President Liebowitz’s Remarks

President Ron Liebowitz
President Ron Liebowitz

Trustees, past presidents, Brandeis National Committee members, Brandeis Fellows, President’s Councilors, alumni, friends, faculty, students and staff: Thank you all for being here today.

It’s a great honor to be named the ninth president of Brandeis. At the same time, I should note that I feel just a bit of trepidation in occupying that position of No. 9.

Though I am a native New Yorker, or perhaps because of it, the significance of being No. 9 in Greater Boston is hardly lost on me. Standing, as the crow flies, a mere 8.3 miles from left field in Fenway Park, I well understand how that number — worn by the greatest Red Sox player ever, Ted Williams — represents a standard that, to put it mildly, is quite daunting.

Yet, as die-hard Sox fans know perhaps all too well, Williams’ teams never won a World Series. Ironically, perhaps, but not irrelevant to thinking about the future of Brandeis, the Red Sox team that finally ended the dreaded Curse of the Bambino and won the World Series did so without a Ted Williams. They did it with a remarkable focus; an alignment of roles and goals among ownership, management and players; and the kind of teamwork one does not typically associate with institutions of higher education. These characteristics, however, represent a set of many necessary conditions for success here in the coming decade. One of those is a better understanding of and appreciation for the university’s history and evolution — a history that is inspiring; truly unique among American universities; and is yet seemingly too easily forgotten, ignored or never learned.

Most of us here today know that Brandeis is a young institution — at 68 years old, it is in essence a “startup” within the world of higher education. Harvard, the oldest American university, is 380 years old; Yale is 315 years old; and the University of Michigan will be 200 next year. Even the University of Chicago, still considered a young research university, is 126 years old. Yet this university’s academic reputation and the awards won by its faculty belie its relative youth. Those awards include four MacArthur Award winners; three Pulitzer Prize winners; one Kavli Prize winner; two Gruber Prize winners; 21 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; 11 members of the National Academy of Sciences; three Institute of Medicine members; and three members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A remarkable set of honors for such a young university.

In addition, Brandeis earned a place in the Association of American Universities — the leading 62 research universities in the United States and Canada, based on faculty research productivity — earlier in its history than any other institution. It was able to achieve this standing among hundreds of universities because of its clear and unequivocal support for world-class research, and a commitment to recruit and support an excellent faculty. This achievement was all the more remarkable given Brandeis’ simultaneous commitment to undergraduate education and its relatively small size: It is the second-smallest institution within the AAU; only Cal Tech is smaller.

I will not rehash, here, the full, rich and fascinating history of Brandeis beyond those aspects I believe to be relevant to our thinking about the future of the university. It is because I believe so strongly in Brandeis’ distinctive place in the future of American higher education that I find it essential to engage issues of Brandeis’ past. I also believe that dynamic institutions that aspire to leadership and a future of consequence must understand their history in order to move forward.

Let’s start with why we’re even here. What motivated the founders of our university, against all odds? Unlike most of today’s established and highly selective colleges and universities, Brandeis was not founded in order to prepare young men for the clergy or to imbue citizens with practical knowledge. Rather, it was founded to provide access to higher education for excellent students who had faced discrimination in the form of anti-Semitism at the finest colleges and universities.

Though a number of Jews in North America had for decades wished for the creation of a university to counter the unabashed anti-Semitism throughout higher education, it was Albert Einstein, after only two years in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton following his emigration from Germany, who articulated and, more importantly, advocated for the need for such an institution of higher learning. It hadn’t taken all that long for the world’s most well-known scientist to grasp the long-term impact of the existing quota system at the nation’s leading colleges and universities that he saw firsthand at Prince­ton. According to Brandeis historian Stephen Whitfield, “By March 1935, Einstein was writing to Justice Louis D. Brandeis about the need to respond to bigotry by forming a Jewish-sponsored institution of higher learning. Einstein wrote: The ‘ever-increasing negative attitude’ that American gentiles were demonstrating would ‘push us out from the more desirable intellectual fields unless we succeed in obtaining a certain independence.’”

Eleven years later, Rabbi Israel Goldstein of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, in New York City, assembled Jewish leaders from New York and Boston to begin planning such a university, which, as we now know, became a reality two years later.

There was controversy from the beginning, which should come as little surprise to veteran Brandeis watchers. Should the new school focus solely on undergraduate education, or should it include graduate study? And how “Jewish” should the institution be, since it was founded by the American Jewish community but was open to all? The first question was answered relatively easily, influenced greatly by the reluctance of many American universities to hire talented Jewish academics who had fled Europe during and after World War II. In addition, founding President Abram Sachar was able to recruit a trove of young talent from other universities to Waltham by inviting them to play an active and vital role in the building of something very unique and special.

The ability to assemble so quickly an accomplished faculty, and offer artists and public intellectuals a home at the new university, paved the way for Brandeis to establish itself quickly as an intellectual hotbed that was neither a small college nor a large university. It became a small university that provided an excellent undergraduate education in the liberal arts and first-rate graduate programs taught by an exceptional faculty conducting cutting-edge research and creative work.

The question of “how Jewish?” was more complex. Einstein, even though he was an early advocate for a university for Jews, seemed conflicted over how “Jewishness” should be reflected within and by the institution. He insisted the university be unaffiliated with any religious denomination and offer no rabbinical studies, yet he withdrew his support before the university opened its doors because — at least partly — of what he sensed were “assimilationist tendencies.”

The lack of clarity surrounding the institution’s identity was not limited to Nobel Prize winners. On the one hand, much of the Jewish community viewed the founding with great pride and as the righting of a major wrong in an area of such importance: access to higher learning. On the other hand, many Jews were proud because admission to Brandeis was open to all excellent students regardless of their religion, race or background, and enthusiastically welcomed the inclusive impulse of the founders. Stephen Whitfield notes how the media, including The New York Times and Ebony magazine, the leading African-American publication at the time, praised the founding principle of openness. Ebony reported in 1952 that Brandeis “operates on a set of democratic principles which could easily serve as goals for every other university in the United States. There are no quotas limiting students of any religion and no racial barriers at Brandeis University.”

So which was it? A Jewish-sponsored university primarily intended for Jewish students to right past wrongs associated with anti-Semitism, or a Jewish-sponsored university open to all and a potential model for the many older and well-established colleges and universities?

The answer, of course, was both. Founding President Sachar proceeded from the start with a multidimensional understanding of Brandeis’ identity. He grasped the emotional impact of the recently concluded Second World War, the horrors of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel in the same year as the university’s founding. He pledged that Brandeis would be “vitally concerned with Jewish studies, that there would be a close relationship to the educational institutions of Israel and that there would be proper respect for the Jewish tradition.” At the same time, he said, “there was no expectation that the university would become a parochial school on a university level. The model was to be not the Yeshiva, Catholic University of America or Baylor, but rather Harvard, or Princeton, or Swarthmore.”

President Sachar also understood the importance of the university’s Jewish founding as it related to the emotional and financial support the institution desperately needed to survive without having an alumni body or endowment to provide that support. The founding president was a tireless and inspirational fundraiser who successfully courted Jewish individuals who had no connection to the university but were inspired by the reasons for its founding and became loyal friends. A good number of supporters were first-generation immigrants who lacked a formal education but, through the success of their own entrepreneurship and creativity, acquired the resources that enabled them to help finance the new university. Sachar also recognized the conspicuous absence of Judaic studies at American universities, and its academic and intellectual importance to Brandeis as well as its significance to the growing list of Jewish benefactors.

Abram Sachar led the startup institution masterfully through its founding decades, successfully holding together the multidimensional identity he laid out for Brandeis: a Jewish-sponsored institution, nonsectarian, passionate in its openness to all, explicitly focused on undergraduate studies while also unwavering in its commitment to graduate study and supporting world-class knowledge creation from its outstanding research faculty.

But the young university, still within two decades of its founding, was not yet prepared to confront the extraordinary demands for change facing higher education. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the oil crisis of 1973 and, not long after, the growing complexity of Jewish identity in North America combined to challenge Brandeis’ very existence.

In the midst of the domestic and global turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s, the challenge to retaining Brandeis’ identity intensified with the lifting of quotas on Jewish students attending the country’s leading colleges and universities. Many applicants who would have selected Brandeis in the past were now going off to Ivy League and other highly selective universities.

Complicating matters even further, American Jewish identity itself began to undergo dramatic change in the 1970s and ’80s. This period of conflicting trends in the Jewish world saw renewed commitment to religious practice among some; among others, the complete disconnect from established Jewish institutions. It also brought the emergence of new prayer groups focused on democratizing religious authority and religious learning; saw dramatic change in religious convictions about gender and sexuality; and, at the same time, witnessed the significant growth in fundamentalist forms of Jewish worship. This dynamic American Jewish landscape also encompassed the embrace of intermarriage and multiculturalism, and the splintering of Jewish opinion on the State of Israel.

No surprise, then, that Sachar’s once-confident answer to the “how Jewish” question came undone. Policy discussions at Brandeis related to dietary options, academic-year calendars, social life and the place of Jewish studies in the broader curriculum reflected a gnawing discomfort over the institution’s identity. This discomfort grew to become a major source of tension and anxiety that made it difficult for Brandeis trustees, presidents and faculty to agree upon common goals with any degree of specificity, set priorities, make critical decisions, or allocate resources with a clear and coherent strategy. Even marketing materials describing Brandeis to prospective undergraduates became a source of confusion about whether the university had any Jewish roots at all.

Meanwhile, Brandeis’ foundational commitment to upholding world-class research from its faculty and providing its undergraduates with an excellent liberal arts education also came under stress. All of higher education was now facing intense demands for greater resources, the result of the introduction of new fields of study and the increased demand for student-support services. The expanded curriculum required new and expensive instrumentation, new buildings, and, typically, additional staff. And adding to the stress, easy credit and low interest rates fueled an “amenities arms race” that was difficult to avoid if one wished to continue to attract excellent students. Universities rushed to provide nicer dorms, better recreation and athletics facilities, and improved dining options, all of which further increased the need for greater resources.

All of these pressures and demands surrounding finances and identity amid the changing demographics of Brandeis students required the institution to revisit its founding vision. The university needed to deliberate about how best to move forward: about how — if at all, or to what degree — to uphold the multidimensional qualities of its identity established early on. It also needed its leadership to make critical decisions that would align with the results of that crucial strategic discussion.

But Brandeis did not have the necessary systems in place — systems that require transparency, the sharing of information, and clarity about where the relevant responsibilities and authorities lie — to make such critical decisions. What emerged, then, was a culture of administrative fiefdoms, an invitation for micromanagement from the Board of Trustees and a governance system that favored individual deal-making over consistent policies as a way of getting things done. A pretty standard story for a startup, I would say.

And so where does this leave us today? Well, at 68 years old, it is time to declare the university’s startup phase over and done. The creative disorder that characterizes a startup — and certainly was instrumental in Brandeis’ vibrancy and success — needs to give way to something that brings stability and introduces sustainable operating principles to what is now a complex enterprise. This doesn’t mean the excitement that has been such a hallmark of Brandeis’ academic rise and achievements should subside. In fact, with an alignment of goals among trustees, administrators and faculty, and a clear understanding of where decision-making should lie, we should be able to develop an environment that actively promotes all of the core components of our founding identity: Jewish, openness, world-class research and the liberal arts. And I would challenge ourselves to do so more effectively and more broadly than we did in our startup phase.

The vision put forward by Abram Sachar in 1948 remains powerful and relevant, yet it needs to be contemporized to consider the major changes in higher education, and the evolution and diversity of Jewish identity over the past seven decades.

We should feel comfortable saying unequivocally and without apology that we are a nonsectarian, Jewish-founded university, welcoming to students, faculty and staff of all backgrounds. We should agree that 21st-century Brandeis is a richer and more effective educational environment for students when it includes — and successfully brings together in discussion, debate and learning — students with different life experiences, perspectives and worldviews. As it did for Jewish students in 1948, Brandeis should expand educational opportunities to gifted students from groups that have long faced prejudice in American society and ensure an environment in which all students feel respected and supported in their educational pursuits.

We should also agree that students from around the world who identify as Jewish in myriad ways should be able, indeed encouraged, to study, socialize and thrive at Brandeis, no matter their particular ties to Judaism. The 1948 commitment to Jewish studies, articulated by Abram Sachar, should be reaffirmed, and its 21st-century update should recognize the dynamism of Judaism in the United States and worldwide by strengthening our academic offerings and research capacity in this area. Our numerous — yet somewhat disconnected — programs related to Judaism, including Israel, need greater structure to enable the collaboration, innovation and breadth of scope, as well as breadth of access and impact, that is the hallmark of any enterprise that aspires to be a leader of its field.

We also should feel comfortable saying unequivocally and without apology that our commitment to openness and inclusivity requires us to re-evaluate ourselves with a fresh set of eyes and the confidence to be self-critical. The protests on campus last year revealed a deep sense of exclusion and alienation among some students, and we must take that sense of disconnectedness seriously. The protests signaled implicitly, if not explicitly, the need for a review of how we conceive of our roles as faculty and administrators — of how we teach, mentor and advise our students. This is obviously not only a Brandeis challenge: If higher education is committed to creating an inclusive learning environment, where students from different backgrounds thrive, then a good portion of the American professoriate will need to rethink how it does its job.

We have a great opportunity before us — an enormous opportunity — to get out in front of some of the big challenges facing higher education and lead, as we did in fighting anti-Semitism in 1948.

As we continue work on the first major review of the curriculum in 20 years, here are some questions we should ask and answer in order to address many of the challenges facing undergraduate education:

• What, today, is the goal of a Brandeis education?

• How do we ensure diversity of thought in the curriculum and classroom so that our graduates are prepared to engage and help to better an increasingly complex world?

• Which aspects of the liberal arts curriculum are timeless and should be required of all Brandeisians?

• Which areas of study do our current students deem most important to pursue, and are we prepared to teach them?

• How do we pass on to our students a lifelong love of learning, together with the confidence and resilience to succeed in their chosen professions?

• How do we ensure the best possible pedagogy in our classrooms and labs, given the diverse learning styles, cultures and life experiences of all our students?

• What knowledge and experiences that were considered irrelevant to a liberal arts education a generation ago should be offered to help graduates enter a labor market far more competitive than at any time since the university’s founding?

• And how and when will the different rates of adopting and using technology by students on the one hand and faculty on the other change our conceptions of a four-year residential college experience?

And beyond the undergraduate program, we should also engage the following:

• How do we prepare our PhD students to thrive as young professors facing classrooms with disparate learning styles, backgrounds and worldviews?

• How do we re-conceive of our graduate programs to account for the dramatic change in long-term job prospects within the American professoriate?

• How do we educate our PhDs more broadly, so that those who do not end up in academic careers are well-prepared to enter other professions?

• How do we create the conditions to attract the best faculty talent, so that we can preserve the world-class quality of research at Brandeis?

• How do we tie ourselves more closely to the remarkable research ecosystems in Greater Boston and Israel, especially in the areas of science, technology and medicine?

• How do we become even better neighbors and partners with our hometown of Waltham?

• And finally, and perhaps most importantly as we graduate from our startup phase, how will we make the difficult choices about which programs and activities we should and can support, and which ones we cannot?

To address these questions will take time and much discussion. These discussions must be open to disagreement and debate. Only in this way can the components of Brandeis’ founding identity — Jewish, openness, world-class research, and liberal arts — become more visible to each other, and thereby more capable of understanding the significance of each piece as part of the whole. This openness will be necessary for leadership and critical decision making to occur with knowledge and accountability. Openness will also require all of us to think institutionally, something that is difficult to do, especially when there is a mismatch between an institution’s great aspirations on the one hand and limited resources on the other.

We will need to exercise boldness and take some risks, which will require a depth of trust across the university. Such trust can only be developed through the sharing of information; a clear delineation and understanding of who should have authority to make which decisions; and a willingness to believe the best in each of our intentions, even when there is disagreement.

Brandeis is a young institution, boldly conceived, intent on carrying on the great traditions of learning at the highest levels of rigor and meaning, with a moral conviction for inclusion and justice. In a world challenged by intolerance and ignorance, and burdened by disregard and disdain for learnedness, reason and inquiry, this university has a special role to play, just as it did when it was founded 68 years ago. The circumstances have changed, the details of the task are different, but our purpose is grounded in the enduring convictions of our founders.

It is our charge, our opportunity now, to reignite the flame of our mission for a new generation. I ask each of you today to join me in the big task ahead of us and our university.

Thank you.

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