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Regime change is never easy. Even after the old leader has relinquished power, his loyalists remain, threatening the new establishment. As Daniel S. Goldin found out last week, attempts to root out remnants of the old regime can stir up so much hostility that the new leader gets forced out. Goldin tried to show Boston University (BU) the road to reform, and was promptly shown the door.
Last July, BU’s board of trustees chose Goldin, the former head of NASA, to be the university’s new president. He was set to take office last Saturday—that is, until the trustees rescinded their offer late last week, agreeing to pay a $1.8 million settlement in compensation for the termination of his contract. The deal-breaker for the trustees was not Goldin’s stipulation that he frequently be allowed to spend weekends at his home in Malibu—in July, they agreed to provide him with first-class tickets. What ruffled their fiduciary feathers were his demands that former Chancellor of BU John Silber resign his office and that nearly all the school’s top administrators—who he felt were too closely tied to Silber—be fired.
Desperate measures these were, but they developed out of desperate times in the history of BU’s governance. BU’s Byzantine power structure had facilitated the unhealthy entrenchment of Silber’s power over three decades. In 1996, after Silber’s 25-year tenure as university president, the board of trustees created the position of “Chancellor” especially for him. The role allowed him to retain effective control over the BU administration while his chosen successor, Jon Westling, acted as president. When Westling was forced out of the presidency in 2002, Silber simply took over his powers, acting as Chancellor and president simultaneously.
But Goldin was displeased with the power structure from the start. Last spring, when Goldin was first being considered as a replacement for Westling, he made his views crystal clear, telling Silber to his face, “You have to step aside.” As Goldin reiterated recently, “There can only be one president.” Silber, who initially endorsed Goldin’s candidacy, resigned the chancellorship in late August, and Goldin made clear to the board last week that “those issues are behind us and require no further discussion.”
Rather than reciprocate Goldin’s reasonableness, however. the board of trustees has chosen a reactionary course, demonstrating the ingrained resistance to change of the BU administration. Not only did the board’s reversal entail a costly settlement, it also tarnished the school’s credibility. After this move, BU is likely to face a great deal of difficulty in persuading qualified candidates to even bother applying for the seemingly-puppet presidency. BU’s leadership should take the opportunity to fix itself now—otherwise its predicament will only become more embarrassing.
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