Move viewed as deterrent to top outside candidates
The Boston University trustees' abrupt and expensive reversal of their decision to hire Daniel S. Goldin this week will severely limit the school's ability to attract a strong outside leader for its next president, higher education specialists said yesterday.
"It's hard to imagine anyone with options will find this attractive," said Richard Chait, a higher education specialist at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Chait and other higher education observers predicted that an insider is the most likely choice for BU's next leader because strong, independent figures in or out of education won't want to work for a board that dismissed its new appointee so quickly.
The board's handling of Goldin has become a prime topic in the higher-education world, triggering a blizzard of e-mail exchanges among college leaders. After such a public spectacle, specialists said, high-caliber candidates are likely to stand clear unless there is quick, significant turnover on the board.
"The most important relationship a president has is with the board, and if they turn on you before you're in the door, what's the likelihood they're going to turn on you once you're there?" said Madeleine Green, vice president of the American Council on Education. "I think outsiders will be a bit freaked by this."
Yesterday the BU board announced a new governance committee but no major personnel changes. Dr. Aram Chobanian, longtime medical school dean, was named interim president.
Nancy Sterling, a spokeswoman for the university, dismissed the idea that top outside candidates would be scared off. "Once people meet the board and Dr. Chobanian," she said, "we think they would be very happy to lead BU."
More broadly, say observers, the public chaos at the top level of leadership could take a bite out of BU's hard-won academic reputation and discourage the donors needed to support its ambitious building program and bolster its $585 million endowment.
"It's uncomfortable to talk about what happened, but they need to make a persuasive case that they did the right things," said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, "and they need to do it fast."
For tax purposes, many charitable donors try to make gifts by the end of December, she said. "It's not a good time for donors to feel disgruntled."
Dexter Dodge, the BU board's vice chairman, said the school's reputation will not suffer in the long haul. "The SATs of our student body have been climbing year after year, and we've had 33 or 34 years of a balanced budget," he said. "There's hardly a university in America that could lay claim to that."
Christopher Reaske, BU's vice president of development and alumni relations, said he does not expect any drop-off in donations, largely because of the placement of Chobanian, a respected cardiologist and skilled fund-raiser, at the helm. Donations from individuals, foundations and corporations to BU reached a record $103 million in the last fiscal year, continuing a pattern of steady gains since 1995, when gifts totalled just $38 million.
"BU is thriving at this point in its development, and despite the events of late, the university is much bigger than any one individual, including the president," Reaske said.
Reaske also suggested that the resignation of John Silber as chancellor and as a trustee could bolster support for BU in some quarters. Many alumni have been alienated by Silber's leadership, seeing him as a builder and key figure who had become an impediment to progress, sources said.
But to reap any benefits, the school will have to work hard to convince alumni and other donors, as well as presidential candidates, that Silber is playing no behind-the-scenes role and that changes will be made to prevent a similar presidential reversal from happening again, said specialists. Trustees should undertake an in-depth review of what went wrong, and offer a thorough explanation of what happened, they said.
A four-sentence joint statement from Goldin and BU posted online yesterday gave no details of what prompted the loss of support.
The public crisis for BU, which some have blamed on a last grasp for power by Silber, risks an institutional reputation vastly improved by Silber himself over three decades. Once a second-rate commuter school, the university grew into a 30,000-student powerhouse under his watch.
Whether those gains survive the current crisis depends largely on how long the fallout lasts, said Bob Morse, director of data research for US News & World Report, the source of annual college rankings on which reputations rise and fall. One of the most heavily weighted factors in the rankings is a survey of college presidents, provosts, and admissions directors across the country who are asked to judge the academic reputations of peer institutions. The survey that will shape the 2004 rankings will be sent out in April, said Morse.
"By the time we send the surveys out, whether this will be forgotten depends on how long it lasts and whether they do change what they're doing or get worse," he said.
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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