Engagement

At yesterday’s Honors Program retreat I explained why above all else I value student engagement. I prepared my remarks with these notes.

If you have ever talked with me about grading you know that above everything else, I value engagement. I want students–

  • to develop a personal relationship with course material,
  • to examine how what we read and discuss relates to the world they live in

This week I was thinking about why engagement is so important to me. Teaching engaged students is fun–but that’s not the only reason. While I was considering this question I was reading the sophomores’ essays in response to the prompt What’s the Purpose of Higher Education? Also while I was considering this question former Boston University President John Silber died. Without Dr. Silber most of you would not be here. More than anyone he gave Boston University a national reputation.

His death brought me back to 1971, when I, like Dr. Silber, started at BU. I was admitted to the Division of General Education–“DGE,” or “Deege.” DGE was a two-year honors program, more akin to Kalichand Honors College than the School of Management Honors Program, but our student profile was similar to yours. (Dr. Silber killed the program in the mid-1970’s, a few years after I completed it.)

At the start I enjoyed DGE’s small classes, smart students, accomplished faculty, and interesting content. Soon, though, I disengaged, and grew detached. I began to ask–

  • What’s the purpose of these courses?
  • Why am I here?

I didn’t have satisfactory answers. In the second semester of sophomore year my disengagement became so pronounced that one of my professors told me to stop coming to class because he did not like my influence on class dynamics. He offered to let me complete the curriculum as an independent study.

I accepted. I completed the course as an independent study and received an A. I then dropped out of Boston University before my junior year.

I worked, traveled, had adventures, and thought about whether I should go back to college. I returned to BU after a year, motivated enough to perform well.

My lesson in engagement began soon after I returned. Through a political science internship I started working at an organization that provided legal services to state prison inmates. Within two weeks I was spending all my non-academic time in the Project’s offices or at the maximum security prison in Walpole, representing convicted felons. What’s important is not the activities that engaged me but the fact of my engagement. I learned the difference between doing something because it was expected and doing something with purpose, engaging so fully that it changes how you see life itself.

Some of the sophomore essays were cynical about the purpose of their education. Being cynical about something requires intellectual and emotional detachment from it.

Engagement makes detachment and cynicism wither and die.

The Chinese proverb that ends the Outward Bound Thompson Island video touches on this–

  • Tell me and I’ll forget;
  • Show me and I may remember;
  • Involve me and I’ll understand

We’re here today to get involved with and understand service. Performing service is a requirement of the Honors Program. Not so you can go through the motions of an experience and list it on your resume. It is because meaningful service requires engagement.

I know many of you are here only because you are required to be, because you would not want to face Amelia if you missed the retreat. You are here because you are “excellent sheep”–a reference that the freshman and sophomores understand.

I ask that you do one thing.

If you approach today with eye rolling or cynicism, store your detachment in your backpack with your extra pair of socks.

  • Engage with the program
  • Engage with your friends
  • Engage with the dozens of Honors Program students from the other cohorts whom you don’t know

You have something in common with them–they are as smart, accomplished, and interesting as you.

Have fun

Dr. Silber

In September 1971, a few months after John Silber became its president, I arrived at Boston University as a freshman to attend the Division of General Education–DGE, or “Deege”, which the brochure described as “a two-year honors interdisciplinary program.” Forty-one years later, at the time of Dr. Silber’s death, I am a senior lecturer at the Boston University School of Management. To say 41 years later I am still at Boston University would imply, misleadingly, that I never left. I did–to drop out of BU after completing DGE, travel, return to BU and graduate, work, attend law school, work more–but John Silber’s force field was never far away.

To me Silber was brilliant, occasionally charming, irascible, aggressive, tough, and proud. Like most students I knew in the early 1970s, I loathed and feared him. He disdained our anti-war demonstrations and loosed the helmets, shields, clubs, and tear gas of Boston’s TPF–Tactical Police Force–to break them up. I was among dozens of students the TPF chased down Bay State Road; we were faster and escaped them by Kenmore Square. In the spring of 1974, when BU students engaged in their annual protest against the recently-announced tuition increases–back then tuition increases and anti-tuition increase protests were, like robins, harbingers of spring on the BU campus–a TV news reporter asked for Dr. Silber’s reaction. I recall that he said it’s fun and games for young primates. Have I accurately remembered this quotation’s dismissive disdain? The memory is vivid, but it’s also 38 years old. If he didn’t say it exactly like this, if the words I remember are the product of faulty synapses, those who remember Dr. Silber in those years would agree that if he didn’t say it, he could have. It sounds like him.

A decade and a half later Dr. Silber featured in one of the most remarkable meetings of my legal career. Congress Group Ventures, a real estate development company at which I worked as General Counsel, was negotiating a large, complicated real estate venture with Boston University. My boss Dean Stratouly and Dr. Silber had met alone some months earlier to paint the venture’s broad strokes, and now we were trying to fill in the details–which, as the saying goes, is where the Devil resides. A series of meetings between us lawyers had yielded more areas of disagreement than compromise, so we called a meeting of all principals.

Together in our conference room were the present or former leaders of the institutions that had most shaped my almost 20 years in Boston: my bosses Dean Stratouly and his co-owner David Gardner, Boston University President John Silber and his lawyer Bob Popeo, the most powerful partner in Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, the firm I’d left to work at Congress Group, consummate political insider and Silber confidante Kevin White, and former mayor of Boston and then-current professor at Boston University. Present also were other powerful insiders and other lawyers, including me. David Gardner, in a wheelchair due to neurological illness, sat at one end of the table. Dr. Silber, a shortened and cuffed suit-jacket sleeve covering his stump arm, sat at the other end.  The meeting began with a recap of our progress-small–and disputes–significant–and it was not long before Silber and David Gardner, who was Silber’s intellectual equal, were arguing vociferously. Popeo, the combative lawyer political insiders hired when their world turned to dog doo, stepped in to ratchet back the tension and suggest topics for more fruitful discussion. White advanced his perspective on how things should unfold. The collective egos’ magnitude and personalities’ fire-power were enough to blow the windows out of the room.

We never closed that deal. Disagreements remain as to why.

In recent years I ran into Dr. Silber on the BU campus from time to time. I no longer loathed him, but he always reminded me of my shifting relationship with the school. He terminated DGE a few years after I completed the program; its interdisciplinary and counter-cultural ethos was anathema to his brand of intellectual rigor. Terminating DGE killed one of my defining links to Boston University. The University excelled, during the Silber years, at graduating students who left campus and never looked back fondly. From time to time BU sends email to DGE alumni. It comes under the heading of CGS, the College of General Studies–which, as anyone familiar with Boston University knows, is not likely to engender enthusiastic responses from alumni of DGE’s self-described honors program. BU’s low percentage of alumni contributions is a legacy that the University is managing, slowly, to eradicate. I came to the University too late to be among the faculty bruised by Silber’s rough handling over the years, but resentment still runs deep in some circles. He did not remember me, which was a blessing because remembering would involve remembering how he knew me. I know Boston University would not be the vigorous educational and research institution it is today without Dr. Silber’s tenure as president, a simple fact whose truth is reinforced every time I use FitRec, built on the site of the former Commonwealth Armory.

He was frailer physically each time I saw him, and emanated none of the combativeness I experienced in professional meetings two decades ago. In the end he was just a man. A controversial, polarizing, profoundly influential, consequential, memorable man. I’ve heard that he died with dignity, his intellect undiminished, in control until the end. I would expect nothing less.

Commence Real Life

Congratulations to today’s School of Management graduates. I can’t count the number of graduating seniors I’ve heard say I don’t want to graduate over the past four months, but the day (or weekend, depending on your family’s tolerance for University events) is here. You can’t crawl back inside the womb. Enjoy the beautiful spring day (sunny, temperature in the high 60s), reflect on everyone who played in role in delivering you to this moment. and get on with whatever is next.

Just let us know how you are doing.

Haunted

The accident that killed Boston University students Daniela Lekhno, Roch Jauberty, and Austin Brashears, seriously injured Meg Theriault, and injured four others has haunted me since I read the news early last Saturday. Smart, opinionated, engaged, passionate Daniela impressed me indelibly when she was my student in spring 2011. Trite as it is to say, I cannot believe she is gone. She was not on a law track but I hoped to persuade her to take one of my electives because I wanted to experience her again as a student. Her loss, and the loss of those who died with her, is beyond measure. The world is a poorer, meaner place because of it.

I am haunted also by the randomness of this accident’s consequences. Apparently the van hit gravel on the side of the road, the driver over-corrected, and the van rolled. At 21 I was in a similar accident. A group of us–I recall 8 or 9–were driving from Boston to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in my friend’s cargo van, which had two bucket seats in front and nothing but space behind.  On I-95 about 50 miles south of D.C., around 6 am, a gust of wind rocked the van, pushing it to the right. The driver turned the wheel to the left to pull us back into the passing lane. The van’s steering linkage was loose, the front wheels did not respond immediately, and he turned the steering wheel more. The van started to skid to the right so he turned the wheel right, but too hard. The van swayed right, swayed left, started to lean, and flipped. I remember the loud bang each time we hit, and wondered if there would be an enormous final crash when a tractor-trailer plowed into us or we burst into flames. There wasn’t. The van came to rest on its side in the breakdown lane, its nose pointing at the southbound traffic. Inside was a jumble of people, backpacks, sleeping bags, and suitcases. Someone opened the rear door. We helped each other outside. The driver and front passenger exited through the opening left by the shattered windshield. The van was destroyed. The van’s battery–it lived behind the driver’s seat–had torn loose and strewn acid around the interior–something we discovered later when holes appeared in our jeans and jackets. We were shaken and bruised, but the worst injury was to the van’s owner, a small cut over his right eye from flying glass that required one small bandage. Eight or nine people, two seats (the driver and front passenger had buckled their belts shortly before the crash because of the strong winds buffeting the van), everyone else sitting or lying around an empty cargo space, and no serious injuries.

It could have been worse, but it wasn’t. There’s no reason. There may be explanations for escaping unscathed based on how everyone was positioned inside, and why the doors did not open while we rolled, and the light early morning traffic, but those are all random distinctions. There’s no meaning as to why one accident ended in tragedy and another ended as a colorful tale from my youth. This juxtaposition haunts me. Not every accident like this tears out the hearts of the victims’ families, friends, and community. It is unspeakably sad that this one did.

Heartsick

I am stunned by this morning’s news that rising SMG senior Daniela Lekhno and two other Boston University students were killed in an automobile accident while studying in New Zealand. The accident injured five more BU students. From the first class in Introduction to Law in spring 2011 I came to know Daniela’s acute intelligence, common sense, and strong moral compass. She was a leader in class discussion, an outstanding student, and a lovely young woman. Her loss is a terrible blow to the School of Management and Boston University communities, but of course our loss pales next to her family’s. It is a very sad day for the family, friends, and colleagues of all those involved in the accident.

Bright Future

Our final faculty meeting of the academic year had a congratulatory mood. SMG’s ratings are up, the quality of our (and Boston University’s) students continues to rise, we’re hiring terrific new faculty, financial donations are increasing, and curriculum changes are under way. Ken Freeman’s infectious energy has resulted in a flurry of ongoing projects and initiatives, the needs and interests of teaching faculty (like me) are on the agenda for the first time in my 13 years here, and there are many reasons  to be excited. Now the question is whether cohorts of notoriously disaffected SMG and BU alumnae will be willing to sip the Kool-Aid. It’s a tough sell for many–but if they can suspend their animus the benefits should be apparent.

Fix It

Tough recent press for Boston University. Today’s Globe includes these articles:

One positive story–which the Globe fails to discuss clearly–is that the National Institutes of Health issued its risk assessment report on BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, which stands completed but largely unoccupied near the Medical Campus in the South End. The report concludes that “the risks of infections or deaths resulting from accidents or malevolent acts at the NEIDL are generally very low to only remotely possible.” There’s a public hearing on the NIH findings on April 19. I hope this means the NEIDL will finally receive all the permits it needs for its full range of laboratories.

Not In Sync

For a month I’ve been unable to log into BU Faculty Link or other Kerberos-protected sites with Chrome, my default browser. I deleted all passwords saved in Chrome and disabled its auto login features but the BU network still keeps me out.  I worked around it by using Firefox to access these sites, then today BUWorks, the portal for payroll, HR, and other employee functions also failed to operate with Firefox 7 and IE 9.  A bit of digging revealed that BUWorks officially does not operate with either–a pain if you keep browser software up-to-date.

Great BU News

BU Today reported this week that Boston University “received an unprecedented $89.5 million from donors in the fiscal year ending June 30, making it the second record-breaking year in a row.”  The article also reports that “the number of alumni donors jumped 12%,” a record amount was donated to the General Fund, and “a record number of donors in the Class of 2011 gave to their Class Gift campaign.”  This is fantastic news.  BU’s historic lack of alumni giving and engagement have contributed to the University having a lower-ranked reputation than it merits. When Bob Brown spoke to the SMG faculty shortly after becoming president I asked him he planned to increase BU’s alumni giving.  He said that investing in the University’s people, plant, and programs would lead to the increased giving and engagement, that they are effects of improvements in all of those areas.  Looks like he was right.  Every current and former student should applaud this news.

If I’m Not Essential, Am I a Luxury?

Per an emergency alert on its website the overnight snowfall has today delayed Boston University’s opening to 11 am, save for employees in essential services.  “Essential services include, but are not limited to,* University Police, Facilities Management and Planning, University Dining Services, Mail Services, Student Health Services and the University Switchboard.”

Maybe I can persuade Mail Services to cover my post-11 am classes.

*Lawyers are everywhere