University, President Part Company

Times Staff Writer

One day before he was to take over as president of Boston University, former NASA chief Daniel S. Goldin backed out of the job Friday, ending weeks of boardroom acrimony that had pitted him against the private institution's powerful chancellor.

In a joint statement Friday, Goldin and the university said they had "mutually decided to part company."

The 63-year-old engineer stepped down under pressure from the same trustees who selected him unanimously in the summer. The 41-member board one week ago signaled doubts about Goldin with a no-confidence vote. His departure followed a clash of personalities and management styles with John Silber, the university's 77-year-old chancellor and longtime president.

The ensuing uproar prompted 3,000 faculty, students and alumni to sign a petition supporting Goldin. The dispute also spurred several trustees to resign, including Jeffrey Katzenberg, a cofounder of DreamWorks SKG, and Kenneth Feld, owner of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Trustees met at a secret campus location Friday to iron out the details of Goldin's departure and to vote on a severance package.

Also Friday, the trustees voted to accept Silber's resignation as chancellor and trustee "with deep regret and appreciation."

Silber was in Texas and unavailable for comment, said his spokesman, Kevin Carleton.

Dexter Dodge, vice chairman of the board, called Goldin's action "a mutual decision."

Though Goldin's appointment was announced in July with much fanfare, and though he stood beside Silber on campus in September to greet incoming students, "On reflection, I think the board felt that Mr. Goldin might not be a good fit," Dodge said Friday.

Goldin and the university said in their statement that they had "resolved their differences ... terminated their contract ... and mutually decided to part company."

Goldin was unavailable for comment Friday. Robert Barnett, his Washington lawyer, said he would not divulge what led his client to back away from the job.

Barnett also would not disclose details of a severance package that Boston radio station WBZ said totaled $1.8 million. Goldin reportedly was to have received an annual salary of $750,000, with additional yearly compensation of about $150,000.

"Mr. Goldin and I will not comment on any of the terms of his contract," Barnett said, adding, "I think it is in the best interest for all concerned for everybody to go about their business."

Goldin's withdrawal Friday capped a tense week of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers stemming from an apparent showdown between Silber -- a Kant scholar who came to Boston University from Texas in 1971 -- and Goldin, an administrator with no doctoral degree and no previous academic experience.

Based on recommendations from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others, Goldin had won swift approval from

Silber and other university officials.

"He is the independent, visionary leader we need," board Chairman Christopher A. Barreca said in July in announcing Goldin's appointment.

But Goldin soon antagonized Silber by demanding that he remove himself from the decision-making process of a school whose enrollment has tripled since Silber took over. Research grants at Boston University rose from $13 million when Silber came to the campus to $311 million last year.

Silber, who ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat in 1990, is known for his outspokenness and autocratic management style at the nation's fourth-largest private university, with its 30,000 students.

He hand-selected his successor, university Provost Jon Westling, then took over as interim president when Westling was eased out in 2002.

But Goldin insisted that Silber hand over the reins. He demanded that Silber step down as chancellor and give up his seat on the university's executive committee.

"There can be only one president," he declared last month in a widely circulated memo.

Bruce Murray, who served on Goldin's advisory committee at NASA, called Goldin "a congenital reformer" with "passionate" beliefs.

"People like that, they tend to be pretty rough-edged," said Murray, a professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- and longtime Goldin ally.

At NASA, Goldin worked with three presidents and instituted a management policy known as "faster-better-cheaper," said Howard E. McCurdy, a professor of public administration at American University in Washington who wrote a book about the Goldin era at NASA. "He was very outspoken and very aggressive in pushing his vision.

"He is a change agent. He shakes things up. He is very self-confident. And he can be very impatient."

Many of the same qualities apply to Silber, said Boston public relations executive Terry Clarke, a former Boston University trustee. In fact, Clarke said, someone within the school's administration had described Goldin as "John Silber on steroids."

Silber, Clarke said, is "a brilliant guy, and he is willing to address anything, and for that he deserves a lot of credit." Clarke called Silber "a genuine leader" and added: "Because he is a leader, people look for warts. John's is that he doesn't suffer fools."

Boston University mathematics professor David Rohrlich said he signed a petition demanding that the trustees honor Goldin's contract because "it is simply disgraceful for the university to renege on its commitment to Mr. Goldin at this point."

Management professor James Post of Boston University said the trustees' reversal on Goldin makes the school look like "the gang that couldn't shoot straight."

In the rarefied realm of higher education, Post said, "this is a governance cesspool. In the world of corporate and nonprofit governance today, this is probably as bad as it gets."

Post said the trustees' backtracking in their attempt to replace Silber made Boston University "a laughingstock," and added, "Clearly, this diminishes the value of a BU degree."

But Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education in Washington, dismissed the situation as "a case of buyer's regret" on the part of university officials.

Far from eroding Boston University's prestige, "this will probably increase their applicant pool by 10%," Steinbach predicted.

Aram Chobanian, a cardiologist who serves as dean of Boston University's medical school, on Friday was named interim president of the university, which hugs the Charles River.

Board Chairman Barreca, who had championed the appointment of Goldin, praised Chobanian on Friday as "a leader, a teacher and a bridge-builder."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World