The New Academic Year
Sept. 8, 2017
Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students,
I hope the new academic year has gotten off to a good start and the coming year brings great satisfaction, achievement, and growth.
I was delighted to be at our new-student convocation and new-student book forum last week. The enthusiasm our entering students exhibited was palpable. I know these students, along with our exceptional new cohort of graduate students, will add much to our academic community. I am confident they will find their faculty and classes as inspiring as did the thousands of Brandeisians who preceded them. I wish to thank the entire Brandeis community for offering our newest members a hearty and warm welcome as they begin their journey here.
On a personal note, as I begin my second year as president, I have a few observations about our university, recognizing the learning curve is very steep and there is still much to learn. I offer these views with my “outsider’s” eyes and perspective, which I hope will be viewed as just that — a fresh view from someone who recently arrived but has had enough time to study the terrain and form opinions before becoming firmly socialized into the university’s ways and culture. Please forgive the length of this communication; it simply reflects the importance, complexity, and scope of the issues that, together, we face going forward.
First, my respect for the faculty and the quality of the academic program exceeds the already-high level I had earlier discovered on the basis of the “due diligence” I performed during the presidential search. This is central to my optimism about our university. Through the weekly small-group lunches Jessica and I have held, we have come to know a faculty who is truly committed to teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and who more than holds its own alongside peers at other Research-1 institutions in significant research and creative work. That I was less aware of this excellence than I should have been is, I now know, a function of what I would call our “excessive institutional humility” more than anything else. It’s not that all I care about is blowing our own horn, but so many of our accomplishments are shared only internally, if at all, and so many of our programs and outstanding scholars are hidden gems. Too much of what our faculty and students are doing flies beneath the radar screen. We need to become more comfortable celebrating our achievements and successes beyond the campus.
Our students’ purpose in their academic pursuits and their desire to help others at the local, national, and international levels are inspiring, especially in light of the United States’ current political environment. We need to harness their spirit, talent, and perspective to help mend a divided country and a troubled world. I anticipate many Brandeisians will lead the way, as will future generations, equipped with their formidable Brandeis liberal arts education.
During this first year, I have likened Brandeis to a successful startup — an institution with an inspiring beginning and a "market" for its mission, an entrepreneurial and charismatic founding leader, a necessary openness for experimentation and risk-taking, and an institutional outlook with a very short time horizon. The results speak for themselves: near-immediate recognition as an academic powerhouse, especially for our size; a faculty honored with numerous national and international awards for their scholarly and creative achievements; an alumni body who boasts great acclaim across the arts, the sciences, the nonprofit sector, and the business world; and the university’s status as a point of great pride for the American Jewish community. Yet Brandeis faces some familiar challenges that one often finds in a youthful/startup institution: a shortage of venture capital and follow-up funding (resources); the absence of consistent policies, practices, and protocols; an ephemeral identity; challenging leadership transitions; and an institutional culture and vision that is more reactive than focused and long-term.
My hope is that we will tackle some of these recognizable startup growing pains and more as we chart a long-term course for the university during the upcoming year. Our movement toward such a plan will include campus-wide discussions rooted in the work of two task forces, summaries of 30 self-reflection documents, and the substantive but incomplete work done by many members of the community during the 2011-13 strategic planning process.
Here are some of the issues we will engage as a community. I invite you to participate and add your opinions to the discussions.
1. New general education requirements: A Task Force on General Education, led by Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren, has just circulated a general education curriculum for consideration this year. The committee has worked hard for more than a year and just released its report this week. There will be several opportunities to hear and offer comment about the proposed new curriculum before a faculty vote. This is the first major rethinking of the university’s general education curriculum in more than 20 years, and it is crucial that we consider in as broad a way as possible how a liberal arts education can best prepare our students for a dynamic world so very different from just a decade ago. We must be aware of the increasing role that science and technology will play in our students’ lives and the world at large. We need to recognize the importance of the humanities in a liberal arts education, and in providing a deep and crucial understanding of how science and technology affect individuals and society.
The dean of arts and sciences will soon provide information on dates and locations for meetings to discuss the general education curriculum proposal.
2. Free expression on campus: The Task Force on Free Expression worked last academic year to propose a set of principles that will guide how we engage one another as we present, debate, and share ideas and knowledge as an academic community. Needless to say, this topic has become a contentious issue on many college and university campuses. Yet, in keeping with Brandeis’ history and deep commitment to an open and free exchange of ideas, my hope is that we will consider as a community the principles put forth by the task force, and how those principles align with our goals as an institution of higher education. As my memo to the campus in November noted, the principles will be shared with a number of groups on campus and discussed in open meetings this fall before they are shared with the Board of Trustees and adopted to guide university policy. You can read the principles as submitted by the task force at http://www.brandeis.edu/free-expression/principles/index.html and provide comments at http://www.brandeis.edu/free-expression/principles/submit-feedback.html.
Three open meetings have been scheduled: Wednesday, September 27 (4:30-5:45 p.m.), in the Sherman Function Hall; Monday, October 2 (noon-1:15 p.m.), in the Levin Ballroom; and Monday, October 30 (in the late afternoon/early evening, exact time TBD), in the Intercultural Center. I hope many of you can participate in these discussions. As I said to our entering students during convocation: The challenge before us is to create a community that is not only physically safe for our students, faculty, and staff, but is fully inclusive of those groups that have long been excluded from the free exchange of ideas on campus and in American society. At the same time, we must remain true to our founding principle of openness and open-mindedness. Our namesake, Justice Louis Brandeis, a fierce advocate for the underdog and of free speech, would have it no other way.
3. Discussion of self-reflection documents: Earlier this summer, approximately 30 faculty and administrative colleagues completed short (15-page) documents covering a broad range of our academic and related programs. The goal of writing these documents was to have those closest to their programs step back, evaluate, and consider how each one fit into the larger mission of the university. In particular, people were asked to address a number of issues related to their work, including the prevailing vision for their program(s); an explanation of what, if anything, has hindered the attainment of that vision; consideration of possible future collaborations to enhance their programs with others at the university and in Greater Boston (e.g., with educational, business, cultural, and governmental institutions); and a prioritization of all the things their programs now do and seek to accomplish. These approximately 30 documents, now being summarized and synthesized by senior administrators, will form the basis of campus-wide discussions this fall and winter. Eventually, the materials from the self-reflection documents, the 2011-2013 strategic planning process, and the input and feedback from the upcoming open meetings will lead to a planning document that can guide the university’s development over the next 5-10 years. The plan that emerges will include a clear set of priorities and a financial model, based on a set of assumptions that will allow us to project revenues and expenditures, and guide what we do and when we can do it. There will be several open meetings to discuss a summary of the self-reflection documents. One has been scheduled for Tuesday, November 28, in the Levin Ballroom (noon-1:30 p.m.). Times and venues for additional meetings will be shared with the community later this semester. Before the first open meeting, we will circulate a summary document to allow more time during our meetings for discussion and less for presentation.
In addition to these sets of campus discussions, three search committees will recommend two new deans — a dean of arts and sciences, and a dean of Brandeis International Business School (IBS) — and a university librarian. And, as the Board of Trustees continues its work on strengthening board governance, the faculty will undertake a review of its own governance structures, and the staff will introduce a new body — the Brandeis University Staff Advisory Committee — to engage the senior administration on issues of importance to our staff.
Those of you who were on hand for the open meetings last academic year when we shared the results of our in-depth look at the financial underpinnings of the university may recall that, compared to our peers, we are a highly complex institution. We do far more and offer more types of academic programs than is typical of an institution with our resource base and number of faculty and staff. On the one hand, this a great strength — we go well beyond what one would expect through extra work and a deep commitment to our students. However, it is also a weakness: Our willingness to do so much places, over time, unfair burdens on our faculty and staff, and forces us to invest too narrowly in our overall operations. As we support such a broad range of programs, we under-invest in a number of key areas: faculty positions; our physical plant; faculty and staff salaries; our faculty sabbatical program; faculty and staff development programs; several key areas of student life, including graduate student life; alumni relations and fundraising; our technology infrastructure; and financial aid. Adding to the challenge, in order to fund all we do, we tap our endowment for operating funds well beyond what is accepted as prudent long-term management. Such endowment spending sacrifices the future for the present and is not a sustainable mode of operations.
I am confident that, over time, support from our alumni and friends will grow and provide greater resources with which to ensure both the level of academic excellence the university has achieved over its first seven decades and the proper level of investment across the institution. Yet, in the short term, we must work to align our expenses with revenues. For many years, our major sources of revenue — endowment earnings, net tuition revenue, gifts, and overhead income generated from grants — failed to keep pace with what we required to sustain our programs, people, and infrastructure, let alone initiate new programs. Although institutions can manage such a situation for a few years, a prolonged imbalance like ours makes it that much more difficult to attract and retain the most talented faculty, staff, and students.
During a meeting last spring with the chairs of academic divisions, departments, and programs, and through numerous conversations during my office hours and lunches with faculty, I learned that not all faculty wish to become familiar with university finances or to become involved in solving the university’s financial challenges. And I respect that. Faculty have much on their plates, and their workload has increased markedly since the Great Recession. At the same time, as we gear up for a year of discussion that will ultimately result in a plan for a more focused and sustainable Brandeis, I feel strongly that faculty, staff, and students alike need to understand our financial capacity if we are to create a viable plan that is understood and can earn the general support of the community. To that end, Stew Uretsky, our executive vice president for finance and administration, and Sam Solomon, our chief financial officer, will hold open presentations on Brandeis’ finances throughout the year, beginning in November. These information sessions will provide useful background on our major revenue sources and their trends; explain university expenditures; share best practices among peer institutions for financial planning and endowment spending; identify financial pressure points for Brandeis; and, hopefully, create a common understanding of the opportunities and constraints we face. These open sessions are part of a broader effort by Stew’s finance and administration team to share and engage transparently and substantively with the entire community. While the sessions will focus on our finances, Stew and his team will also share their vision and key goals for this academic year as part of their long-term focus on financial sustainability, staff engagement, and campus modernization. Stew’s office will announce the times and locations for these meetings in the coming weeks.
This will be a year when we move from analysis to action, all in the context of securing a sustainable future for our university — an institution that plays a unique and indispensable role in higher education. In this troubled world, Brandeis is needed now more than ever. For those of us entrusted with its mission nearly 70 years after its founding, our challenge and responsibility is to rekindle the flame and shine a light for the future through academic excellence, critical thinking, and a commitment to making the world a better place through consequential scholarship and active citizenship. In order to do this, we will have to reach agreement and make some tough decisions, together. In the spirit of collegiality, and with a commitment to transparency and accountability, I am confident that we can do this, together. I look forward to a very vigorous, spirited, and meaningful year ahead.