Ben Birnbaum offered farewell remarks at a September 21 reception in Gasson Hall. (Photo by Peter Julian)
On September 21, at a reception in Gasson 100, Ben Birnbaum formally said goodbye to friends and colleagues after a 40-year career at Boston College that began when he joined what was then the Office of Public Relations. The University changed dramatically over the next four decades, and Birnbaum helped to chronicle and promote that change as a writer, as editor of Boston College Magazine, and in senior leadership positions, notably as director of publications and print marketing and of marketing communication, and as special assistant to the president. Birnbaum also participated in the intellectual campus life of Boston College, giving lectures, moderating panel discussions, and participating in ongoing seminars.
On the eve of his farewell, Birnbaum spoke about his life and times at Boston College with Boston College Chronicle editor Sean Smith.
Let’s go back to 1978. Here you are, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn with a Bachelor of Talmudic Law degree, well-traveled, now married and settled down—and looking for a writing job. What brought you to Boston College?
When I applied for the job as staff writer, I thought BC was a public institution. In New York City, there was City College of New York, Brooklyn College, Queens College, and so on, all of them part of the City University of New York system; I just assumed that Boston College must belong to the City of Boston. But when I was told, in an off-handed way, that BC was Jesuit—the person who told me never said “Catholic”—it didn’t really register; I didn’t know a Jesuit from a jelly bean then.
I quickly learned, of course, that BC was Catholic as well as Jesuit, and that gave me pause: Would I fit in here? But BC began to embrace me, for reasons only it knows, and trusted me to do important work. I felt that, despite my being neither Catholic nor Jesuit nor Bostonian nor football devotee, the University really wanted me to be here.
How did you decide to go into writing?
It was decided for me, actually. When you’re at an Orthodox seminary, you study just a few things: The Bible, the Talmud, doctrine, and religious law. You don’t study something like, say, literature or politics. I became a young man knowing how to think hard and how to write. Good writing is good thinking. It was a question of what I wanted to write about, and where I would do it.
The academic environment just seemed a natural one for me. I get nervous when I don’t work in walking distance of a three-million-volume library and the scholars who use it. I love research that has no practical application, that’s done just for the joy of knowing—the kind of research I encountered at my seminary. I see it as manifesting a sacramental approach to the world.
The same is true of teaching, which always seemed to me a sacred profession. It’s not about stuffing knowledge into someone’s ear, but leading people to flourish and to develop an understanding of themselves and the world. I like to be within reach of this kind of work.
You said you felt embraced and trusted by BC. What else struck you about the place?
There were many things I liked. I liked the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, the uneasy mixture of knowledge, science, and religion that I had experienced in my rabbinical college and in my personal religious life. Catholics had the same problems: How does Genesis fit with Darwin? How does philosophy fit with revelation? I enjoy that tension. It’s my natural habitat.
I also liked BC’s elasticity when I arrived. It was as if the Big Bang had just happened, and things were hot and flexible. There was a vast amount of freedom to be inventive.
And there was the community itself. “Community” is a much-used word in higher ed, but I found BC’s community to be real.
Landing at BC, I also felt somewhat like an American in Paris. When we travel, whether it’s to Paris, or Prague, or Beijing, we feel how cultures do things differently. We’re always learning. It’s exciting. So my early years here were much like living abroad; there was a certain thrill of discovery.
The arc of your career at BC coincided with a revolution in academic communications and marketing: more attention to design and graphics, professional-quality writing and editing, outreach to media, and so on through the advent of the digital age. How did you experience this?
Yes, there was a major shift. Higher education itself was in the throes of change, and not only in terms of communications and marketing, and this was particularly true for BC, which was beginning to feel that it had possibilities worth talking about—and that gave me the chance to talk about those possibilities. At the time I arrived, BC had a monthly newspaper, Colleague, that published news and features—and things like births, engagements, personal milestones—concerning faculty and staff. Boston College Magazine had started the year before. I became deeply involved in both those publications, and later Biweekly, which was the successor to Colleague, only more focused on news, research, and such.
There were many projects over the years that manifested BC, and it was exciting to be engaged with them. I’m pleased about starting Linden Lane Press and being part of the advisory committee for the Church in the 21st Century Center for a decade. And running @BC and Front Row and the Baldwin awards for years. They are now defunct, but they were right for their time. And being on the president’s cabinet for more than 25 years has been remarkably rewarding.
The central and lovely challenge for me has been to know BC to the core. Writing about a university from a place of ignorance is a dangerous thing, so understanding BC has been a central part of my work.
Among your projects was The Heights: An Illustrated History of Boston College, 1863-2013, which you authored with Seth Meehan [now associate director of the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies]. What do you think are some of the more underappreciated or overlooked chapters of the University’s history?
Here are two. When William Keleher, S.J., was president from 1945-51, he made the decision that BC would take GI Bill money. Many of his fellow Jesuits were against putting former GIs in with 17-year-old kids. They thought this would damage BC culture. But Fr. Keleher prevailed. And because he brought the GIs in, he had to build dormitories and teaching facilities and hire faculty. The place was transformed. If he hadn’t pushed for change, BC would have become something else entirely, certainly not as significant or as interesting an institution as it is today.
Going back earlier, I think of Thomas Gasson, S.J. [president from 1907-14], bringing BC out to Chestnut Hill from the South End. If Fr. Gasson hadn’t done this, BC would have disappeared. The South End campus was too small to sustain a college. It later turned out to be too small even to sustain BC High.
What, for you, have been the simple, everyday pleasures of BC—activities that you’ve found personally nourishing?
One was participating in faculty seminars that would have me. Had I known what the professoriate was about when I was a young man, I’d be a senior faculty member today. But I knew no college faculty growing up, and so I couldn’t imagine being one. And I’ve always liked eating lunch at the Rat. There’s space, and I can eat my sandwich, be invisible, and listen to students. I hear their stories, their language, and I love it. It’s affirming to hear them—their energy, their silliness, their perception, to feel their affection for each other. And they struggle with what we struggled with at their age: What am I going to be when I grow up? How do I keep my parents from driving me crazy? Who will I love? Even as BC has changed, in many ways the students have stayed the same.
What will you miss about BC?
I will miss the comradeship most. There are people here I love who I won’t see regularly or perhaps at all once I leave. But I’ve thought a lot about the transitions we make: leaving home and our parents; getting married and choosing a joined-life with a beloved over a free life; having children, and then being in a house without children. These are hard, and I know because I’ve been through them. But change is natural. Seeing friends and colleagues every day is not sufficient reason to stick to the work pattern of the last 40 years. There’s plenty of work outside that pattern that I want to do, and friends out there as well, and if all else fails I’ll just need to make better use of my dogs.