Evelyn E. Handler, 5th president of Brandeis, killed in automobile accident

First and only woman to lead the university served from 1983 to 1991

Evelyn E. Handler, 5th president of Brandeis

Evelyn E. Handler, 78, the first and only woman to serve as president of Brandeis University, died Friday, Dec. 23, after being struck by an automobile as she crossed a street in Bedford, N.H. Handler was the university’s fifth president and served from 1983 to 1991.

At the time Handler was named president, few women led major American universities. During her tenure, Brandeis was admitted to the Association of American Universities (AAU), a notable achievement for an institution only 37 years old at the time. 

A scientist whose own research focused on leukemia, she was a passionate supporter of education and research into the life sciences and helped to launch the Volen National Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis and the program in neuroscience.

"She made the case that by any measure, Brandeis deserved to be in the AAU despite its youth and relatively small size,” said Malcolm L. Sherman, chairman of the Brandeis Board of Trustees. “Because of her background in the sciences, she had an invaluable perspective in an area of great curricular strength at the university. That strength continues to be reflected at Brandeis today.”

President Fred Lawrence noted that Handler served as president for eight years, during which the university reached its 40th anniversary. “Brandeis is now nationally ranked in neuroscience and biochemistry and her leadership played a major role in that,” he said.

Handler sought to bring greater diversity to the student body, and during those years admission to the university became more competitive. Brandeis also became a founding member of the University Athletic Association sports conference, and the university built the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center. She is credited with laying the groundwork for what later became the Brandeis International Business School.

"As president, Evelyn Handler led Brandeis University’s growth from a high quality liberal arts college with some outstanding graduate programs to a nationally and internationally respected small research university with an exceptionally strong undergraduate college at its core," said Steven L. Burg, the Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Politics. Burg served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Associate Dean of the Faculty during Handler's presidency.

"She helped make the campus more welcoming to a larger and more diverse undergraduate student population, including establishment of the university’s Intercultural Center, and she upheld the university’s commitment to a need-blind admissions policy,” added Burg.  “When Evelyn Handler departed Brandeis, she left behind a better, stronger, more competitive and respected university."

Handler’s presidency was not without controversy. Pork and shellfish were introduced to the student cafeteria menu, prompting a backlash by some members of the Brandeis community who believed the university should adhere to certain Jewish dietary laws. Other members of the community were supportive of the change.

Irving R. Epstein, the Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry and senior adviser to the provost for research, called Handler “a woman of strong opinions and big ideas who worked to make Brandeis a real player among top American research universities.”

Handler, who was born in Budapest, Hungary, immigrated to the United States with her family in 1940. She received a B.A. from Hunter College in New York City and her M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University. She also received a J.D. from Franklin Pierce Law Center.

Before arriving at Brandeis in 1983, Handler was president of the University of New Hampshire, where she was also the first woman to hold that position. She previously served as dean of sciences and mathematics at Hunter College.

After leaving Brandeis in 1991, Handler was a research fellow and associate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a senior fellow at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. From 1994 to 1997, she served as executive director and CEO of the California Academy of Sciences.

According to the Nashua Telegraph, Handler, a resident of Bow, N.H., was struck by a car at about 5:20 p.m. while crossing an intersection in Bedford, N.H. to meet her husband, Eugene Handler, for dinner. She later was pronounced dead at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H. Police told the newspaper that the accident remains under investigation. “She was just a wonderful, wonderful person,” Eugene Handler told the Telegraph. “She was incredible in that she had strong feelings and carried them out…This is a complete shock.”

The Brandeis community learned of Handler’s tragic death in an email from Sherman and Lawrence. “On behalf of the entire Brandeis community, we extend our deepest sympathies to the Handler family,” the email said.

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