Roger H. Brown, credited with broadening the global reach of Berklee College of Music while increasing campus diversity in his 15 years as president, has announced his plans to step down. He will leave his post in 2021, perhaps sooner if the college can quickly find a replacement.
Brown, previously a business entrepreneur, started at the college in 2004. Now 63, he says he’s ready for whatever comes next, despite describing his departure as "bittersweet” during an interview in his office on Tuesday.
“There’s part of me that wants to stay here until the day I cease to exist,” admitted Brown, Berklee’s third president since its founding in 1945. “But if you’re in the music field, you’d rather leave an audience when they still want to hear another song.”
Brown said he felt the time was right after the success of Berklee’s second capital campaign, which raised more than $160 million, surpassing its goal by $40 million.
During Brown’s time as president, Berklee’s endowment swelled to more than $365 million, nearly triple what it was when he took office.
Brown’s exit will mark the end of a momentous era for the music college, distinguished by dramatic growth across continents, technological innovation, and a public reckoning with sexual harassment and abuse on campus.
Under Brown’s leadership, Berklee expanded through Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood and beyond, opening a campus in Valencia, Spain, establishing an award-winning online-extension school, and merging with the neighboring Boston Conservatory to form what he called “a colossus of performing arts education.”
Brown oversaw construction of a 16-story tower at 160 Massachusetts Avenue, something he called “a new gravitational center for our campus.” Completed in 2014, the building houses 400 students, 10 recording studios, and a cafeteria that doubles as performance space.
Brown said revamping Berklee’s audition and interview process is one of his proudest achievements. Each year, the college visits 54 cities worldwide to scout prospective students, inviting them to showcase their musical chops in supportive settings. This approach, Brown said, brings Berklee its best and brightest.
Grammy-winning jazz-bassist Esperanza Spalding was among those students. “She told me once she was studying at Portland State University, and her professor said, ‘You should audition for Berklee when they come to town,’ ” Brown recalled. “And she said, ‘Why would they want me?’ Lo and behold, she’s one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met. If we had not gone to her, she would not have come to us.”
Making education more accessible — and affordable — has been a hallmark of Brown’s presidency. In his time at Berklee, scholarship support awarded to entering students increased by more than 500 percent, with additional funding allocated for upper-level students with academic achievements and unmet financial needs.
Brown came to academia after 18 years at Bright Horizons, a leading child-care provider he founded with his wife. His resume also includes administering United Nations humanitarian operations in Southeast Asia and Africa. Not a musician by trade, Brown’s an avocational drummer and enjoyed taking lessons from Berklee professors throughout his tenure.
An important moment of Brown’s presidency came in November 2017, when he addressed Berklee’s culture of widespread sexual harassment during a campus-wide forum. In 13 years, 11 staff members had been terminated for sexual misconduct, Brown told those in attendance. The meeting was held amid student protests ignited by a Globe story for which students shared accounts dating back to 2008 of being assaulted, groped, or pressured into sex with their teachers.
In the months that followed, Brown met with hundreds of students and faculty members, who painted an alarming picture of Berklee as a place where power dynamics between professors and students went unexamined and, in too many instances, turned toxic. In response, Berklee administrators organized training sessions, disseminated educational resources, established a working group, and pushed to diversify leadership.
‘There’s part of me that wants to stay here until the day I cease to exist. But if you’re in the music field, you’d rather leave an audience when they still want to hear another song.’
“While we’re not a perfect place, and we can never give back to a survivor what was taken from them, I tried to meet with every survivor who would meet with me,” Brown said.
He was pained by what he learned during those meetings, but said the campus has come a long way since. “We’re certainly at a point where there is no faculty or staff member who thinks it’s their prerogative to exploit or take advantage of a student,” he said. “It may happen every now and then, but it’s not because they don’t know our policies are against it and there are severe consequences for it.”
With a year and a half remaining in his tenure, Brown still has work to do. Another residence hall, increased scholarships, and fortified international partnerships are all on the agenda. Berklee and Boston Conservatory are still ironing out kinks in their 2016 merger; Brown hopes to improve the cross-registration process and rethink elements of their shared curriculum.
“If you're running a marathon, once you get about 2 miles from the finish line, you get a burst of energy, because you know you’re going to make it,” he explained. “If you’re 10 miles away, it’s kind of the opposite. I can see the finish line a year and a half from now, and I don’t want to slow down. I want to speed up.”
A search committee has been formed to name Brown’s replacement. If a successor is found quickly, Brown could leave earlier than his set date of May 31, 2021. “It’s time to hand off the baton and let someone else run the next leg of the race,” he said.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.