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Centers of Attention

January 13, 2009

It wasn’t too long ago that Boston University officials started talking a big game about significantly increasing the size of its faculty and pushing into the major leagues of private research institutions. The economic downturn may delay that transformation, but university leaders say a dose of tough love can help keep the dream alive.

In an announcement Monday, President Robert Brown noted that meeting increased student demand for financial aid and covering endowment losses will probably create a $10 million budget deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That shortfall has prompted a review of operating expenses at the university, and administrators are taking a particularly close look at the centers and institutes that have blossomed on campus for decades without ever undergoing a thorough review. Centers that aren’t self-sufficient, and can’t be justified as part of the university’s strategic plan, are thought to be particularly vulnerable to closure, faculty said.

In October 2007, Brown laid out an ambitious agenda to spend $1.8 billion over 10 years, hiring 150 new tenure-track faculty and strengthening undergraduate education. While a hiring freeze on staff has been implemented, the broad goals for adding faculty and enhancing quality are intact, according to Colin Riley, a spokesman for Boston.

“The strategic plan will be the guide and the backbone of our strategy, even if it takes a little longer, as the president said,” Riley said.

The review of centers and institutes is just one piece of the university’s cost-cutting analysis, but it’s a strategy that’s likely to be duplicated across higher education during these lean times. Jane Wellman, head of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, said revenue losses make it increasingly imperative for colleges to evaluate whether centers are mission-critical.

Colleges are drawn to centers because they help bring in grant money for hot new areas of study. When those areas cease to be so hot, however, many colleges simply keep funding the centers -- even if it’s not the best use of dollars, Wellman said.

“History shows that when the [grant] money dries up [for a center], the people don’t necessarily [leave],” she said. “So if you’ve got an institute for the study of X, the initial grant that got it going might dry up, but the people that got it going will figure out a way to shift to institutional funding.”

Boston hosts nearly 200 centers and institutes, some of which are “just letterheads,” according to Wendy Mariner, chair of the Faculty Council. University officials have not discussed the exact metrics they will use to evaluate the centers, but Mariner said it’s safe to assume that leaders of centers will be asked to demonstrate that they are serving the university’s core mission. Administrators are also likely to look closely at how centers are funded, she added.

“If the answer to the first [question] is ‘No, they are not essential,’ and the answer to the second is ‘Yes, they need money,’ then I think they’re vulnerable,” said Mariner, a professor of health law, bioethics and human rights.

Sharon Daniels, who heads Boston’s Opera Institute, said she welcomes the opportunity to make the case for keeping her institute afloat. The institute, which admits a maximum of 12 students each year, administers a two-year program for aspiring operatic artists. All students in the program receive full tuition and a stipend.

“It’s going to be a matter of what [President Brown] and the trustees feel are essential to the university,” Daniels said. “I certainly will try to make us as essential as possible. I don’t know where they will come down. I’m a person that believes the arts are essential to every human being, so if given the opportunity I will get on my soap box.”

Virginia Sapiro, dean of Boston’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said closing a center won’t necessarily free up the kinds of recurring funds that are crucial for hiring faculty. That said, there’s certainly a reason for taking a hard look at centers and institutes, because closing one allows the university to more fully fund a more effective center that enhances faculty recruitment, Sapiro said.

While unwelcome, the economic crisis may make it easier -- from a political standpoint -- to cut some fat, Sapiro added.

“It’s becoming a little bit of the cliché to say go the Rahm Emanuel direction and say ‘[Don’t] lose the opportunity the crisis presents,’ but … in a complex institution he’s right,” Sapiro said.

On the other hand, the approach Boston’s president has taken thus far to the crisis has been quite different from the tactics employed historically by Emanuel, who has accepted an offer to become President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff. While Emanuel is known for playing hardball to get his way, Brown has sought inclusion and consensus, according to several faculty.

Julie Sandell, the Faculty Council’s immediate past chair, said faculty generally agree with Brown’s notion that increasing need-based student aid should be the top priority in the current environment. Midyear financial aid applications are up 41 percent over last year at Boston, and professors share Brown's concern about maintaining access for students, she said.

Faculty have also supported Brown’s decision to freeze salary levels for administrators making more than $150,000 a year, while giving raises to staff on the lower end of the pay scale, Sandell said.

“That was received very favorably by faculty and staff,” she said. “All the faculty and staff I’ve talked to have [said] that’s a really reasonable thing.”

 

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