a number of other plans, possibly using telemedicine to help. The challenge is if you start going out to one of those providers, they don’t have a context, they don’t know us. Having a provider that’s inside the system is important. That’s why we put those additional resources in. 

What changes to the occurrence and culture of sexual misconduct on campus do you hope to see come out of the Provost’s Committee on Sexual Assault and Harassment Prevention and Dean Elmore’s Kappa Sigma Fraternity investigation

I think over the last years, we’ve made significant progress on the prevention of sexual assault and harassment both through the creation of [the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center], expanding SARP resources and now the mandatory online training for everybody. I think Jean Morrison’s Committee is the right step in this direction. The Committee can give input into how we structure everything from the online training to a cultural awareness campaign. I hope that the committee will establish a set of metrics because we have internally a set of metrics that we can monitor to see if we’re making progress. The Kappa Sigma investigation is not done yet, so I’d rather not comment. It’s close, but not done. 

What are the plans to address the reported inability of SHS to fully accommodate student needs this semester as well as the frequent referrals to outside health care that has cost some students, some of whom already paid for SHIP, BU’s health insurance?

Our Student Health Service is not a hospital and is not a full-service medical center. If you read the details of SHIP, SHIP is a very reasonably priced, first-stop health plan. It’s very clear if you read the document and we have always done a combination of inside healthcare in SHS and referrals to specialists outside. The referrals are higher this semester than they had been going back to 2019, 2020. But they’re in proportion to how many students we have on campus. It’s not like we’re shifting to referrals from SHS, nor have we decreased the staff of SHS. Every student signs a document when they sign up for SHS. It says that this is part of your health care system, it is not all, and some things are not covered under SHS. 

Several student groups on campus have called for the defunding or abolition of BUPD in response to claims of ineffectiveness, unnecessary use of force and cause of distress for students of color. How does BU respond to this?

If you go back in the Fall of 2020, we organized what we call the Community Safety Advisory Group under Andrea Taylor, our Senior Diversity Officer, which is a group that involves both students, staff and faculty, as an interface between our public safety people in the rest of the campus. If there are real concerns that the people want to bring, they should bring them to Andrea and the CSAG. That’s why we put that committee in place. The only other anecdote I would add is for every individual situation where someone complains, I think we investigate both sides. What we find is there’s disagreement about what happened between both sides, not just one side. 

How is the University showing it’s listening to the concerns of teaching fellows, part-time lecturers and full-time non-tenured faculty in asking for higher pay, better job security and a fair workload?

The PhD students have a special issue and their issue is they’re trying to do their thesis and many of them could not make progress on their thesis at the same rate they normally would’ve. The Provost has put in place funds for PhD students to be able to appeal to get additional support. We also gave the teaching fellows one-time extra money last year. We were trying to listen to them but they’re a complicated group because they have two functions. One is as teaching fellows, in some semesters, in our undergraduate graduate programs, but at the same time, they’re also working on the thesis and so we’re trying to support them both places. 

The full-time lecturers are complicated for me to comment on because they’re a bargaining unit and we’re in the middle of that bargaining. It’s been going on since late last summer. It’s best that I not comment because while negotiations are going on, that’s the way collective bargaining is and so we’re listening to them through the collective bargaining process. 

The group that I think is as vulnerable as any is the part-time lectures. I want to say it’s going to sound complicated. Our strategy with part-time lectures, besides increasing what we pay them to do, is to minimize the number of part-time lecturers. So if you look at the part-time, up until this Fall, five years in a row, the percentage of our faculty that are part-time lecturers has gone down. And that’s because we’re combining part-time lecturers to make full-time positions that have full benefits and then if their lecturers are in the collective bargaining unit. And I think that’s in the long term probably the best thing for the University and those people.

 Now, it’s not going to solve every problem, because there are some part-time lecturers that we have in a course when someone goes on sabbatical. We need someone to teach upper-level subjects that we would never hire a full-time person to do. But now when I looked at the data over the weekend, factoring out the School of Medicine, [which] is very different, the overall teaching faculty at the University is 10% part-time. That includes schools like Law, Dental Medicine, Communication, where many of those part-time lecturers are full-time working professionals. They add great value to the curriculum. It’s not like they’re living off that part-time. In fact, in some of those schools, they’re pro bono, they don’t get paid at all. So you have to factor those out.

Do the majority of international students here come from high-income backgrounds? Is the University interested in accepting more economically diverse international students?

The University over the last five, six, 10 years has made great progress in undergraduate financial aid. This year we expect undergraduate financial aid to be more than $360 million and it’s going up at a rate of over 7% a year for the last five years. That’s versus tuition that’s going up at 3 or 3.25%, so it’s going up twice the rate of tuition

The first thing we did is we met full need without loans for Pell Grant students, the domestic students with the lowest income level. The next thing we did, we announced two years ago, is meet full need with a minimal amount of loans for all domestic students as they came in and that’s rolling through the system. We still are not meeting full need for our transfer students and that’s probably the next thing. After that, I will put in a queue, is international students. 

We have felt and our Board agrees with this, that the first thing we needed to do was to be as equitable and inclusive as we could for U.S. students because that’s what gives us our tax status as a not-for-profit. Right now international students’ only access is to merit aid. But I hope in the future, we’ll be able to change that. But it’s going to take us continual growth of the financial aid pool that we have. It has changed the composition of our class over the last five years because of being able to add more financial aid to it but we still have more things to do.

Why are students only able to donate guests’ meals from their Dining Plans and why are services such as free access to Headspace, Adobe Creative Suite and BU-provided MBTA transport not widely advertised?

If I go to the Dean of Students website, there’s a site that doesn’t say you can only donate guest [meals] you can donate anything. So there may be a misunderstanding. You can donate your basic plan. I can give you the website. [Editor’s Note: In the process of fact checking The Daily Free Press found that students can only donate guest meals on the Student Link.]

I know I’ve done it before and I’m pretty sure I remember, and the students who suggested this question said on Student Link when you go to donate, it says “donate your guest meals.”

You’re pointing to a really good problem. We probably have different things on different websites. Why don’t people know about all these things? How do we create one place that people would go to look for all of those resources that might be beneficial to a low-income student? Now that we have the Newbury Center, maybe it’s their website. Where would students go to look at everything? Is it the Link? Who is sitting on the Link looking for other programs that are going on and making sure it’s all updated? And that’s a communication issue.

Why are expensive new projects such as the Center for Computing and Data Science in the works before locations in need of renovation such as Warren Towers, the Whitestones, Danielson Hall etcetera., where students are living?

We have 380 buildings. Some are new and some that very much need renovation. We spend a lot of time thinking about and getting a lot of input about how we deploy the limited amount of resources we have to move forward. If you look at balancing what I would call academic buildings and residential buildings, this is something we think a lot about and if you. If you went back to Myles Standish Hall before it was remodeled, it would have been at the far bottom of the list. We took Myles Standish offline for two years and it’s gorgeous. It’ll hold up for another 50 years, and in 50 years, it’ll be at the bottom of the list. 

When we’re building the Computing and Data Science building, the challenge there first is it’s not an expensive building on a per-square-foot basis. It’s a big building and it’s solving two huge issues for us. One of the few places in the University where we’re expanding faculty is in computing and data science and that’s because of tremendous student demand for computer science courses, data science courses, the new major launches in September, the minors will launch in September. We have to put those people somewhere.

Some of our oldest academic buildings that have some of the worst living conditions for faculty and students are on Cummington Mall, and that’s where computer sciences are today. We’re moving people from space that is too small and inadequate to new space. I think there are classroom seats for 700 students in that building, which then will replace classrooms that are on Cummington Mall that are poor quality.

Now, that doesn’t detract from the fact that we need to continue to invest in our residences and, in fact, this summer we’ll launch a major project, actually in Kilachand [Hall] that’s been waiting for about five years to go, in which we will redo the facade, which we had to do on Myles, and then we will redo the entire [Americans with Disabilities Act] access to the building. Finally, we will redo all the student study space on the top floor. In that project, I won’t say how much it is but it’s expensive on a square foot basis because it’s a very old building. 

We just work down the list, the one that is the most complicated obviously is Warren Towers. One of the questions we’re working on, and we’ve engaged student focus groups, is these dormitory residences that were built 50, 60, 70 years ago that have double rooms and bathrooms down the hall, how functional are those buildings for the next 20, 30, 40 years? How desirable are living conditions for students and we know that upperclassmen do not want to live there. The University has quite a few of those, Rich, Claflin, Sleeper Towers and Warren Towers.

 Myles was a great experiment because we converted Myles to a suite-style residence without kitchens but with semi-private bathrooms, and it seems to be going well. We have to make really careful decisions about how we think about these residences because remember, when we renovate one, it’ll be almost the cost of a new building, and at the end of the day, it will be there in that way for 30 or 40 years. So we’re trying to figure out what is the right place to go and can we afford it and students afford it

Do you have any official comments on the Shiney James investigation and allegations?

It’s an investigation that hasn’t reported out yet so it’s probably not appropriate. We’re taking it very seriously, it’s a very thorough investigation.

You’ve been University president for over 16 years. What do you find to be some of your greatest accomplishments in this role?

A University is like this great organism. What I try to understand is, has the center of mass moved? And I think we have, if I look at the quality of our students today, their ambition, where they’re going, what jobs they’re getting, who we’re attracting to the University. 

One of the things that was so sad to me last year was Innovate[@BU] was dark. If I went back to 2005 and said, could we populate Innovate with a lot of students from all across the University that want to get involved with innovation and entrepreneurship? I’m not sure. And today, it’s easy. We’re beyond capacity.

I can’t get too reflective this morning but when I think about where we are as an undergraduate institution, you know, I think we’re a much more committed undergraduate institution than in 2005. And I think on the research side, and on the scholarly side for our faculty, we’ve also made tremendous strides. 

What are the areas you think the administration needs to improve on? Do you have any regrets as President?

Well, regrets are even more complicated than reflections on progress. What I would love to see is to get the University back to what I call the normal pace of how we make a change in the institution. 

The other challenge I think is struggling to understand how to balance academic freedom for the faculty and student body, free speech and inclusivity in our community. These three concepts are, to many people, in tension with each other. Right before the pandemic, we’d gone through a two-year process of coming up with a statement for free speech for the University, which was approved by the Board actually in September 2020. How do I define hate speech? That’s something I have to do this next Spring, having the kinds of discussions to sort out how we’re going to deal with this. 

A university is a place where we should deal with those concepts head-on. It’s been a matter of trying to gather up the energy to get to this, and I think it’s critically important. 

Students have said they find you inaccessible. How do you feel about that and do you plan to do anything to change this?

This is always troubling and frustrating. First, students come to me and say why don’t you have office hours? Well, if you do the math, it doesn’t give you accessibility. I don’t tweet, because I’m not sure that’s accessibility. I tend to meet through students with what I would call the governance structure, either with Student Government, and I have dinners with the student leaders. 

I travel over 100 days a year on BU business on average. So that takes out a lot of time that I could be on campus to do events and other things. It’s frustrating. I have not found a way back when I talk to my colleagues about it from comparably sized institutions, this is a fundamental tension. One of the challenges is if you give a certain group of students that are not representative particular access, I’m not sure that’s really meeting with the student body. So when you think about this, any recommendations?

I have seen you on the streets before but you’re always on the go somewhere with your rolly backpack going somewhere. I think maybe if you could try to attend more of the events, it would be a surprise because students wouldn’t expect it and then it puts your face out there and engages with the student body a little bit more and I think it’s great that you work with StuGov more closely. But then again, that is a smaller group, but I’m also appreciative that you did this interview because this is speaking to the student body. 

You know, I have never turned down the FreeP. There are some questions I can’t answer at a particular time but I try to be as open as I can. 

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