Mayor Thomas M. Menino will trade City Hall for the halls of academia at Boston University, where administrators hope to meld the mayor’s pragmatism as an “urban mechanic” with the scholarly muscle of a major university.
Menino has been hired to help launch a new Institute on Cities, where mayors and municipal managers from across the globe can share ideas as they tackle urban issues. The center might offer boot camps for city officials, act as a clearing house where municipalities could compare data, and serve as a think tank for cutting-edge urban problem solving.
“We want to be the place people go when it comes to urban issues,” Menino said Tuesday in an interview at BU. “We’re starting now, but in a few years we want to be the leading university when it comes to urban America.”
Menino will be co-director of the initiative with Graham Wilson, chairman of BU’s political science department. Menino has agreed to a five-year contract as a professor of practice, although he does not plan to teach courses.
“This is not, ‘Come be part of our faculty and teach a few lectures,’ ” said BU President Robert A. Brown. “We really think we can do something really significant and different.”
Menino is the key ingredient, Brown said, because his 20 years of practical experience running a leading American metropolis will help push urban studies beyond academic theory.
“Without him, you don’t have the credibility of knowing what you’re talking about, it’s all hypothetical,” Brown said. “And you don’t have the force he’s going to give us to push us to real-world outcomes. If it’s totally academic, you will drift back into the paper writing mode pretty quickly.”
Menino and BU are expected to make a formal announcement Wednesday at a press conference. Menino will leave office Jan. 6 and is expected to start Feb. 1 at BU.
The initiative will be within the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. It will have a budget of just under $1 million, funded by BU.
Brown and Menino both emphasized it was a real job with serious expectations—and not a soft landing. Brown said it was against university policy to reveal how much Menino will be paid but said the mayor’s salary would be “very much in line with what we pay professors.”
Brown said Menino’s pay would be within about 10 percent of the average salary for a full professor, which is $157,000. That could put Menino’s pay roughly on par with what he makes as mayor: $175,000 a year.
Menino said he asked for “whatever everyone else gets.”
“I could’ve accepted a job on the outside that would have paid me a lot more money, but it’s not about money, for me, it’s never been about money for me,” Menino said. “It’s about making a difference.”
The impression was different in 1984, when former mayor Kevin H. White joined the BU faculty, with a car and driver, and rumors of a high salary. There were at least two investigations into allegations of impropriety involving White and his academic post. He was never charged with wrongdoing.
White’s predecessor, John F. Collins, taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after he stepped down as mayor in 1968.
Longtime BU president John Silber was known for hiring big names—Nobel laureates such as Elie Wiesel and Saul Bellow—who didn’t always have a day-to-day presence on campus. Menino and Brown said their approach is different.
“Totally different, a new president, a new atmosphere, new focus,” Menino said. “Different times.”
“When we bring in senior people to the university, we bring them in with expectations,” Brown said. “We don’t hire a lot of people at the senior level. Frankly, it’s too easy to get trapped in this collection of senior people who don’t add value, and it can be disheartening to the junior people.”
Menino said in January he began “weaning” himself from direct dealings with BU and other potential job suitors. He announced at the end of March he would not seek a sixth term and enlisted the help of a longtime friend, David G. Fubini, a management consultant at McKinsey & Co., to vet job offers. Fubini said he helped Menino free of charge so the mayor could focus on running the city.
Menino said he has recused himself from decisions involving BU since April, when he began considering a job there.
“I just didn’t want that conflict issue to be brought up,” Menino said Tuesday. “In this business of mine, reputation and integrity are very important. . . . It’s very important to the university, too.”
In January, the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the university’s master plan, a blueprint for adding 625,000 square feet to the campus in the next decade. The university has two major pieces of business pending before the city now, zoning approval for a life sciences building and final approval for a South End laboratory to study deadly infectious diseases.
Brown has a keen interest in urban issues and has served as an adviser to Singapore for nearly two decades. When the mayor announced he wouldn’t run again, Brown said, “a light bulb went off” that Menino—paired with a more traditional scholar—could provide the right kind of leadership to do something unique.
Brown and Menino expect professors to get involved from different departments, including political science, environmental science, and even engineering—and not just BU faculty. Brown expects graduate students to do research through the initiative, and wants to connect it to the university’s many study abroad programs.
Menino’s appointment seemed to get a good reception on campus.
“Great to welcome him aboard,” said physics professor William Skocpol, who helped revise BU’s faculty guidelines to establish the position of professor of practice. The concept “was created for exactly this kind of thing, for people who have special expertise, not necessarily professorial academic credentials, but they come in and they do good things for the institution and for the world.”
Some students greeted the news—and the fact that Menino turned down offers from other universities, including Harvard—as evidence of what their school has to offer.
“It’s another notch in our belt that we’ve had the opportunity to secure such a high-profile individual,” said student body president Dexter L. McCoy. “This is an example of how great we really can be.”
Students will be able to find Menino in a second-floor office in a townhouse on Bay State Road, a quiet street of historic brownstones and brick apartment buildings. The staff will include an executive director and an assistant.
Unlike Mayor White, Menino will not be furnished with a driver by the university. That will be a significant change for the 70-year-old Menino, who as mayor has been driven by a police security detail for two decades.
“That’s the toughest part of this transition. Do cars still have clutches?” Menino joked. “I’ll try to drive. That’s going to be a change.”Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.