Our text from Deuteronomy says that beginnings are important because they are determined by what we choose. The Israelites had just about completed their forty years of wandering and were poised to cross the River Jordan to begin life in the Promised Land. Moses told them that they had a life and death decision. They could choose faithfulness to God and live, or forget God and die. Alas, like us in most of our decisions, the Israelites did a little of both and never again lived in the laser-light of unambiguous life or death. How does this bear upon our inauguration of President Brown?. In the first place, he already has crossed the river to what someone told him is the Promised Land. That was a decisive choice and we will not ask him about whether he has any regrets. In the second place, he already has forced some decisive choices on us at the University. He has demanded that the university study itself and devise a strategic plan, when we were all prepared to study Bob Brown and divine his plans. So he has set before us our own version of the choice between life and death, in this, a new beginning for us all. Thank you.
Our text from Ecclesiastes, however, says that “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning.” Dramatic opening moves are fine, filled with large choices. But life is lived in the living, not the starting, and we do not know how to assess it until the end. Ecclesiastes is an extremely sobering book. “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.” Surely good times are coming for higher education, but also bad times. Most likely, the good and bad times will be mixed, so that too much joy for abundance will seem vulgar to those sections of the University in disrepair. Moreover, the mixtures will change so that the first will be last and the last first, and then around again. The success of the presidency of Robert Brown will be measured in large part by his management of prosperity and adversity as dual gifts of God. His watch will have both. Presidents Silber, Westling, and Chobanian have delivered up to him a University of great energy and ambition, with a vigorous mixture of prosperity and adversity.
Our third text, from the Epistle of James, says that wisdom is what counts, and we in the University count on that from our leader. It wouldn’t hurt if the rest of us also exercise some wisdom. James says, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Gentleness is the key point, and it applies to leadership in the University. With gentle leadership, all the people and their work will flourish. With ungentle leadership, people feel bruised, even if made to do good things. Gentleness does not mean weakness, or waiting for others to take the lead, or failure to exercise judgment, or tolerance of foolishness, or lack of a temper when anger is the honest response. Gentleness in leading means nurturing those who are led so that they develop strength, courage, confidence, and direction born of wisdom, to do their jobs ever better.
James’ qualification of gentleness is that it needs to be born of wisdom. Of course it is possible to be gentle, nurturing everyone, without much integrating direction, with the result that everyone gets better and better at pursuing their agenda at the expense of others. We do not need chaos of that sort. Wisdom is understanding how things work, with the art of putting first things first. No university can be hospitable to every worthy intellectual ambition and choices will need to be made constantly for the definition of the large, tolerant, but still singular identity of Boston University. The shape of the University does not come only from decisions at the top, however wise and gentle. It comes from thousands of decision-points throughout the institution and its social environment. Wise leadership guides the complex process of decision-making so that the decisions are made in the right places in the right order, with appropriate modification of directions as we learn from the results of actions taken. Moreover, we look to the president to model sagacity for the rest of us. If it seems as if I am saying that the president needs to be wise like a philosopher, that surely could not be because my own training is in philosophy!
No, it is in the Bible, in passages such as those we’ve read. God has given us a world with abundance and prosperity, plus intelligence, creativity, and skilled excellence, mixed with adversity and poverty, plus stupid unwillingness to learn, dogged repetition of the past, and strong convictions that nothing is better than anything else. We enjoy the bounties of life, leave a legacy, and suffer and die. The fragile habitat for civilized human life floats among the vast impersonal forces of the cosmos. These are the conditions God has given us in which we are to live, to create, and in the end to render an account of how we handle these conditions on our watch. Each one of us is in this human situation. The president of a university is a kind of epitome of human accountability in general. Each one of us lives amidst an ever-changing confusion of prosperity and adversity, making the daily choices that add up to the lives for which we must give an account. President Brown does with all the University what each of us does with the environments of our lives. By this service of Thanksgiving, we at Boston University give thanks for the leadership of Robert Brown and his wife, Beverly, whose promise of strong wisdom already shows fruit. At the same time, I dare say that President Brown gives thanks to have Boston University as the environment for his watch, with our peculiar tumble of prosperity and adversity. Because his work is so significant for all of us together, such thanksgiving on both sides should take the form of a very long prayer.
President Brown had been Provost at MIT, across the Charles River from Boston University. ↩