Video: Provost Lisa Lynch's speech at Brandeis University's 9th Presidential Inauguration

Comments by Lisa M. Lynch, Provost in honor of the Brandeis Presidential Inauguration of Ron Liebowitz:

President Liebowitz, it is my honor to bring you greetings and support from the Brandeis community.  We have been waiting a long time for this day!  As you have just seen with the presentation of medallions from the different representatives of our community, there are many constituents who are part of the Brandeis family.  For many of us, Brandeis is much more than just a school we go or went to or a place we work at.  Each of us has our own issues, values and goals but we are all united today in welcoming you and your family to the Brandeis community.

    Soon you will be presented with the presidential chain of office.  This is a heavy object meant in part to remind the wearer of all the responsibilities that come with the office – in case you didn’t know this already!  And today that chain literally got heavier with the addition of these new medallions.  But I am here to assure you that all of us in your new Brandeis family are committed to lightening that load of office and supporting you as you lead our university to our next stage of excellence.

    As our prior speakers have highlighted, you are not a newcomer to the role of President and thus are very familiar with the challenges facing any leader of a university in the 21st century.  As you have already discovered, at Brandeis we are fortunate to have a deep base of extraordinary accomplishments in our educational programs, scholarship, and artistic expression. But we face hurdles that other institutions do not given our structure as a small research university committed to an intense liberal arts and sciences educational experience. As a relatively young and under-endowed university we live with the daily stress of being audacious in our goals but always feeling constrained by our financial means. The danger here is that we become too focused on obtaining superb financial metrics at the expense of the academic excellence that makes Brandeis “Brandeis”. At the same time we must be realistic with respect to how far we can advance our vision for the university in the light of existing resources. It is a matter of balance, but working with you over the recent months, I know that you understand that ultimately Brandeis will thrive by the way in which we nurture and invest in the excellence of our academic enterprise.

    A second hurdle we face is being located in one of the brain capitals of the world. This is both a blessing and a curse for Brandeis. Our location provides opportunities for our scholars and artists to interact with a much wider community of internationally renowned colleagues while still enjoying the intimacy of a smaller campus. We can provide a much broader educational experience for our students than would be possible on our own campus and with our financial means. But in spite of our distinguished faculty and superb educational programs we often find ourselves in the shadow of our world class neighbors. Too often we talk about Brandeis as being a well kept secret. Well, that must and will now change. I know that under your leadership that we will communicate more effectively all the great things that we do and thus further extend our reputation and standing.  

    As other schools grapple with what it means to be “liberal arts” Brandeis has been innovative in creating an intense and multifaceted learning experience. The neuroscience major who has done research in a lab with an internationally renowned team of scholars, who can also play the lead in the musical Sunday in the Park with George is classic Brandeis. As an institution committed to the liberal arts, Brandeis has excelled at bringing theory to practice.  As a complex research university we have succeeded where others have struggled to integrate our professional schools, the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and the International Business School, into the undergraduate curriculum.  The commitment of our internationally renowned scholars, artists and practitioners to engage in the teaching of both undergraduate and graduate students means that our students have a highly personal education with opportunities to engage in real-world discovery and creation.  How we do this even better in the years to come will be an important part of your legacy as our President.

    Brandeis was founded 68 years ago in the face of exclusion and barriers to Jewish students and scholars in higher education. Since its inception it has been committed to being a university open to all based on merit alone.  As our university diversity statement states, we are a university that “seeks to build an academic community whose members have diverse cultures, backgrounds and life experiences.”  Our founders from the American Jewish community understood that a university cannot claim to be academically excellent if it does not advance diversity and promote inclusion.  But as events of the past year made clear, the experiences of some members of our community with racism on Brandeis’ campus and society at large have resulted in a feeling of exclusion, vulnerability, and isolation.  As a result we have re-committed ourselves to our founding values and principles to advance and support a more diverse, inclusive, and academically excellent community at Brandeis.  As you and I have discussed, this is not something that you as our new president can do alone.  To succeed on this front all of us in the Brandeis community will need to be involved.  I am optimistic that we have the capacity to this.

    Life as a president has never been easy (of this I know!).  Clark Kerr, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, once said that the key to his success was having the stomach of a goat and the hide of an alligator.i  That might have been enough in the late 1960s but I want to add two more characteristics that I know you have that will serve you well as President of Brandeis.  These are the ability to be a good listener and a good sense of humor.

    Campuses across the country are struggling today with issues of free expression and free speech.  To what degree will we protect speech even when confronted with speech that makes us uncomfortable?  Our namesake Justice Brandeis was a champion for the dignity of all individuals as well as a protector of active citizenship so that all could learn and freely debate ideas.  As a university named after a justice who argued that the remedy to evil is, “more speech, not enforced silence,”ii we have a special responsibility to lead by example.  As I know you have already discovered, we like to argue and debate in rather robust ways at Brandeis. In his essay on Brandeis presidents,iii our distinguished university professor and historian David Hackett Fischer has described the Brandeis faculty as a “free and cantankerous people.”  Pauli Murray, who from 1968-1973 taught law, and introduced courses on African-American studies and women’s studies for the first time at Brandeis, said that being a professor at Brandeis was "the most exciting, tormenting, satisfying, embattled, frustrated, and at times triumphant period of my secular career."iv 

    But learning and freely debating ideas requires something more than just a loud voice.  It requires the ability to listen and listen well.  By listening well we allow our minds to be open and absorb the points that someone we may disagree with is making.  It may not ever change our mind but understanding our differences is more likely to improve our dialogue.  Listening well also means that we all need to listen for the silence – for the voices that are not heard.  Perhaps some in our community speak softly or, more ominously, do not speak at all because of fear or exclusion.  In our pursuit of free expression we must work to create a university where open dialogue, debate and discussion is something all feel able to freely participate in.

While Clark Kerr said that as Chancellor he needed a hide of an alligator to succeed, I think a sense of good humor ultimately is likely to get you even further.  And you have a great sense of humor!  There has been a great deal of research on the positive benefits of a good sense of humor.v  It can relieve stress, boost engagement and well-being, and spur not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity. All things a university needs! This does not mean that we should not be serious – rather it means that we should not take ourselves too seriously.  Maintaining a sense of humor is not so easy.  But researchers have found that humor is most effectivevi when it is used in an honest and authentic way. It has been fun working with you over the past months and experiencing how you have effectively used your great sense of humor to put us all at ease and promote collaboration among your new team.

Ron, you have made a point of reaching out to listen to our community as you hone your vision for Brandeis’s future.  You have learned that we are an argumentative community but I know that you have understood that we are also deeply committed to working with you to advance this audacious and ambitious university.  Now just keep on smiling!

 ii Whitney v. California (No. 3) 1927
iii David Hackett Fischer, “Three Brandeis Presidents:  Open leadership in an American University,” in “The Individual in History: Essays in Honor of Jehuda Reinharz” (eds. ChaeRan Y. Freeze, Sylvia Fuks Fried, and Eugene R. Sheppard, 2015) University Press New England.
iv Antler, Joyce (2002). "Pauli Murray: The Brandeis Years". Journal of Women's History. 14 (2): 78–82.
v Beard, Alison (2014), “Leading with Humor”, Harvard Business Review, May
v Beard, Alison (2014), “Leading with Humor”, Harvard Business Review, May

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