LAURENCE J. KOTLIKOFF
BU board must heal the split
By Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 10/31/2003
TOMORROW Daniel Goldin is scheduled to assume the presidency of Boston University. Today the university's board of trustees will decide whether to fire him -- an action recommended last week by the board's executive committee.
Having joined Boston University in 1984, I'm used to an exciting ride, but the executive committee's 180-degree swing on Goldin is remarkable even by BU standards. It's also deeply troubling and dangerous.
Goldin is an outstanding leader, full of energy, initiative, and brains. His selection by BU's chancellor, John Silber, and the board of trustees as the university's next president was a brilliant move, one that promised to build on Silber's extraordinary record of achievement. The choice of Goldin was greeted with widespread approval by BU faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni.
So what happened to turn this win-win situation into such a mess? The hang-up revolves around Silber's continued service on the board and Goldin's "temperament." According to Goldin, his clear condition for accepting the presidency was that Silber would be off the board. But the executive committee balked at that interpretation of their deal. Goldin, being the strong and brash leader that Silber so ardently sought, stuck to his guns and threw in some armchair psychiatry in displaying his upset.
The irony in all this is that Silber and the executive committee were bending over backwards to give Goldin a free rein to reshape the university's governance by, for example, limiting the term of trustees to just one year. In effect Silber was saying, "Give me one more year on the board, and then fire me if you want."
Those of us at the university who count John Silber as a close friend know where he's coming from. Boston University is his baby. He has worked tirelessly for decades transforming the university into a world-class academic institution. Every parent knows that handing over one's child to a stranger's care can be gut-wrenching. So Silber's wanting to keep an eye on BU's new guardian is understandable. But so is Goldin's desire to have full authority in running the university starting from day one.
My sense is that Goldin overreacted to a control problem that wasn't really there. The executive committee then compounded the problem by overreacting to Goldin's overreaction. You'd think that everyone could sit down in the same room and work this out. But the executive committee has been, dare I say, intemperate in forcing today's up or down vote.
The whole affair is a terrible embarrassment for Goldin, Silber, the trustees, and everyone else associated with the university. Worse, if Goldin is fired, the university might suffer long-lasting damage. Two prominent trustees, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Kenneth Feld, have already resigned from the board. Others might do the same. Recruiting new trustees and soliciting major donations to the university would be doubly hard. And finding another external candidate with Goldin's talents and credentials would probably be impossible.
Goldin's firing would also affect the university's ability to retain and recruit top faculty. Top academics are highly mobile and exceedingly nervous. It takes only one or two significant departures from a first-rate department to precipitate a major exodus.
Boston University's trustees must understand that their first allegiance is to the university, not to John Silber, notwithstanding the enormous debt owed to John Silber. Consequently, they must negotiate a solution that involves Goldin becoming president and Silber receiving the respect and acknowledgment he deserves.
One solution would be to give Goldin the option of asking Silber to leave the board if he felt Silber was interfering with his leadership. Another would be to limit Silber's membership on the board to one year. A third would be for the board to grant Goldin the option of appointing Silber to the board and for Goldin to show the good grace to make that appointment. A fourth is for everyone to take a deep breath and understand that Silber's membership on the board is really irrelevant. Whether he's on the board of not, Silber is going to guide Boston University for years to come -- not by telling people what to do but by responding to their requests for his advice.
Clearly, there are lots of ruffled feathers. But time is a great healer. If the board handles this right, Silber and Goldin can look forward to spending long nights together plotting Boston University's improvement and analyzing their respective needs for power.
Laurence J. Kotlikoff is chairman of the department of economics at Boston University.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.