We are nearing the end of another academic year — one defined by a return to in-person teaching after a tumultuous two-year pandemic.
Over the past year, Boston University has come to grips with the reality of a world far different from the one we knew before COVID-19 hit.
Higher tuition costs, increasing rent prices and a series of misconduct allegations against faculty and staff have been the talk of the town this year.
The Daily Free Press sat down with President Robert Brown to discuss all of the above and more, including student loan forgiveness, the future of Orientation Director Shiney James and his own legacy.
How do you think the University dealt with the pandemic?
RB: It’s been tough, but the student body deserves enormous credit. And I’ve said this many times because of their compliance with the protocols starting last year, and this year, it’s been much better than many other campuses. It really has. We’ve kept the mask restriction in classrooms, and that’s gone really well. Everyone’s ready for it to be over. As these variants have changed, the transmissibility of disease has gone up dramatically. But the good news, if there is any good news, is that the severity of diseases is going down. And it’s on its way to hopefully becoming something like a common cold. It’s endemic.
We’re one of the last universities still doing the testing, so you can see it, do this and our epidemiologists are writing papers about it because we have all of your data.
The Daily Free Press published an article last week detailing allegations leveled against an assistant professor in the College of Communications, Christophor Cavalieri. What are your thoughts on it?
RB: It’s inappropriate for me to comment on any piece of an ongoing investigation.
What I can say is that some of the allegations — anonymous allegations — have been investigated before by the EOO [Equal Opportunity Office]. And then some new things have been alleged, and they’re being investigated now.
How long does an investigation tend to take? Is it case-by-case?
RB: It’s very different depending on how many people you have to talk to, whether or not the people are here, whether or not they’re known. And then it’s like any investigation, it depends on how the onion comes apart. Some are very simple, some are very complicated. Because remember in almost all of these cases the two parties do not agree. Very few of these investigations the two parties agree day one on what the outcome of the investigation is and some that occur very quickly. They’re not usually the ones that The Daily Free Press hears about.
Do you think Title IX is effective in preventing this sort of sexual misconduct?
RB: Title IX was during the previous administration with Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was Secretary of Education. The regulations were rewritten, and we’ve had to adopt those because those are the relevant federal regulations and they are very complicated because they basically make distinctions between what investigations you should investigate, ones you should not investigate, and they make distinctions about how you should do these investigations. That is very hard for universities. For example, the current Title IX requires basically a hearing with cross-examination allowed by the other side. The preparation for that and the lawyers to get involved and all of these things are incredibly cumbersome for a university to deal with. And they also make the distinction, which we don’t like, between on-campus and off-campus.
So, it’s not as effective as it once was?
RB: We believe that the basic investigation using trained investigators, of interviewing people and writing a report, is a much more expedient way for a university to do these. Either through the Judicial Affairs process for students or through the EOO for faculty and staff allegations. Right now, it’s just really cumbersome for us to work with, especially with this on-campus, off-campus distinction, which is really bad for us to deal with.
But if you asked me, do I think the process is as optimal today as it was a few years ago? No. I hope they will go back. Do I believe the regulation is good? Obviously. Yes.
What do you think the University could be doing as an institution to make the situation better?
RB: Well, what we have to do is we have to adhere to the federal process. I think that our people in EOO are very good. We use a combination of in-house and external investigators depending on the complexity of individual cases. So I think we’re doing everything we can on the investigative side. I think from the process point of view, I think our policies are clear. They’re well posted. They’re transparent that we don’t tolerate behavior of harassment or bias. And then we do the training for faculty, staff and students to back that up, and the training both helps people learn to identify it, but it also focuses on the policies and practices and where you go to get help, whether you’re a student, faculty, or staff, if you see it or get involved in it. Our compliance with training is very high.
Do things fall in the cracks? Do things not get reported? Do we have complexity? Obviously, right?
Is there anything you do to incentivize people to go to BU as opposed to going to the press?
RB: I don’t know how — that’s a great question. I think we’re very good. We were better before the Trump regulations about keeping things anonymous, keeping confidentiality, then the hearing process really changes that dramatically. To make it as painless as possible, but it’s still painful, as you can imagine. And so I don’t know. That’s a great question. Are there other incentives we could put in place? I think it’s difficult because each person deals with these things differently.
Does BU’s Equal Opportunity Office have enough staff to respond [to] and investigate the number of reports that it receives?
RB: We believe so. We don’t believe that because on the other balance, we don’t want a lot of people sitting there waiting for an investigation to come. So we believe that it is correctly staffed.
After an investigation is completed, why are the reports not made available to the public or involved parties?
RB: The public is pretty simple, isn’t it? Because if they’re public documents, a lot of people aren’t going to come forward and a lot of people aren’t going to talk.
I understand what you mean by involved parties and the question within all involved parties. We believe it’s basically the same principle, right? That you’re trying to get people to talk about what they know without fear of reprisal or incrimination, or being ostracized by their friends. And by holding the reports confidential, that maximizes the possibility that people will come forward.
Are there any developments on the Shiney James investigation?
RB: It’ll be forthcoming really quickly. The external investigation is complete and the material is at the University Provost [Jean Morrison] who will make the decision, It’s just not done yet.
Do you think with increasing costs, higher education is becoming more inaccessible to some students?
RB: The cost of higher education is the cost. In most of the things in our discussion so far, there’s nothing you have pushed at me for that would lower the cost. In fact, everything you’ve pushed at me would raise the cost.
Do I worry about the cost of higher education? The answer is absolutely yes. The question is, how do we think about subsidizing it? The cost is the cost. The question is, where does the subsidy come in? And our biggest subsidy is through student financial aid.
Student financial aid goes to different students differentially because most of our financial aid is need-based. We have doubled our student financial aid in real dollars over the last nine years. And it’s going up at a rate of about seven-and-a-half percent a year, which is about double the rate of tuition. So, if you think about these two curves, our financial aid is going up — this year, it’ll be over $400 million.
The goal is to make the University more accessible for people who have need. If I look at the number of Pell Grant students in the University, it’s at an all-time high. But, depends on the student. Pell Grants students meet full need without loan. That’s tuition fees, room and board. The whole thing.
Are you in favor of student loan forgiveness?
RB: No. I think it’s bad public policy.
Remember, loan forgiveness is a gift. I forgive your loan. Who paid for the gift? It’s not free. Taxpayer money. Is that the best way to use taxpayer money? Now, if you’re trying to stimulate the economy, if you believe that’s why you’re doing loan forgiveness, you’re gonna do one shot in the arm right now to stimulate the economy — maybe, I’m not an economist, maybe it is.
If I was thinking about public policy for higher education, no, it’s not. I think the better thing for the government to do is increase and expand Pell. The challenge with just forgiving loans is — I trust all of you to make good financial judgments — but there’s been a lot of stories about students who did not have need that borrow money. Because it’s accessible debt. It’s actually relatively cheap debt.
When you just forgive it, I’m not sure it’s the best use of the government money across everybody. Unless your goal is to stimulate the economy.
Is financial aid going to be expanded for international students, given the University’s large international student population?
RB: The challenge we have is that we felt — and I think it’s the right thing for the institution — that until we’re doing the right things for domestic students and trying to maximize that, it’s hard to work to get financial aid to international students. As I just described, over the next several years, we’ll still be expanding our financial aid budget because of the need for domestic students. I hope in the future we’ll be able to give international students financial aid — need-based financial aid. They do have access to a little bit of merit-based money.
But we also have to recognize it’s more difficult. Because your parents — I don’t know if all of you did fill out a FAFSA form — they gave us a copy of their income tax. I can’t take the student from Brazil and get that same financial information. The whole standard of need that we rely on to get need-based aid gets much more complicated globally. We’ve talked about it in all kinds of levels in the institution, and it’s very hard to do. To really have anything that looks like the program we have for domestic students.
What does your day-to-day look like?
RB: Pre-COVID, and now it’s returning, I travel 20 – 40% of the time. During COVID I spent most of my time sitting in front of a Zoom screen like everybody else, but it’s returning now. So when I’m not traveling, I am usually just meeting with people or answering calls or something. And the people range from all the different constituencies around the University to students — I had lunch with a bunch of Newbury center students today over the Newbury Center to see how the Newbury Center is doing — faculty, the University leadership about operations, planning for the University, alumni donors, other constituents, public officials, government officials. And then I represent the University in a number of different organizations like the Patriots League, which is where we play athletics.
If you had a magic wand and you could waive all legal, ethical, moral and financial obligations, what’s the one thing you would change right now about BU?
RB: That’s too tough a question. Because if you only give me one thing. Most of the things we’ve talked about are about money. If someone would give us the money so that our endowment looked like some of our sister institutions, we could do so much good. So I would have to go there, just because pragmatically, that would have the biggest, brightness impact.
The other place I would go — which is not so much just us as society — is our ability as a society to have thoughtful discussions even when we don’t agree about complicated topics has evaporated. It’s evaporated in the government. That spilled over to campuses. We’re so polarized, and we’ve developed a set of corrosive language around things.
Instead of people chanting slogans or writing on a rock. Because those things we say to inflame the other side. We don’t come to grips enough with the fact that in many of these things we don’t agree on and when we’re passionate about, we actually can’t really influence. So we need to figure out how we state our peace and how we both view these things, and then form a community. A community is not a community of people that agree about everything. A community is a community that has a set of common values or core values, and says we decide that we’re part of this community because.
It’s kind of a silly magic wand, because I can’t fix BU without fixing everybody. But you said — you must sense this, if you write about it — these people just coming together poking at each other, but not figuring out a form to sit down and talk. It’s hard at a university, from my perspective, because it has to be organic in the institution.
What do you want your legacy at Boston University to be?
RB: I honestly don’t think Presidents should think that they have a legacy. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Institutions are here for a very long time. I always tell people, the beautiful way I stayed in higher education, especially private higher education, is that you work for an institution that fundamentally is going to be here forever. That’s the mindset. And so, you’re trying to make it better today and you’re trying to do the things that make it better 10 years from now, 20 years from now and try to avoid anything that will cause it to really deteriorate.
So when I think of us as caretakers that set some long-term vision in terms of our educational programs, our students, research and scholarship — especially at a research university like BU. How we embed ourselves in our communities — what are called the service elements of us — and then we carry that baton around the track as long as we can.
Then you pass that baton to somebody else. When you pass the baton, that other person will have a different style, maybe a different set of priorities, but they will all be a blend of those things. Because that’s what the University does. You can’t neglect this and not do that. I have to have a men’s ice hockey coach. But we have worked very, very hard on undergraduate financial aid and increased the access. Hopefully the next person who comes in will raise a lot more money and keep that going.
What was your set of priorities when you took on the role as President?
RB: It was a very different time. If you go back and read about it. I mean, it was a tumultuous time. And we had to rebuild faculty governance, the board rebuilt itself in the governance of the institution, and then I had to rebuild a sense of shared purpose and direction. Because the University didn’t have it.
We’d never had a capital campaign when I came. That was when our peers were on campaign number five or six, a week. We missed generations of fundraising. And we had a campaign and we ended right before any of you came, 2019 — Fall of 2019. Raised $1.85 billion. We were trying to raise one and they almost raised two. That was very important because when you undergraduate financial aid, all these kinds of things.
That generosity changes the balance between how much money you need from tuition and fees versus coming from your endowment, for example. If you look at our peers, you see that all the time. Harvard, of course, was the poster child — over a $50 billion dollar endowment. It just fundamentally changes the institution when 25% or 30% of your budget comes from your endowment. Ours is like three-and-a-half, 4%. We’re just a very different institution. That was one of the goals — to get us on that path. And there’ll be another campaign in our future. We’re not quite ready to say yet when and how much, but it’ll be pretty soon because we’ve got a lot of catching up to do and we’ve engaged. We have 350,000 alumni. We’re trying to engage somebody. But those are, you know, those are things when I came, those were things we had to do. The next generation, there’s a different set of things they need to do.
Editor-in-Chief Jean Paul Azzopardi and Photo Editor Taylor Coester contributed to the reporting of this article.