boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

At BU, a leader who's all ears

Robert A. Brown, who likes to be called "Bob," is low-key and decidedly not flashy. Boston University's president, a chemical engineer, is prone to illustrate a point about improving campus life with an elaborate math theory about what happens when you connect a bunch of dots with random lines.

His goal, nevertheless, is to make BU a noisier place.

By noisy, Brown, who has been at the helm for 18 months, means participatory. He wants lots of ideas from faculty, students, and alumni, even though decision-making might be slower and less efficient than in the BU of old, he says.

Brown, many observers say, is trying to be the un-Silber, transforming the university's culture so that faculty, students, and alumni feel that their opinions are heard and they have a stake in the university's future. Former president John Silber took BU to new heights of success, but was accused of sowing fear among faculty and ignoring concerns of students and alumni.

Many professors, students, and alumni are singing Brown's praises, but there's also been discord. Some faculty members have vehemently attacked a report commissioned by Brown that calls for a more unified approach to BU's academic future. Others say he hasn't cleared out enough Silber-era officials and hasn't yet proved he can bring true change.

Under Brown, BU created a blog inviting feedback on the university's goals, mailed detailed surveys to 258,000 alumni, and gave students a major role in designing a replacement for the hated Silber-era dorm policy that prohibited overnight visitors of the opposite sex.

Brown has, during his short tenure, addressed budget problems, reduced the gap between the salaries of male and female professors, and boosted need-based financial aid.

As the dominant figure at BU from 1971 to 2003, Silber transformed BU into a national magnet for students and research funding. Supporters say he was a strong-willed visionary, while critics say he shared power only with an inner circle and fired or withheld raises from opponents. Many alumni vowed never to donate to the university during his reign.

Daniel S. Goldin, the brash former head of NASA, was tapped for the BU presidency in 2003, but trustees, alarmed in part by Goldin's talk about sweeping out many administrators, gave him $1.8 million to walk away from the job. When trustees started the presidential search over, they wanted a healing presence, said David D'Alessandro, who chaired the search committee.

While Brown has ambitions to turn BU, home to almost 32,000 students, into one of the world's great institutions, he gave a humble answer during his job interview when D'Alessandro asked how he would define his success.

"He said, 'If I'm walking across campus 10 years from now, and I'm a professor, I want the students and faculty to be comfortable enough to address me by my first name,' " the trustee recalled.

Brown, a San Antonio native who had spent his entire career at MIT, was popular as that school's provost for making professors feel comfortable even with painful decisions, like a round of layoffs.

In response to questions from the Globe, Silber wrote an e-mail saying that he and Brown share the same vision of a better BU, but faced different circumstances. "I had to overcome a great deal of inertia, whereas he has the benefit of a great deal of momentum," he wrote.

Brown, 55, said it's important for him to do things differently.

"When you can get people around a table and make them state and justify their opinions, people will buy into the quality ideas, and the other ideas will quietly drift off," he said.

While Silber burst with passion, the white-haired, mustachioed Brown is even-keeled. He furrows his brow in concentration as he listens to others, often responding with folksy comments, such as "I'm going to noodle on this."

Last week, Brown met with three professors lobbying for an academic initiative on the environment. He spent more time listening than talking. "Cutler, you're quiet. You disagree?" he asked when Professor Cutler Cleveland failed to weigh in on one point.

He suggested the best way to design an initiative might be to ask the whole campus for proposals.

"The danger is, it's a noisy process. You'll have to tell someone that a windmill on top of 10 Buick Street [a high rise dorm] is not the best idea you've had," Brown said. "But sometimes I think a little noise is what BU needs."

Brown was just as attentive to nine undergraduates over sandwiches that same day, when he asked them to share whatever was on their minds.

Erica Homan, one of the guests, said the administration has held a blizzard of meetings with students this year. "It's just been a really great time to be on campus and give them our thoughts," said Homan, a senior.

Some professors say Brown has changed the mood on campus.

"It's just a nicer atmosphere because people are happier to be here," said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, who was a Silber fan but recognized that many others were not.

Brown has had a rockier time with his effort to solicit ideas about what BU's strategic goals should be, after asking a task force of professors and administrators to write a report laying the groundwork for a strategic plan.

Some professors liked the report's emphasis on the need to make the university more than the sum of its parts, but others said it threatened to neglect individual programs for the sake of larger goals.

The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and 24 department chairs signed a letter to Brown in January attacking that report as "so poorly written and intellectually dull as to reflect badly on the university."

Brown said he was disappointed that some officials got so distressed about what was only a preliminary report. But he said he still welcomes feedback, and has read all 130 pages of posts on the blog, where professors, students, alumni, and parents have posted comments ranging from rants about BU's lack of a football team to musings on the nature of a global education.

Some Silber critics say the jury is out on how much Brown will be able to change the culture. One BU professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, compared the task to building democracy in Iraq.

Archeology professor Mary Beaudry praises Brown for addressing the gender gap in pay, but said she would like to see more change in the central administration. "Apart from being able to blog, many of us are waiting to see if we are really going to have more power at the school or department level," she said.

Brown counters that there has been a great deal of turnover, including several deans and top officials. But he said he understands the wish for faster change.

"Patience is not one of my great virtues," he said, "but I think it's necessary, and I am stretching it to the limit."

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

 SNAPSHOT PROFILE: Robert A. Brown
SEARCH THE ARCHIVES