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Take this job and flub it

You know it's gotten bad at Boston University when the owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey quits the board of trustees in a huff because the whole thing has become too much of a circus.

But fortunately, a leading candidate has emerged as the school's next president: the Professor from "Gilligan's Island." Influential trustees believe his scholarly background, combined with his ability to handle the Skipper's demanding personality, make him uniquely qualified. They also realize that no one else in his or her right mind is about to take this job.

But as the trustees gather this morning for more -- wink, wink -- serious deliberations, other candidates remain in the mix. First and foremost is BU's most prominent alum, Howard Stern, who is believed to be the successor best able to carry on the BU tradition of bluntness.

How bad is it on Commonwealth Avenue? Many trustees are pointing to former NASA head Dan Goldin's "temperament" as the reason they want to oust him as president before he ever actually gets in. It's obviously going to be tough to replace John Silber's soothing presence on campus after all these years.

It's always hilarious watching intelligent people act like complete knuckleheads, until you realize that maybe these people aren't really all that smart. And then it becomes worrisome, because in the life of this city these marble-minded minions play far too significant a role.

This I think I understand: They hired a new president, Goldin, much too quickly because Silber liked him. Today they're about to fire him much too quickly because Silber didn't like the way he played in the sandbox. Some trustees quit because of the first, others over the second. This is equally clear: BU, a huge, complex institution, needs a prominent president. With Silber in any position of influence, the school will attract nothing more than a lackey.

An intimate of Silber's, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that Silber has tendered his resignation as a trustee to extricate himself from university affairs. Whether that holds true through today's Mensa meeting remains to be seen.

A second source in a position to know said Silber has confided to board members that the selection of Goldin was the biggest mistake he's made in his 30-plus years at the school. That tells me that Goldin's undoing is Silber's doing.

So can Silber ever really leave? If he does, it's just a first step in a journey toward normalcy. The truth is, Silber has been a positive presence in Boston for decades. He is shrewd in a way that most academicians are not. He is blunt in a way that few public figures are ever confident enough to be. By force of brains and personality, he single-handedly took a backwater school and turned it into a major university that has been a boon to the regional economy. Give me the urbanity of BU over the rah-rah parochialism of BC any day.

But he does have his shortcomings, first and foremost his inability to say goodbye. And for years, he has peopled the board of trustees with a collection of old-school cronies whose most notable attribute was that they lacked the smarts and the stature to stand in his way. The board has always been a joke, but suddenly it doesn't seem all that funny.

For BU to attract a legitimate leader, Silber's staunchest soldiers on the board have to leave with him, people like Gerald Cassidy, the lobbyist who initially recommended Goldin, and Earle Cooley, the head of the search committee. Poor Earle flipped so hard on Goldin that he all but broke his neck.

While we're at it, John Battaglino, Silber's old political fund-raiser, would be wise to bow out, as would Fred Chicos, who sells insurance to BU while sitting on the board. These people were unqualified from the beginning; they're embarrassing now.

It's all been great improv theater at BU. But for the sake of a school and the city that hosts it, it's time for this exhausted cast to shuffle off without so much as a bow.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

Daniel S. Goldin Daniel S. Goldin
Aram Chobanian Aram Chobanian (Courtesy BU)
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