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On the Hot Seat

Big changes on the way at Boston University

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Boston University was invited to join the Association of American Universities, an elite club that includes Harvard and Yale, and applications surged 20 percent last fall. But it has also endured a hockey scandal, fatal accidents among its students, and a campus crime spree. BU president Robert Brown spoke to Globe reporter Michael B. Farrell about the issues at the school, some of its latest endeavors, and a fund-raising campaign that has taken him around the world.

You’ve been as far away as Singapore trying to raise $1 billion for Boston University’s capital campaign. How’s that going so far?


The amazing thing about Boston University is that we have over 300,000 alums and have never had a capital campaign. The campaign is going well. We’ll pass through the halfway point sometime this spring. We don’t have that magical nine-figure gift yet.

What’s the money for?

Undergraduate financial aid is a big focus. It’s about access. It’s about money for students on a need basis so we can keep the university open for people who economically couldn’t come otherwise.

One of Boston University’s biggest projects has been the controversial Biolab project in the South End. Has that been worth it?

Absolutely. All you have to do is pick up the Globe and read about emerging infectious diseases. We’ve had a bit of an isolationist mentality that they’re somewhere else. But these infectious diseases get on airplanes. They are moving around the world. The US needs to be the leader in this kind of research.

You’ve had a tough year in terms of student safety. One of the most recent incidents involved a student who died at a fraternity party. Are these incidents the modern perils of an urban university, or is there a deeper problem?

Some are just absolute tragedies. The ones that are the most concerning are the ones that involve alcohol. Now, are we any different than any other university in terms of alcohol use by 18- to 22-year-olds? I do not believe so. What drives these young people to believe that all of their good times are connected with alcohol is frustrating to every university president. We have not found effective ways of preventing these incidents where people binge drink.


What changes have you implemented that address the role sports play in college life?

We’ll be joining the Patriot League next year. The Patriot League and the Ivy League are the only two of all of the NCAA Division 1 leagues that have high academic standards in parallel with athletic standards. All of our sports but a couple will move to the Patriot League. Hockey will not move [from Hockey East] because it’s not played in the Patriot League.

Boston University recently collaborated with some of the area’s other big universities to build a $95 million green computing center in Holyoke. Why are you getting in the business of data centers?

The logic of building it is pretty simple. All these research­intensive universities were sitting here building small data centers, putting in air conditioning, putting in expensive electricity and cooling to host a growing amount of computer processing units. Now, you start getting collaboration among these research entities in Massachusetts that normally have not worked together.

So, what can you achieve with all this computing power?


It will create an environment where we can share data sets and have the scientific computing capabilities to work with them. The most important thing is that our scientists are talking to each other.

Are universities graduating enough scientists, mathematicians, and engineers?

We still have the issue of getting enough students that have the right level of scientific and math background coming from high school. Where we really see it is when we do work in the Boston public schools. We’ve been working very hard with Trotter Elementary School [in Dorchester]. We’re starting to see progress on their math scores.You can’t just go to the high school and fix it. It’s really a long process.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at