Every few months, it seems, one major university or another announces a grandly ambitious plan to spend hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars to try to catapult itself further up the ranks of American research institutions over seven or 10 years. The proposals often vary in their fine details but tend to share certain key elements in common: the creation of new tenure-track faculty slots to attract top-notch researchers; additional financial aid to woo a greater share of the nation's best high-school students; and big bucks for new labs, dorms and other facilities.
“This week it’s one, two weeks from now it’ll be somebody else,” says John V. Lombardi, president of Louisiana State University and co-editor of the Center for Measuring University Performance,  which tracks and assesses the national competitive environment for research universities. “Any institution that throws significant money at improving itself is probably going to do that, but the only way they really move up is if the people ahead of them don’t keep pace. Somebody has to lose for you to win.”
These highly publicized efforts are most common among public universities, as the University of Kentucky,  Clemson University  and Virginia Tech are just some of the institutions that have undertaken such efforts in recent years, aimed at inspiring legislators, alumni and their states’ citizens to rally around the need for increased public and private investment in the institutions.
But this week Boston University joined the ranks, announcing a plan to spend $1.8 billion over 10 years  to strengthen undergraduate education, add 150 tenure-track faculty positions (the university has a total of about 2,500 full-time faculty now), and upgrading its academic and residential facilities. The self-stated goal: “elevate the nation’s fourth largest private university to pre-eminent status among institutions of higher learning.”
Robert A. Brown, Boston University’s president and a former provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes himself as an “amateur historian of research universities.”
He says he recognizes the dilemma that Lombardi cited: “In this age of everyone trying to be better, can an institution break out? Each institution, in a clear-eyed way, has to say: Where can we go? How can we establish our uniqueness and how do we judge our success?”
The plan crafted at Boston shies away from an overly simple goal like saying the institution wants to move into the Top 20 among national universities (it sits at 57 in the U.S. News and World Report ranking in that category this year).
But when pressed to describe the university’s goals for itself, Brown is highly ambitious. He compares Boston to other universities that emphasize a broad-based form of undergraduate education that is enhanced by strong professional orientations, such as New York and Northwestern Universities and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Southern California, all of which are well ahead of Boston in the rankings, and also generally in measures of faculty reputation or competitiveness of admissions.
Boston University’s goal with its 10-year plan, Brown says, is to go “head to head with that group of institutions.” “The question is, can we be the best of that class of universities,” he says, “so that students and faculty who want to be in that sort of environment have reasons to want to come here?”
The university has no magical strategies for challenging the institutions ahead of it; much of what it aims to do – raise faculty salaries as it ramps up hiring to help it attract more of the best available professors in their fields, redistribute existing funds to strengthen selected schools and deemphasize others, bolster financial aid to woo more of the country’s best students – are the same things most colleges and universities are trying to do. (“It’s like the Midas touch – if anybody has it, everybody has it,” says Lombardi.) USC has just finished its own drive to hire 100 "world class" faculty members (at a price tag of $100 million), and Penn just Saturday unveiled a $3.5 billion fund raising campaign , emphasizing its desire to combine its "strengths in arts and sciences with its top-quality professional schools. Sound familiar?
But the university hopes that enhancing some of its distinguishing features – allowing much more integration of the curriculums of its many colleges, so that a chemistry student can also study in its well-regarded College of Fine Arts, for instance, and taking full advantage of its Boston location – will give it an edge.
“Part of it is moving faster, part of it is developing a strategy that is different enough from theirs,” says Brown. “I don’t think of [our goal] as being better” than Penn and NYU,” he adds. “It’s that there’s this group of schools of that type, and we plan to be right there. There will be places they’re stronger, and places we’re stronger. And we’ll be stronger in enough domains that we will do very well.”
Robert Zemsky, professor of higher education and chairman of the Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania, says it’s unlikely that the universities at which Boston is taking aim will “fall asleep at the switch” and stop making their own progress to let B.U. catch up.
But he notes that a place like Boston might have an unusual opportunity because of the time at which it is making its move. Most universities are facing significant faculty retirements in the next 5-10 years, which could foreshadow a “massive shift in the professoriate.” “There are only so many really smart people in the world,” Zemsky says, and “the institutions in the top 20 now are there because they got more of the really smarts than the others.” If B.U. is in a position to “buy up” 150 new faculty members, and it does so smartly, he adds, it could be in a good competitive position going forward.
Lombardi notes, as well, that Boston University has a good track record – it made major strides up the ranks of recipients of federal research funds in the 1980s and early 1990s and became a national rather than regional institution during that time. “If any university has demonstrated in the past the ability to move, it’s B.U.,” he says.
And while Lombardi says it’s unquestionable that spending $1.8 billion more (which will by the end of the 10-year period increase its annual budget by $225 million) will make Boston “a much better place,” it’s not at all clear “whether it’ll be a much better place than other places.”
But Lombardi says he doesn’t expect universities to stop announcing grand plans that promise to take the institutions ever higher in the academic stratosphere, even if delivering on those promises may be difficult.
“You can’t change the distribution of top students and professors and research dollars enough to move every university in the country to where they tell the trustees they’re headed,” Lombardi says. “These places are probably aimed at the wrong target. But a target that says ‘we just want to get better’ doesn’t really ring.”