Campus, News

President Brown reflects on the highs and lows of his 17-year presidency

By Jennifer Small and Sangmin Song

Robert A. Brown, the president of Boston University since 2005, announced in September that he will be stepping down at the end of the spring 2023 semester. Though his successor has not yet been announced, Brown is wrapping up the school year and already moved out of his office.

Robert Brown
Boston University President Robert A. Brown looking out his office window. Brown will step down as president of Boston University at the end of the academic year. HUI-EN LIN | DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

The Daily Free Press had a meeting with Brown to discuss his time as the president of BU, including his accomplishments and regrets over the past 17 years, the reason behind not renaming Myles Standish Hall, his perspective on sexual assault prevention on campus and more. Excerpts have been edited for clarity.


How was your experience this year? Did it feel different since you announced your retirement?

Brown: It did, very much. I love to plan and to work, to think about the University in the future and to work with people to lay out the strategy and the process to get us there. We’ve worked very hard over the last few years on the 2030 strategic plan and then its implementation, and then you come to the realization, once you announce you’re departing the job, that it’s not your responsibility to think about the plan and it’s not your responsibility to think that much about the future. 

Although, the tendency is to become very reflective about the future and the past. So it’s a very odd feeling. Especially after 18 years, it’s very complicated. Think about stepping out of something you’ve done your entire life. It’s really stepping away from something that becomes very much a part of you.


How has the University changed since you first started as president? How do you feel about how it has changed?

Brown: BU is a profoundly different place today than it was in 2004 or 2005. It has a confidence, it has momentum, it has direction. 

It knows where it’s going and I think that’s a really important thing for the institution because institutions, like Boston University, are here forever. They’re not transient. I’m very proud of where we are as an institution in that sense. 

Our Board of Trustees is a very strong, integrated group, and that was not true when I came. We have a great relationship with the city, which we’ve had and maintained over many years. I would stand up our undergraduate class against anybody’s in the country in terms of academic accomplishment and ambition. 

Something I’m very proud of is that we’re more diverse than we’ve ever been. We still have a long way to go to really mirror society, on the faculty and staff side, but our student body is doing tremendously in terms of diversity. 

I think the BU Hub over time is going to be a huge change in our undergraduate curriculum because it’s something that everyone will do together which was not true before. There was not a common Boston University experience for all the undergraduates, and that’s true now. 

I’ll end by just saying, if you looked at a picture of Commonwealth Avenue in 2000 and look at it today, it’s a very different place. I like to say although I have to say quietly, we kind of own Commonwealth Avenue now. That’s important because we are this funny residential university but it is a sense of place now, even though it’s right there in the middle of the city.


What improvements still need to be made at BU? What are BU’s plans for the future?

Brown: We have a strategic plan that lays out a vision … for how we think of the University going forward. It describes us doubling down on being a residential university. We really believe that there’s an added value, especially in undergraduate education, for the residential experience. 

There’s something that happens on a university campus that’s not about the classrooms. It’s about everything else. It’s all these things that happen that shape you outside of the classroom. The vision is to keep doubling down on that now … and figure out what a student body in the 21st century needs to thrive. 

We are a major research university, so we will always be pushing the frontier to find those areas in research where we can have impact. And finally, the last thing I would say is looking at globalization. We try to educate our students so that they can be global citizens and work in the world. When I think about what we do in the future, these are the big themes, and then the leadership of the university will shape and think about interacting with the faculty and the students.


Do you have any regrets from your time as the president of BU?

Brown: There are always regrets. We’ve been very successful raising funds for the University. I would have always liked to raise more. If you ask big regrets, I would’ve loved to tear down the College of Communication building and build a new building for COM. We tried a couple of times, we just could not get a donor yet to do it. We have a plan, we have everything in place, but COM deserves a much better building. It’s a great school and if it had a much better building, just like we did with the Law School, it would propel up. 

I’d also love to tear down the building that Economics and Social Work is in. I’d love to build them new buildings. I’d love to tear that down and make green space. We don’t have a lot of green space, and that’s by far the best green space we have because it’s not on Comm. Ave., it faces the river. Those things will get done, somebody else will do them, but I would have loved to do those.

We have a plan to build a COM building next to the Booth Theater. We own that whole block of small buildings. It would make a great partnership between the Booth, the gallery on the other side, the 808. It’d be a great place for COM. 


Why did you never approve the renaming of Myles Standish Hall?

Brown: The way people look at history when it occurred hundreds of years ago, is that they’re always looking at history through their lens. Sometimes new facts come to light over time. But sometimes it’s just the lens of our day. When I think about Myles Standish, I actually see this huge range of views of Myles Standish from a horrendous murder of Native Americans to the leader partially responsible for the survival of the Plymouth Bay Colony. 

The statues that were put up about Myles Standish were from that one perspective, and people wanting to take the name off are from this other perspective. Then in the middle of that, in our time right now, we’re kind of caught with this issue of the whole churn in our society about European colonialism in North America. So taking Myles Standish off and talking to students, it’s also an emblem for not supporting European colonialists. So somewhere out there is kind of an overt shock in our day of people trying to kind of rebuff European colonialism. Trying to put all that complexity together and think about Myles Standish in 1623, in the context of someone 400 years ago and what they did, I did not get to the point where I leaned one way enough to take his name off. 

It’s not that the University has any connection to Myles Standish, but his name has been on that building for 100 years, so I would rather have a university that actually debates this and thinks about all of these different views of Myles Standish and thinks about how we feel about colonialism today and debates it. Leaving his name on there keeps the debate going, which is what universities really should do. 

I think one of the things that has been constant in my presidency is that there are very few times that I’ve taken a hard line one way or the other, representing the University because I think a lot of these things are very debatable. 100 years from now, it may solidify that there is a view of Myles Standish, or 50 years from now or 10 years from now, but being reactionary, I think it’s not the right thing to do.


What do you think about student unions on campus? Graduate workers union? RA union? Do you think student workers are treated fairly and paid a living wage?

Brown: Unfortunately, I’d love to talk to you about that, but I can’t. We’re in contract negotiations now, they’ve unionized, and we can actually only comment and talk through those negotiations. I can’t have an opinion.


What do you think of Sexual Assault Prevention on campus? Do you think Title IX is effective in preventing sexual misconduct? Are there any plans to change the Title IX policy/office?

Brown: I think sexual assault and harassment on college campuses is one of the most vexing problems I’ve ever seen. Trying to prevent sexual assault and harassment on campus in many ways is very different than Title IX because all Title IX does is say what you do when an accusation has been made. And we’ve been dealing with Title IX policies that had been changing over time. 

We have done a lot of things at the University to try to get at the root cause of sexual harassment and assault through the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center. The whole formation of SARP and the SARP programs when we’re increasing support for SARP has all been aimed at working with victims, trying to expand understanding and prevention. Now SARP with new funding has gone into the area of group training, which we think will expand the training for our students in the understanding of proper behavior and how to address a behavior that they see as improper. 

I think the committee on sexual assault and harassment prevention that the Provost put in place well over a year ago is doing a good job of keeping the issue front and center within the administration. 

The investigation process is always the bottleneck. People want the investigation to be shorter than it was. We’re way under what is the statutory limit for investigation, that’s not the issue. The issue is getting enough investigators, and we have to use internal and external investigators, and getting it done as quickly as the complainants would like to see done, but at the same time have it be done fairly to both parties. One of the things that’s interesting is now that there’s a mediation pathway, the mediation pathway is being used more than we thought it would be. 

Can we do more? I think we can always do more. Will we be successful at dampening it? I’m not sure. I don’t see any institution out there of our size and scale embedded in the city that has figured out a magic bullet to really get a decrease. 

There is much more awareness, there is much more discussion of it. People are coming forward and that’s good, because that was not true 20 years ago. That’s what creates the awareness on our campus.


Do you think with increasing costs, higher education is becoming more inaccessible to some students?

Brown: Access for qualified students that want to be here is the biggest challenge for almost all of private higher education because we don’t have a subsidy coming from a state or the federal government. Over the last decade, we’ve doubled our need-based financial aid budget and as you know, we now meet full need for domestic students and we meet full need without loans for Pell Grant recipients for the domestic students. That increase in our budget is over $200 million. 

If I look at what I call the lowest income quartile, we’re not limiting access, we’re increasing access. I feel really good about that. 

For decades ahead, we’ll need to raise a lot more money for financial aid and we need to expand access to two pools that we don’t meet the full needs of so far. One is our transfer students and the other is our international students. If I look at access in our international student body, our international students are totally biased toward people who can afford it and that doesn’t give us a cross section of the people in the world. So that’s something the University will have to deal with going forward. 

At the same time, middle-income people in the United States would love us to expand the access to financial aid in the middle income as well. 

We do index our financial aid against our tuition increases, so it’s going up with the tuition increases. I hate to say it, it’s a matter of dollars at the end of the day and trying to decide where the next dollar should go that’s going to create the best good for the institution. 

We’ve made a huge commitment in terms of our financial aid. Our undergraduate financial aid over the last decade has been growing at 8% per year, which is twice the rate of tuition. I don’t think anybody has been more aggressive than we have.


What do you want your legacy at Boston University to be?

Brown: I love history, and you can kind of tell that from my answer about Myles Standish. I think a lot about history and I think of these institutions as being here for a very, very long time. Presidents are just,  in a way, keepers for some period of time.

I think my legacy if it works and it stays, will be putting us on that path I talked about, that with the confidence to think of ourselves as a leading private research university and that we continue to stay on that path working together, faculty, students, board, alumni, and that everyone takes pride in us being there, and that we continue to make progress. If I’m thought of as the person 50 years from now that put us on that path, that would be a tremendous legacy. 

It’s much more important than a building or a program or whatever. Even though I’m very much thought of as a numbers person, I actually think about things like that in a much more abstract way. To me, that would be the best legacy I could have. But the interesting thing is, it’s the legacy I don’t control. That’s why people like to have a legacy of a building because the building is there. Saying that you put an institution on a path means the institution stays on that path.


What do your personal plans for the future look like? Will you be teaching at BU?

Brown: Exactly what I’m going to do, I haven’t actually had time to think about. I have a sabbatical, so I’ll have some time. I’m going to do some writing and kind of plan out what the next stage looks like.


Comments are closed.