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Just a day before he was to assume presidency of Boston University (BU), former NASA director Daniel S. Goldin was voted out last Friday by the same Board of Trustees that had unanimously elected him earlier this summer.
The 41-member board, which includes a Harvard Business School graduate and a Harvard Medical School researcher, granted Goldin a $1.8 million severance package in exchange for his stepping away from the presidency. According to a BU press release that came out after the agreement, “Boston University and Daniel S. Goldin...have mutually decided to part company.”
While BU continues its search for a new president, current Dean of the BU School of Medicine and renowned cardiologist Aram V. Chobanian will assume duties as interim president. Chobanian has been a faculty member at the BU Medical School for 40 years and Dean of the Medical School for 15 years. According to Christopher Barreca, chair of the Board of Trustees, “the Board has full confidence in [Chobanian’s] ability as a leader, a teacher and a bridge builder.”
The Board of Trustees accepted the resignation of current BU President John Silber, who has also been the chancellor of BU for the past seven years and a member of the Board of the Trustees since 1971. The search for a new president partly stemmed from Silber’s desire to retire.
The dispute over Goldin’s contract originated when Silber changed his mind and decided to remain on the Board of Trustees when Goldin took over as president—despite Silber’s former announcement that he would step down completely at that time. But Goldin demanded that Silber adhere to his original promise of leaving the university administration, angering some board members, according to the Boston Globe.
“Silber had abusive power. He made the Board of Trustees too big and too compliant,” a BU faculty member said on condition of anonymity. “It is one of Silber’s legacies that we still have to deal with.”
The ensuing conflict resulted in the executive board’s “no-confidence vote” for Goldin on October 24 and the resignation of two influential and high-profile trustees: Jeffrey Katzenberg, the co-founder of Dreamworks SKG, and Kenneth Feld, owner of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Silber originally pushed Goldin as a top candidate during the summer search process in what some members of the BU community have said was a rushed process. All the trustees had only met once with Goldin before his appointment, according to the Boston Globe.
“[Goldin] was a last-minute candidate pushed very strongly by Silber. He was not given a thorough review, and I think that was at the root of the problem,” said the faculty member.
According to a Boston Globe article, Goldin had several small clashes with members of the Board of Trustees even before he was appointed president. Yet because Goldin had the strong backing of Silber, some members of the board kept their doubts to themselves and Goldin was voted in unanimously with most of the conditions of his contract—including a minimum $600,000 per year paycheck—satisfied.
“I think that Goldin might have been a good choice, but we will never get to find out,” the faculty member said. “I think he was a product of a very flawed search and that is a continuing concern.”
According to the Boston Globe article, Goldin’s contract included conditions that stunned the trustees. He wished to live part-time in his home in Malibu, Calif., and to fire many top administrators. Goldin suggested that a fresh start for the university would involve breaking all ties with Silber and replacing the provost, the treasurer and several deans of the University, all of whom were favorites of the Board.
Some BU faculty and administrators are worried about what the controversy means for the image of the university.
“It’s been just like shock and awe.... I think it will take many years to undo the damage. It’s a horrendous and serious blow to the university and one that undermines a lot of the genuine accomplishments of John Silber. That’s the irony,” the faculty member said.
“No one could reasonably construe the incident as a success or an example of effective governance. It’s more of a taint on the Board’s reputation rather than on the university,” said Richard Chait, a specialist in university governance at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Although BU already has plans to hire a new president, many believe that the school should wait for the controversy to clear.
“I would hope that the search would be suspended. If we go right back immediately, I don’t know who would possibly be interested. If we need to attract top-flight people, we have to put our own house in order first by reforming the Board of Trustees, both in terms of their rules and also their personnel,” said the faculty member.
Chait said that BU’s board should consider waiting to renew its search for a new president so that the board can reform itself and show possible presidential candidates that BU has addressed its governance problems.
“It is probably most important for the Board of Trustees to not only acknowledge responsibility for the failed search but also to demonstrate that the Board has taken positive steps to reform the board,” Chait said.
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