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BU critics decide it's time to speak up

To Boston University graduate Peter Bernard, the school's tumultuous parting with would-be president Daniel S. Goldin was "a lightning bolt."

To professor Carol Neidle, it was "the final blow."

When BU trustees gave Goldin a $1.8 million settlement to walk away from the presidency, they opened a rare crack in the school's tightly controlled leadership. They also galvanized a variety of critics among faculty, alumni, and students whose quiet frustrations have boiled over publicly in the past two weeks.

A group of professors have launched a website called "BUWatch" to pressure the administration for reform. Bernard founded an alternative alumni association. And one informal group of alumni is even mulling a class-action suit against the trustees for devaluing their degrees.

"If this is not the time to stand up, when is?" asked Neidle, a professor of French and linguistics.

The 30-year leadership of John Silber has seen a number of uprisings by students and faculty who felt disenfranchised, but they have been quieter lately as his opponents came to see change as unlikely. Neidle says she was active in campus politics a decade ago. But seeing no way to make a difference, she hasn't spoken out since then.

But after hearing that Goldin might be fired before he could start as president, Neidle and three other professors decided it was time to rejoin the fray. Calling themselves the Faculty Committee for the Future of Boston University, they organized an online petition that garnered more than 3,000 signatures urging trustees not to revoke his job offer.

It failed, but now they have turned their website (bufuture.net) into BUWatch, a forum that details controversies old and new and demands change.

BUWatch is joined by the BU Alternative Alumni Association, founded recently by Bernard, a California software executive who believes the official alumni association is too closely tied to the school's administration. Arguing that thousands of alumni are disaffected, Bernard points to BU's low rate of alumni giving -- which stood last year at 11 percent, according to the US News & World Report's 2004 college survey, well below the median for doctoral universities.

Other protest groups may be in the formative stages. The head of the BU branch of the Green Party wants to form a coalition of student groups to pressure the board of trustees, while another group of alumni is tossing around the idea of a class-action lawsuit.

"It's a much broader, more systemic problem than Goldin," said Jon Spampinato, communications director for the Visiting Nurses Associations of America, who has been talking with a group of friends about the possible suit.

Interim president Aram V. Chobanian said such campaigns are divisive, backward-looking, and distinctly in the minority.

"I'm getting innumerable e-mails from faculty and some students in a very positive way, saying it looks as if we can now move ahead," said Chobanian in a phone interview. "I do think the mood has changed."

Spampinato, a 1990 graduate, said he personally wants to hold off on litigation to see whether the trustees will reform themselves, as they promise to do. The board has put together an ad hoc committee to assess its own management of the university.

But some critics are skeptical that the board can reform itself. "Can we ask the leopard to change its spots?" asked James Iffland, who is on the Future of Boston University committee along with Neidle, sociology professor Jeffrey Coulter, and math professor David Rohrlich. Iffland, a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies, is a former faculty council chairman who has been opposing Silber for years. A decade ago, in the midst of a brouhaha about whether Silber was stifling academic freedom, Silber called Iffland "a liar and a coward." Iffland also says that, privately, Silber told him, "It's a shame the institution of dueling was abolished."

Iffland has taught at BU since 1974, his entire academic career. Over that time, he said, many professors have grown increasingly worried that criticizing the administration will lead to retribution.

"A huge amount of criticism goes on behind closed doors," he said. "There used to be a public chorus, and now there tends to be just a few soloists willing to go on the line for what we believe in."

Now, his group is calling on Attorney General Thomas Reilly's office to investigate the board of trustees and the financial transactions between BU and companies or charities with which trustees are involved.

Their criticisms are also being echoed in the student press. Karlo Silbiger, a fourth-year student, wrote an opinion piece in the student newspaper, the Daily Free Press, calling on the entire board of trustees to resign, and for officials to detail Goldin's settlement.

"There was a historic payoff for someone who never worked a day at the university, and no one asked what students felt, or faculty for that matter," Silbiger said in an interview. The president of BU Greens, he wants to bring leaders of student organizations together to talk about forming a coalition.

Some of those who have been roused to speak out are new to the role, like Spampinato, who described himself and his friends as "not a group of malcontents."

Others, however, are familiar dissenting voices, such as Iffland and Bernard. When he was a student in the late 1980s, Bernard founded a short-lived campaign called NOPE: Not One Penny Ever, in which students and alumni could mail a card to BU, checking off a box for the policy they wanted changed before they'd ever donate money.

"He's always been a renegade," said Judie Friedberg-Chessin, head of the official alumni association and also a trustee. "I'd rather that we all work together and not apart. That's the only way to heal."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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