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BU's real problem

WHATEVER happens to Daniel Goldin, the leading trustees of Boston University have demonstrated by their handling of the succession to John Silber that they are unfit to command the destiny of the university. The board needs to be reconstituted and Silber needs to withdraw from university leadership so independent business and professional leaders can begin an orderly process to choose a president for the post-Silber era.

The full 41-member board will be meeting Friday to decide the fate of Goldin, former director of NASA, who was on schedule until a few weeks ago to become BU president on Saturday. When he sought to rein in Silber, Goldin antagonized the executive committee of the board, so it decided to revisit the decision. The problem however, goes beyond Goldin's actions or words and reveals deep dysfunction in the BU governing structure.

This is not surprising after the 32-year tenure of John Silber as the ultimate power in the institution. He transformed BU into a university of national prominence but failed to allow the institution to evolve beyond him. In 1996 he left the presidency but stayed on as chancellor to oversee Jon Westling, his successor and protege. Silber is such an overpowering presence that it is unlikely anyone will be effective as president while he remains on campus. The trustees endorsed this arrangement without complaint, a sign that a majority of them were in thrall to Silber.

When the trustees concluded last year that Westling wasn't up to the job, they turned to Silber as his temporary successor. They began a systematic nationwide search, but it turned into a personal anointing as Silber plucked Goldin from a long list of possible successors. Goldin was much like Silber -- forceful, not afraid to act when convinced of the rightness of a position -- but more personable.

Goldin demonstrated his forcefulness when he insisted that Silber quit the board of trustees. The executive committee, acting on Silber's behalf, moved to get rid of Goldin. Faculty members, students, and alumni have looked on in horror as this succession crisis has developed, and some are circulating a petition in support of Goldin. However, it is hard to imagine how he could manage BU effectively now.

If Goldin loses the vote tomorrow, the best guess is that the board will appoint a BU administrator as president. It is unlikely any outsider of stature would be interested in the job after the Goldin fiasco under the present circumstances.

A major national university should not be run as though it were a corporate dictatorship. If Silber wants to leave a positive legacy, he needs to stop meddling, and the board needs to reorganize itself behind an independent leadership. To do less would risk turning Boston University into a national laughingstock.

Daniel S. Goldin Daniel S. Goldin
John Silber John Silber
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