BU president now 4th major college leader in Boston area to announce exit this year

Robert Brown joins other esteemed leaders from MIT, Harvard and Tufts to step away during the pandemic.

Harvard. Tufts. MIT. Boston University.

In the span of less than six months, presidents at all four of these prestigious institutions of higher education in the Boston area have announced they will be leaving their posts, with BU’s Robert Brown the latest to acknowledge that this is “the right time” to step aside.

At 71 years young and with a legacy that extends over 17 years – longer than most university presidents these days – Brown said he felt more comfortable exiting than sticking around to oversee a strategic plan that is already ahead of schedule and in great position to hit targets by 2030. He will remain in the role until the end of the academic year, then will take a short time off, before returning as an instructor in the College of Engineering.

“My longevity in the position and the natural rhythms of the University have led me to the conclusion that it is time for me to step aside and for new leadership to take the helm,” Brown said in a statement to the BU community: “Helping lead Boston University has been the most fulfilling work of my professional career. I look forward to the year ahead and to welcoming my successor.”

That timeline for finding a replacement is still undetermined, but new Chair Kenneth Feld and BU’s Board of Trustees said they will begin the process soon and that BU undoubtedly will be attractive to the best candidates, in part because of Brown’ efforts.

“He transformed the university into one of the leading urban research and teaching institutions in the world today,” Feld wrote. “Our academic and administrative leadership teams are strong, our finances solid, our student body superb, and the 2030 Strategic Plan remains our North Star.”

Like Brown, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow will finish out 2022-23 as the search for his replacement is underway. What is its goal for its next leader? “We aim to identify a president who, like past Harvard leaders, will bring not only a deep devotion to Harvard’s excellence, but also a passion for how Harvard — through its myriad programs and extraordinary people — can be a force for good in the world,” chair Penny Pritzker said in a statement.

Since February, MIT has been looking for its next president to replace L. Rafael Reif, who has been in charge of this world-class research institution for the past decade. Nearly echoing Harvard’s search committee desires, chair John Jarve said, “we are confident we will find an inspiring and thoughtful leader for MIT who represents the very best of MIT: a distinguished academic who has high ethical and moral standards, embodies MIT’s values, supports diversity in all areas, and will deepen MIT’s strengths in collaborative research, discovery, innovation, and world-class teaching.”

At Tufts, Anthony Monaco will remain on until next summer, exiting after 11 years after announcing his departure within weeks of Reif. Board chair Peter Dolan said in a statement that Tufts is “committed to a search that is international in scope and considers candidates from across a broad and diverse spectrum of backgrounds.”

The competition likely will be fierce. The MIT and Harvard president jobs are at institutions among the top 10 in the nation, while BU and Tufts are in the top 100. But with broad searches also comes even more competition. There are several top-flight positions available across the nation, with boards in those locales also looking for world-class leaders and expanding their searches, too. That includes Columbia University, whose president Lee Bollinger announced his exit at nearly the same time as Howard University’s Wayne Frederick and New York University’s Andrew Hamilton. Some institutions quickly locked up their new presidents–Dartmouth College (Sian Beilock from Barnard) and Northwestern University (Michael Schill from Oregon)–and won’t have to enter the fray.

More from UB: Can new wave of college presidents last for more than 5 years?

Replacing a leader like Brown, who has seen BU through expansive research projects and through the COVID-19 pandemic, won’t be easy. Among his many accomplishments were oversight of the first significant capital campaign that raised $1.8 billion. He got BU into the Association of American Universities a decade ago and has continued to push academic excellence through career-driven centers around engineering, computing and data sciences. But he said his signature achievement was transforming BU’s student population and ensuring their success.

“I am most proud of our large commitment to undergraduate student need-based financial aid and its impact on the diversity of our student body,” Brown said. “The results speak for themselves—we estimate that our domestic freshman class this fall includes 25 percent Pell grant recipients, 25 percent first-generation students, and 33 percent underrepresented minority students. Today, more than ever, Boston University’s student body reflects the diversity of the United States and abroad.”

Let’s not forget BU’s work throughout the pandemic as a leading voice on research and safety because of their preparations before it occurred.

“Bob put the University at the forefront of fighting new and dangerous infectious diseases,” Feld said. “He led a years-long effort which, in 2017, led to the approval of bio-safety level 4 research at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, a move that solidified the University’s place as one of the leading worldwide centers for the research of infectious diseases. And in 2019, his leadership made BU a role model in its response to COVID-19.”

And while many institution leaders have struggled to gain footing with instructors, Brown has been a champion for those who lead lectures and sit in top academic positions.

“Most of the BU community is familiar with such examples of Bob’s higher-profile accomplishments, but many of Bob’s most transformative endeavors never made the headlines,” Feld said. “He empowered the faculty in unprecedented ways; he enabled and encouraged them to pursue research and creative work in ways that are consistent with the best AAU universities. He brought the best of higher education management principles to BU, applied them in consistent, creative, and ambitious ways.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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