Full Interview with BU President Robert Brown – April 26, 2021
WTBU News Campus Co-Editor Grace Ferguson sat down with BU President Robert Brown earlier this week. They talked about his plans for the fall, and looked back at his biggest successes and challenges as he led the university through this pandemic.
- The Board of Trustees has voted to reinstate President Brown’s full salary this summer after he took a 20% cut this fiscal year. Senior staff, who took a 10% cut, will also have their salaries restored.
- Though the university will have spent $60 million on COVID-related costs by the end of the year, President Brown described the university’s financial state as “absolutely solid.”
- The university does not have plans to make laundry free on campus.
- President Brown said the university is working to be more transparent with regard to sexual assault and to improve its communication with survivors.
- COVID-19 vaccines that international students may receive in their home countries will fulfill the university’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for the fall, even if they are not approved for emergency use in the US.
- Social distancing rules will be relaxed in the fall, but there will likely be situations where masks are expected, and there will still be COVID-19 testing.
- The university will continue genetic testing of positive COVID-19 tests in the fall to monitor the efficacy of vaccines against virus variants.
- President Brown said the decision to end LfA this fall was not financially motivated.
- Warren Towers will likely be the next large student residence to undergo renovation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WTBU News Campus Co-Editor Grace Ferguson: President Brown, welcome. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to sit down with WTBU today.
BU President Robert Brown: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.
I wanted to talk about your plans for the fall semester. You’ve announced that BU wants to bring all students back to campus with a lot less social distancing—probably still some COVID testing, maybe some masks here and there. And all students are going to have to get the COVID vaccine. So I’m wondering, when did you start thinking that a full return to campus would be possible this fall?
When we started understanding the efficacy of the vaccines. And this goes back to February, March, maybe, timeframe, is when you started seeing first the data out of Israel, and on the Pfizer vaccines, and started seeing how effective these vaccines are against the virus.
And then knowing that we’ve got an enormous amount of experience now—experience hard-won—about managing campus, using public health protocols, as well as the testing, quarantine and isolation. So we started doing a lot of work this spring, thinking about how all those things came together with vaccination. And that’s led us to where we are today.
We will have in place PCR testing. It’ll be slightly different than what we’ve done this year, but we think it’s going to be very important for us to to be able to look for changes in the behavior of the virus, see how many cases if there are cases, what are called “breakthrough cases” where people get infected even though they’ve been vaccinated, and to be able to monitor the health of our population.
But we also believe that—and I think you’re going to start seeing the whole country moving in this direction—that the mandates around social distancing can be relaxed.
There will be, I think, situations in the fall, [when] we will be in masks, when we’re not we have large gatherings that are not socially distant. I think it’s very probable there will be in masks in a lot of large classrooms, at least at the beginning of the fall ,until we understand exactly how the vaccination in the testing is working.
One huge part of this is making sure everybody’s vaccinated. And a huge part of BU’s population is international students. So how are you addressing issues with international students getting access to that vaccine in time before they come back to campus?
Well, one of the things—I’m not really quite ready to announce some of these things—but there are two separate questions. There are actually three possibly.
One is, is there going to be any availability between now and when students leave campus other than through the mass vaccination centers, to be vaccinated? We’re still working on that. We’re still trying to get access to vaccines.
The second piece of that is, what kind of vaccination ability will we have when students return to campus, and we believe that’ll be dramatically different, that come August we’ll be able to supply vaccine to anyone that still needs it.
The third piece of this, which I’m not quite in a position to announce yet, is will we accept vaccines other than the three US [emergency use authorization]-approved vaccines? And the answer to that is yes. And we’re going to talk about that very shortly to the whole community. Because that’s a very important piece, because when our international students go home, and those that did not come back, they have access to vaccination in their home country, but it may not be one of the three vaccines that we’re giving. It may be another vaccine. And so we will be very precise about that very soon, to give our international students guidance about how to be vaccinated.
With vaccines being such an important part of this, the issue of variants does come up, because variants do threaten the efficacy of the vaccines. So how does that work into your planning for the fall and the possible things that might change between now and September?
Well that’s why the testing is so important, right? Anytime we have a positive case of COVID, we’ve been testing which COVID variant it is, that’s been going on since September. And we’re not stopping that. The combination of the normal RT-PCR, testing that you’re doing, plus that genomic testing, allows us to see which of these variants are on campus. And we will continue that in the fall.
The way I believe this is going to evolve over time, is that if there are variants that come into existence for which the vaccines are not very effective, we’re very quickly going to see booster shots relative to these. So unfortunately, for those of us who don’t like needles, I believe we’re going to be living with some kind of—maybe annual, maybe biannual, I’m not sure exactly what it is—COVID boosters for a while, as the as this disease evolves. The first step is to get everybody vaccinated with the current vaccines.
But that’s why the ongoing PCR testing is going to be important to watch for that. Because if the efficacy of the vaccine started sagging because of a variant, we would see it through the PCR reactions and be able to pivot if we needed to.
One thing you’ve announced this semester is that Learn from Anywhere is going to go away for the most part this fall. Some students wish it would stay, at least partly, because they like the convenience, they like having recorded lectures, they like not having to pay to live on-campus in Boston. So why end LfA for this fall?
Well, one is we believe that we can provide a safe and residential experience for our students. And the second is, that’s what we do. Our university is set up as a residential research university.
We are not looking to be in the continuing supplier of what I call a “distance education undergraduate experience.” And that was made necessary by the virus—it absolutely was necessary this year, because of the social distancing and depopulation we needed. But [LfA] is not, in the long term, in the best interest of our students in terms of creating the learning environment we want to create.
Now I understand there are students that are anxious, and in some cases, travel restrictions still are there about returning to campus—that’s an issue we’re watching very carefully. And then there’s this other issue you bring up of the convenience. Is it easier to stay in your dorm room and watch the lecture? I’m less concerned about that. Because we are a residential university—what we do best is have in-classroom instruction.
How much are finances playing a role in this decision to end LFA? And I ask that because you bring up the fact that this is a residential university. There’s no doubt that the university has lost housing and dining revenue when students have the option to not live on campus, and to live at home. So, how much has money played a role in this decision?
Not in that decision, not really. That decision really is driven by what we think is the best educational environment for our students.
We were in the 70th percentile in terms of residential occupancy this year. Some of that was driven by the very large number of isolation and quarantine beds we took offline, which we won’t need as many going forward. It is not a financial decision, really it is a decision around how we think we best educate people, and getting our faculty and staff and students back on campus. From our graduate student population, for the most part, they don’t live on campus at all. So it’s not a revenue based decision at all, for the graduate students.
Let’s pivot now and take a look back at this last year, these last two semesters. BU reopened in the middle of a pandemic, set up this huge system of testing and contact tracing and quarantine. You also, these last two semesters, had students learning from all over the world at the same time as students in Boston. And so the question I have for you, reflecting on this last year, is: If you had to give yourself a letter grade on your leadership of this university during the pandemic, what would it be?
I think I’d give myself a solid B.
I think we’ve done well, but I would not give myself an A because it’s not me. When I think about who’s done well, we have an enormous number of people that worked incredibly hard through this summer and all through the year to make it feasible for you to come back.
And then our student body has been just short of remarkable. We asked an enormous amount of our student body, through our protocols and testing and attestation and mask wearing. all the communication and signage. Look at the great group of students that did the “‘F’ It Don’t Cut It” campaign. It’s really been a remarkable community effort, and the compliance by our students, overall, I think has been one of the best in the country.
On the other side of it, when I look at the Healthway team that put together the contact tracing and quarantine and isolation, those people are really responsible for our success. Because if you look at it in terms of our testing laboratory—how fast they responded, how fast our contact tracers got in touch with people and the compliance of the students, faculty, and staff—it’s really been remarkable.
You can see other universities—if you go out, and look, I won’t name any—that tried to do basically the same things we did and had multiples of the numbers of cases we had, really blew up. Because they didn’t have compliance, right? You can put all these things in place and all of the narrative around how to do it. But people have to want to comply.
No one’s gonna be perfect, right? Perfect was impossible. And we knew that was going to be true. But if you go through the year, and you ask the question, “How many times have we had very large scale, off-campus events, where people were breaking protocols, that could lead to massive failures of our system?”, what you read about all over the country, we essentially didn’t have those. That is really a testimony to the students taking this seriously. And that’s what made us successful.
If you had to do all this over again, this entire last year of the pandemic, do you think there’s anything you would do differently?
That’s a great question. Unfortunately, I have never reflected on that. I’m still in the struggle. It may be a better question in a couple of months.
The hardest decisions, some of the hardest I’ve ever made, were early May last year when we set the ship in motion to come back—to build the testing laboratory. to hire the people in Healthway, to design all the signage, and all of those things, to come back.
Those were very, very hard decisions, because there was a massive amount of uncertainty. We knew what we knew about the disease. We knew what the models told us about the disease. And we were counting on testing and these other protocols to implement in a way that no one had ever done before. And we believed it would work. And we also believed we had safety valves and pivots if it didn’t work.
Looking at that whole set of decisions, there are details I would probably do differently, having done them at different times. But the set of decisions, I would not have changed. Because I think that the experience our students had, the ones that decided to come back, was much superior to not being here at all.
There are 35,000 students at this university, there are 10,000 employees, and I wanted to ask you about this decision making, because the decisions you make not only affect this huge number of people at BU, but also the surrounding Boston community, especially during a pandemic, where we’re affecting their health—the stakes are really high. How have you handled that pressure of making decisions that affect this huge group of people?
Again, I’ll have to reflect on that at some point.
I am a scientist, so I will follow the data and the science. And I really believe that served me well personally, over the last 12 months.
The pressure of affecting the community at large—one of the things that is really interesting about everything we always thought was true, and everything that’s actually turned out to be true, is we live, our university is an entity, in the middle of a sea of people—those people in the Boston area. We are not a source of the infection, we are a sink.
If you look at the infection rate of our students, faculty, and staff, what we spent all of our time doing was keeping infection from coming into our community. And it would come in from a staff member who got it in their community, or come in from a student that went to a gathering with other people—it had come in. And then what are surveillance testing and contact tracing and other things did was stop the spread of that infection.
It’s interesting, because the genomics we’ve done really show that. Because what it shows, when you go in and look at all the positive cases, if they were spreading from one person to another, they would all have very similar genomic patterns. They don’t. We are getting infected from people around us. And that’s why vaccination is going to be so important, because it will lower the transmission of disease to us inside.
We always thought, going back to your original question, everything we knew last summer pointed to that would be the state we would create. And it wouldn’t be like we were this pot of infection infecting everybody around us. I always counted on that being true, and it turned out to be true.
One of the things that a number of people, the medical professionals, Judy Platt at Student Health Services and [Ann] Zia in Occupational Health, in occupational health, everybody worried all year long about the health of our students, faculty and staff. It was a large weight on everybody’s shoulders and it still is. Because you’re just as good as how you’ve done up through today. And tomorrow could be another day, it could be bad.
What has surprised you the most, looking back on this year, about COVID spread on campus? Is there anything that surprised you that you didn’t predict?
Well, I think I could flip this and ask you. I think when we announced testing, people imagined testing thousands of people, long lines that you’re going to stand in daily to get tested, and that this was going to be so cumbersome that compliance was going to be impossible.
And I think the most pleasant surprise, I think for me, and I think for almost everyone, was how seamless everything worked, and then how that drove the ability to have compliance with the testing process.
I want to circle back to talking about finances, because the university’s next fiscal year starts in a few months. How much do you worry about how the university is doing financially these days?
Well, there are two messages. One is that we are absolutely solid financially. This has not been what I call an existential crisis for the university.
Has it been hard on a lot of people? Absolutely true. We pivoted last year, about this time of the year, to freeze salaries, freeze promotions, freeze hiring. We ended up taking away the retirement contribution of all faculty and staff to create a financial year that we could get into and have the money that we needed for what we call “the COVID cost.”
The university will have spent, by the time the year is over, over $60 million on COVID-related expenses.
And it’s been hard on everybody. I mean, people have lost their raises, people have done extra things because a position was open and could not be filled. On May 1, we’re opening up the hiring of staff again.
We hope that next year will be—it will not be a normal financial year, we had no increases in budget other than salary increases for next year—but I think it will be back to normal within a year from then.
The university, from a financial point of view, weathered this relatively well relative to some other institutions. It has really strong financial footing. It’s going to delay some of the things we were going to do by a year to two years. Our strategic plan, which is well under development, is running a little slower than we had hoped a year ago. But I think we’ll be back on course pretty quickly.
A lot of people who were critical of the university’s plan to bring students back to campus in this hybrid mode over the summer were looking at the university’s budget shortfall of $264 million, which you made up through making those budget cuts you mentioned, stopping retirement contributions, also having to layoff and furlough hundreds of people.
And so I’m wondering, looking at this from the point of view of those critics, how do you justify making that huge $60 million investment in bringing students back to campus while, at the same time, having to tell people, “I’m sorry, I can’t afford to pay your salary anymore”?
It’s a great question, but you have to also think: if we had not repopulated our dorms, if we had not repopulated our buildings, what would I’ve done with 700 food service workers and relatively 1,000 other people that spend their day making the buildings work? The custodians, the plumbers, the carpenters? What would have happened, is they would have been laid off.
The layoffs would have been much larger for us in an unpopulated university than they were in a populated university. So the way I looked at that, and I’ve said this many times, I think, overall, we did a great job for protecting jobs for people. The total number of furloughed or laid off people was actually very small once you compensated for the fact that we hired many people back in the Healthway system. There was a process where people were hired back to work in the collection centers, in the testing laboratory, and other places.
Every furlough, every layoff, is very difficult. But I think on balance, compared to where we’d been if we hadn’t come back? A very different place.
I have one more money question for you. One more cut you made was you took a 20% salary cut, and the other senior leadership of the university took a 10% cut this fiscal year. Is that cut continuing into the next fiscal year, which starts this summer?
No, the trustees voted two weeks ago to restore the cuts. So our salaries go back [along] with other people’s. But I was really proud of my whole leadership team agreeing to the cut, I thought it was absolutely the right thing for us to do.
Let’s move into some questions submitted by WTBU listeners. Quite a few students wanted to hear your reaction to the student campaign for free laundry. Are you familiar with it?
And is there any chance BU is going to offer free laundry in the near future?
There’s no decision being made. But free is a bad price for anything, because free subsidizes people who don’t need to be subsidized.
That’s why we’ve gone, in our financial aid for students, to—under my time—predominantly need-based financial aid. To try to get dollars in the hands of people who really need them to go to school. And the problem with free is it doesn’t do that. Free subsidizes everyone.
The conversation I will have with people about this is, do we have people that are challenged in being able to afford to do their laundry? And, if so, how do we help them do that? Which is different than free for everybody.
Are you willing to speak to the student leaders of that campaign?
I think one of them was at the—I had a student leaders meeting last week, I think one was there. At least there was one there was a sign. We talked about it.
You spoke directly to them?
I said the same thing to them that I just said to you.
The next question: Earlier this semester, students protested the university’s handling of sexual assault cases. They say BU isn’t doing enough to prevent sexual assault and the university isn’t standing behind survivors. So how do you respond to that?
I think students have brought forward some really important issues, some that we can address, some that we probably can’t. And what we’ve done is we put together a group under our university Provost Jean Morrison, who’s meeting with a designated group of those students.
My understanding,—and I’m briefed on their meetings—is they’re making progress. There’s now kind of a common level of understanding that is on both sides. They’re going to continue to meet during the summer. I think we will make some changes as a result of that.
There will also be some education on the student side about what we can and cannot do. I think there are ways we can be more transparent, and that we can really improve the communication with survivors. That’s one of the focuses of this conversation.
I probably shouldn’t say too much more, they’re trying to keep it private. It’s between the provost’s office and this group of students who started this campaign.
One thing I’ve heard a lot from students is that they see emails you send out about these issues like sexual assault, like racism—you’ve sent a number of those about the killing of George Floyd.
And these students say [the emails] have this PR style, and they also say that they aren’t paired with concrete action. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
No, I don’t. They’re not a PR style. I’m a chemical engineer, that’s flattering for me, if you think I can write PR. Because most of those come from my hand.
If you look at concrete actions that we’ve taken, in terms of building community at the university, I think that we’ve done a lot of things over the last few years. It’s very hard to emphasize those in a pandemic year when we’re all scattered all over every place.
If you look at what’s going on in the staff hiring, if you look what’s going on in student recruitment, we’re working hard and consistently trying to create a more diverse environment, a more diverse community, with diversity being for all groups that are underrepresented on our campus.
Whether or not people would agree with the moves we make, whether or not people want different things—and of course, talking to students, [they] want things that we would not agree to do within trying to keep an open campus that’s open to all views. There are balances we’re trying to achieve all the time that some people just don’t agree with. But I think we’re moving in the right direction. But can we do more? Yes. Will we do more? Yes.
If you look at, for example, this year, we worked very hard with [Vice President and Associate Provost for Community & Inclusion] Crystal Williams’ team to open the Newbury Center for First Generation Students, which we got open in January through really a force of will, in the middle of the pandemic. That’s an important resource for students coming to the university, which will be a resource for people who are looking for a community when they come from communities, or from families, that haven’t gone to college.
The LBGTQIA+ Center [sic], which is under development, will be another resource that way.
So we’re putting the resources in. Whether or not that’s exactly, do we fulfill everybody’s needs and what they would like to see us do? That’s always a question.
Another popular question we received from listeners was whether BU has any current plans to improve the living conditions in student housing. I asked this because a lot of student buildings that don’t have [air conditioning], there are widely reported pest control issues. WTBU actually recently reported on a bat that was in a Commonwealth Avenue residence. So students are wondering how the university plans to improve on that.
If you look at a university—and I think you’ll find them all, that are similar—the quality of the housing covers this incredible spectrum, from brand-new to horribly old. And we’re no different than that. If you look at money we spend on renovation and renewal and new housing, it is considerable.
In your time, I think, you watched the renovation of Myles Standish [Hall]. Right? I don’t know if you remember Myles before it was renovated.
That would be a little bit before my time.
Well, Myles, before it was renovated, was probably at the far end of the spectrum. And now it’s at the other end of the spectrum. And so we continually are revolving our housing by investing in it. Both our brownstones, our small residences, and our large residences.
The large residence that’s under consideration now and will probably be the next large one we do, will be Warren Towers. That will not quite complete the cycle of the large residences, HoJo’s is still there, but it will almost complete it.
Then we’re constantly working on the brownstones in the South Campus area. This summer, there’s a number of brownstones that will be done this summer. Last summer was tough, because we weren’t allowed to do construction on campus last summer. So we weren’t allowed to do our normal upgrades of the small housing.
But it is a continuous cycle. Would I like to be able to wave a magic wand and everything be updated to one point in time, that would be wonderful. The only challenge would be 40 years from now it all be bad all at the same time. The cycle continues.
The bat—I haven’t heard of the bat. I actually would say that in Sloane House, which is the residence I live in, we have bats inside Sloane House. They come down the chimneys, and we find them in the drapes, and they have to come get them.
I don’t know the house on Commonwealth Avenue, but I would bet there’s a chimney in the mix.
Well, it’s good to know that you can empathize with that student.
It is a little disconcerting to have a bat in your house.
This is my last question submitted by students: Some students want to understand why tuition is continuing to increase every year, especially now that we’re in this pandemic recession. One student pointed out that BU is registered as a nonprofit, but they said it appears like BU runs itself as a for-profit because they see tuition going up but they don’t really feel the quality of student life or education improving at the same rate. And so why does tuition have to be raised every year?
Well, we are a nonprofit. The definition of a nonprofit is that we don’t share profit with anyone. A for-profit company has shareholders who make money. Everyone at the university has a salary, and there are no stock options, there’s no bonuses for performance, we are salaried folks.
The reason our tuition goes up is our costs go up. The biggest of that are really threefold, and you can look at all three.
One is just the driver to pay people more each year through some kind of cost-of-living raise. Our students, what I would say to them is, and understand that it’s hard when you’re on the paying end of this. But when you think about it, when you go out and get a job, you’re going to want a cost of living raise, too.
The second piece of that is the benefits piece, which is the healthcare piece. We give everyone healthcare. And our health care costs are going up at an average of five or six percent per year, they’re actually going up faster than tuition.
The third major driver of our budget is financial aid. We have made a big, big commitment over the last decade, really to increase need-based financial aid for our students. Now, if you’re not getting need-based financial aid, you say, “Well, that’s not affecting me.’ But over 50% of our students get need based financial aid. And we’ve made big changes in that. It’s been growing at a six to eight percent per year compound rate. If you look at those, those are growing faster than tuition is growing, which means we’re actually being conservative and cutting in other areas.
The final thing to think about in a university of quality, and people say, well, it’s not “getting better,” imagine that we’re a university at the undergraduate level that, on average, has between a 10 and 11 student-to-faculty ratio, overall. The only way we can really become more efficient is to increase that student-to-faculty ratio overall. So you bring in more students—like, you’ll see some advertised on TV, they say they’re holding tuition constant. But what they’re doing is bringing in more students. If you’re an online institution that’s relatively easy to do.
But if we bring in more students, that student-to-faculty ratio goes up. And maybe it only goes up by three percent a year. But if I go 10 years like that, the student-to-faculty ratio would go up 30%. And now what would happen is all of your classes would be 30% larger, both the big ones and the small ones. All the activities would be inflated by the larger student body.
I could have held tuition constant in that environment. But the quality would not be better. We really believe the quality of the university is, as a residential university, to have interactions between the faculty and the students and each other.
The only offset to that is raising money through gifts, to create endowments that help offset—either through financial aid or by paying faculty salaries—to offset the cost. We’ve been working very hard on that, I’m very proud of how our endowment has grown over time. But the money from our endowment is still only four percent of our annual operating budget, compared to some other institutions that you and I would know where that number is 30-50% of the annual operating budget. That’s the challenge.
Thank you for explaining that in such detail. We’re getting close to wrapping up, but before we do, I wanted to ask you: Are there any questions you wish I had asked you that I haven’t asked you?
You’ve been pretty thorough. I guess if I was to ask me one, kind of, hopeful question, is what do I hope the fall will look like, really feel like?
And I’m hopeful that, maybe not on day one, but sometime in the fall, there will be a sense of normality. Now that doesn’t mean we won’t all be having PCR tests with q-tips. But that may be the new normal for a while.
But [I hope] that we will get back to a sense that there’s not the apprehension caused by COVID. And that will come because of a combination of the testing, but [also] of the vaccination. There will become a community where people will say “we feel secure” at a different level than we do right now.
I think we feel better—and you can answer this question for me—more secure today than we did in September. Because we sort of feel it works. But I hope we get to this new normal state that looks a lot more like fall of ‘19 than fall of ‘20.
I think we’re all craving that normality after so long living with masks. Well, President Brown, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
My pleasure, be safe.