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ALEX BEAM

Silence speaks to BU's lack of accountability

Oops! Where did that $26 million go? Boston University School of Law dean Ronald Cass has an idea, but he's not talking.

Cass, who gulled himself into believing that he was a serious contender for the still-vacant BU presidency, has been best known as one of the highest-paid law school deans in the country. Boston magazine pegged his salary at more than $500,000 in 1997, although it has declined a tad since then.

As an antitrust expert, Cass has served as a high-profile apologist -- sorry, consultant -- for downtrodden Microsoft Corp., which as you may remember was unfairly targeted by overzealous federal trustbusters during the Clinton administration. "The government's assault on the Microsoft `monopoly' was built on a misinterpretation of antitrust principles," Cass assured the readers of Newsday in a 2000 op-ed article.

I am sure there are men and women delivering legal services to the poor at BUSL, but Dean Cass does not seem to be one of them.

Cass now finds himself in a sticky situation. For more than two years, he has been blowing smoke about the need for a new law school building and has been making extravagant claims about money raised toward this end. In 2003, the law school boasted to an American Bar Association reaccreditation committee that it had raised $33 million toward the $149 million total cost of a new 14-story building with twice as much space as the existing "law tower." The alumni and faculty were told $36 million. Assuming it would receive dollar-for-dollar matching funds from the university, the law school announced it would break ground this summer.

(The current BUSL building, designed by architectural genius Josep Lluis Sert, is deemed to be almost nonfunctional for a thriving law school; there are too few square feet per floor in the narrow tower. File under: Impracticable academic buildings built by geniuses. See also: Gehry, Frank -- Stata Center at MIT.)

Then a funny thing happened. Cass's chief fund-raiser, William Eustis, left BUSL in November to take a job at Providence College. Within a few months, huge pledges and commitments to the law school building melted away. Last month, Cass told a faculty meeting that there was no $36 million in hand to start the building. The actual number was more like $10 million.

What happened? Neither Cass nor Eustis acknowledged several messages from me. The two men were at one time very close; Cass called Eustis his "brother" in a personal e-mail that he inadvertently sent to 28 BU colleagues last fall, including provost Dennis Berkey. Berkey, who was also being considered for the BU presidency, must have been amused to read Cass's assurance to Eustis that "If I get the university presidency here (which I feel better about today -- a subject for another conversation), there will be a job for you here."

A BU spokesman says the vaporous $36 million figure "apparently comes from a good faith estimate that incorporated a number of potential sources of money, including documented pledges, `likely gifts,' and matching funds offered by the university to excite potential donors. The central administration takes a more prudent approach to booking gifts, including only cash on hand or solid pledges."

He adds that in the future, "there will probably be involvement by the development office of the university" in the law school's fund-raising, meaning: adult supervision required. I am told that Cass is conducting his own audit of the fund-raising debacle (of course!), with the help of alumnus Charles Parrott.

So was it fraud, or was it incompetence? Everyone I spoke with suspects the latter, but so what? I asked the university spokesman if anyone would be held accountable for the embarrassing shortfall; my question was greeted by silence. Accountability? This is a university that is paying a man $1.8 million not to show up to work as its president. No one is accountable.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist.

His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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