Wednesday, May 21, 2008

BU Today

This is where I work, and where I will die in harness.

BU is trying real hard to market itself. The Communications and Marketing department is embarking on a large project to re-brand the school and spiff up the University's web site. Even the Admissions department has created a marketing arm in a group called Enrollment Management. I haven't quite figured out where Admissions begins and Enrollment Management ends.

All this is kind of sad in light of the departure of some excellent young faculty. They're not leaving for the money. One of them (one of a matched set leaving over the next couple of years) told me that BU doesn't seem to know where it's going, what it wants to be, where it wants to go. We've lost some great names and intellects, and now the state budget threatens a hiring freeze.

All the glitz and "freshness" of the University's web site isn't going to make up for the lack of an intellectual climate that could really improve the situation. Harvard's web site is fairly bland: no chat rooms, no blogs, no video offerings on the home page. Yet the best students in the world clamor to pay a super-high tuition to get the best education to be found. Faculty (including some from BU) go there on a first offer.

Harpur College, the core of Binghamton University and still the name of its college of Arts and Sciences, was founded after WWII to educate veterans returning from the war on the G.I. bill. For a long time it had a reputation as a good liberal-arts school. It is still what I call a "working-class" college: I've talked to many parents at orientation sessions who say theirs is the first in their family to attend college.

Binghamton doesn't have the best climate in the world. The university has become a mainstay in the economy of the metropolitan area of this moderate-size city in upstate New York, which, over the last 20 years or so, has lost some major industries and employers, not to mention population. It's not a really enticing place to live. But if the university could concentrate on intellectual excellence, it could draw a lot more interest than with all the marketing nonsense they're indulging now.

Faculty tell me that years ago the college offered substantial financial support for conferences and travel. Now almost all of that has to come from grants. The sciences need expensive, up-to-date equipment these days, yet the university's electron microscopes, for example, are very old and cranky. One of them is controlled by a Windows 3.1 computer that must run on a 80486 chip, so the technician who runs the lab must scrounge among antique cast-off computers to replenish the supply. Another one was replaced not long ago—by a 20-year-old model handed down from the Smithsonian Institution.

Tuition here is low, particularly for New York residents. So, considering the quality of the education available here, it's a bargain. It could be a lot better.