A Minute with Roger H. Brown: Part Two

In the second half of his interview with Alumni Affairs, President Brown talks about his future plans and shares advice for Berklee’s next president.

May 19, 2021

Read Part One of President Brown's interview with Alumni Affairs.

As Berklee President Roger H. Brown prepares to step down from his role at the end of June, he took a minute to speak with Fritz Kuhnlenz, senior director of Alumni Affairs, to reflect on his tenure at the school. 

Q: What would you say is your greatest accomplishment in your time at Berklee?

Brown: I think it has been leading a cultural shift to recognize its strength, power, and permanence. As a newcomer who revered Berklee from the outside, I was able to say, “Wow, what this place has accomplished is amazing!” We should operate out of the sense of opportunity, potential, and strength. We have an amazing reputation as a pioneer of jazz and contemporary music education when no one else was doing that.

One manifestation of that shift is that we went from a more open admission process to a much more selective approach where every applicant has to audition and interview. We’re not solely looking for the virtuosic performer—because students are also going to become music educators, music therapists, business people, composers, songwriters, and more—but we are aiming to admit a class where every student has a strong skill set and is going to be an important part of the community. That shift to selective admissions and more of a need-based financial aid strategy is in some ways the biggest change I see. We now award 700 percent more financial aid than when I arrived, and graduation rates have gone up dramatically. 

Q: What is the biggest change at Berklee you have seen since arriving on campus in 2004?

Brown: A good friend who had been the president of Northeastern once said, “Roger you'll do a hundred things that are important, but when you build a new building, it sends a signal that the place is evolving and growing and changing.” Many of the things we've done are less visible and may not get the same attention, but the building of 160 Massachusetts Avenue, the renovation of 150 [Massachusetts Avenue], the addition of 7 Haviland, Cafe 939, the new Boston Conservatory Theater, and the Richard Ortner building, those things have sent powerful signals. When alumni come back, it’s like, “Oh my God, what happened to this place!” Especially comparing the new caf to the old one. Those changes have been significant, as well as the fact that we operate in a Santiago Calatrava–designed opera house in Valencia, Spain, and a Norman Foster–designed facility in Abu Dhabi. It’s also worth noting the 160 building was the first new building Berklee ever built. Everything else was what I called the hermit crab strategy: as you get a little bigger, you rent a bigger building and convert it to fit your needs. When you get a chance to build something new, it's very powerful and that can have a dramatic impact.

Q: Are you staying in Boston? What's next for you and your wife, Linda?

Brown: Because I sound like a Southerner, people assume that I moved to Boston for Berklee. But I was already living in Boston, raising a family, and started and ran a business here long before Berklee. So I will stay here unless my wife or I get an opportunity so amazing that we feel compelled to take it. Linda is the chair of the Boston Foundation, a vital part of the Boston landscape, so she is fully devoted to that cause for the next four years. I don't know what I'll do next, but I'm not retiring. I will do something new and expect it to be a fun new adventure. My career has been a series of new endeavors that force me to start over and have a beginner's mindset, work on things that I don’t fully understand, and put myself at risk, so that's what I'm imagining will happen next.

Q: What is your advice for Berklee's next president?

Brown: I'm happy to give Erica as much advice as she would like, but I have also said to her, “You're not getting advice from me unless you want to hear from me.” That was a gift that my predecessor, Lee Berk, gave me. Lee moved to New Mexico and said, “I'm here if you need me.” That said, I did consult with Lee many times—at my instigation. My main advice would be that Berklee is very good at what it does. Berklee has a long history of being iconoclastic and doing things its own way, so being open to, and tolerant of, some idiosyncrasies and uniqueness that you might not see at more traditional institutions is key. I think that's a strength. One thing I looked at when I came into Berklee was, “Wow, if we can achieve all this without significant fundraising, what happens if we raise money on top of everything?” It is all additive, so we know we can increase scholarship support, we can start some amazing institutes, we can bring in gifted new faculty, we can do a lot of things we couldn’t do before.

Q: Throughout your time as president, you have mentioned the changing environment for higher education. Can you explain some of the ongoing work there and how it matters to the ongoing health of Berklee?

Brown: Not only is higher education changing, but the world is also changing. I’ll give you an example: It is a little-known fact that only about a third of Americans have a college degree. Our system was designed 50 years ago when there were many well-paying blue-collar jobs. If you didn't go to college, you could find one of these jobs and be fine. As the world has become more technical and technology-mediated, people without college degrees have found their income plateauing or declining in real terms, whereas the people with those stronger technological skills earn more money. 

We now think of college as almost a necessity—lifetime earnings will be $1 million more on average for those who have a college degree. At the same time, the cost is going up because higher ed is very labor intensive, the expectation of services like counseling continue to increase, and the public sector has funded less and less of public higher education. Public higher education has become unaffordable to low-income families. Private colleges like Berklee get no public funding to speak of, other than Pell Grants, so our ability to make ourselves affordable is limited by philanthropy—and again, we've come a long way in that regard. We should be making college education affordable and accessible to everyone. Pell Grants should be indexed to inflation so they are $12,000, not $6,000. We need a recommitment to public higher education, especially community colleges, which I believe should be free or close to it. We also need student loan reform so that we can help people who have too much debt and then create a system in which you can earn a degree without taking on so much debt.

I do think we are looking at a revolution in higher education and one of the biggest solutions is online education. When you bring someone to a physical campus in an expensive city like Boston, New York, or Los Angeles, and house them, feed them, give access to state-of-the-art equipment, small classes, and one-on-one private lessons—that is an expensive proposition. Online education takes a lot of the expense out of the equation, because you can live anywhere and continue to work. You can effectively go part-time and you are not paying for all the physical facilities. So, while I'm a firm believer that the physical campus experience is always going to be the gold standard, given that not everybody can afford it, or uproot themselves to move to Boston, I do think online learning and online degree–granting is a big part of our future.

Q: Any musician or artist you are still waiting to meet?

Brown: I'm not the kind of person who likes to take my picture with famous people and put it on the wall. Meeting celebrities is not something that's been a priority for me, other than when it serves the institution by elevating Berklee’s reputation. But I have to say I have had the blessing of meeting so many great musicians on our campus, and it was an honor to have Herbie Hancock in my kitchen for about three hours the morning after our 60th anniversary concert. I have had the chance to meet and know Steve Gadd, Wayne Shorter, Carole King, Missy Elliott, and many more. How great is that?