A Guide to Upcoming Open Meetings on Brandeis' Future

President Ron Liebowitz sent this memo to faculty, staff, and students on Nov. 27, 2017. Community members are invited to submit comments and ideas about the future of Brandeis.

This document serves as an introduction to our open meetings on the future direction of Brandeis. It has three main goals:

  1. To provide the context for charting the university’s course over the next three to five years.
  2. To present a set of high-level strategic priorities, which will draw the major contours of the university’s direction over the coming years. On Tuesday, November 28, we will begin a discussion that will continue for several months as I hold open meetings and receive feedback to what I present at these meetings. This will include, but not be limited to, a high-level summary of ideas and commentaries from the 33 self-reflection documents.
  3. To provide a timeline for the dynamic, iterative process we will use over the next nine months to establish a course for the university, which will include setting priorities and a financial plan.

I. The Context for Charting the University's Direction

Those of you who were at Brandeis last year will remember the open meetings at which we summarized the findings of two detailed studies — one by Mark Neustadt on institutional identity, the other by Kermit Daniel on institutional financials. Those findings included these details:

In short, I see us at an important inflection point. We are an excellent institution that, to use perhaps a dated phrase, “punches well above its weight” academically but operates in unsustainable ways. We are spending the earnings from our endowment faster than we should. Our faculty and staff are being asked, for prolonged periods, to do more work than they should at an institution with our aspirations and quality. And our mounting deferred maintenance threatens our competitiveness in terms of recruiting and retaining the best faculty, and matriculating the strongest students.

So, how best to address the challenges outlined here; continue the pursuit of excellence for the university; and do this in a way that does not compromise the integrity of the university, is sustainable, and takes advantages of the creativity and the best ideas on campus?

As a newcomer to the university, I have found that listening and learning over the past 17 months has been crucial to the forging of a strategy and direction for Brandeis. Fortunately, in part forced by the recession of 2008-10, this community has already done a lot of thinking about what its mission should be and how best to ensure the university’s future success.

In addition to reading the multiple summaries from the 2011-13 strategic planning process, annual reports submitted by every academic department and program to their respective deans, and a recent multiyear review of general education requirements by a special task force, I have listened and learned from many constituencies in multiple venues. I have gained a broad sense of our history, challenges, strengths, opportunities, and, most important, great potential. My conversations have included one-on-one meetings during my office hours; weekly small-group lunches, now numbering more than 60, with faculty, staff, and students; and travel across the country to meet with alumni, parents, and friends of the university. And I have studied the 33 self-reflection papers submitted by faculty and administrators across the university.

II. High-Level Strategic Priorities

The following areas — our strategic priorities — are intentionally broad, most likely come as little surprise to longtime members of the Brandeis community, and require articulation and strong content if they are to represent a meaningful direction for the university.

I have included in each major area some ideas based on Brandeis’ history, previous planning efforts, the work of the Task Force on General Education, the 33 self-reflection documents, and my personal conversations and observations during my first 17 months as president. They represent only part of the content to be associated with each strategic area. We will be forming small task forces to delve deeply into each strategic area and further define goals.

III. Process and Draft Timeline

Over the past year, it has become clear to me that we need to move beyond what feels like a freewheeling mode of operations and management (akin to “startup mode”), to one that is predictable with known structures typical of those found in older, more established institutions. The image I like to use to explain this is that of a powerful locomotive engine, which needs well-laid tracks before it can become operational. We have many areas of excellence at the university, but we lack the structures, systems, policies, and known protocols to take advantage of all we do well and meet our potential.

Over the coming months, we will need to lay the groundwork for the implementation of the plan that emerges by late summer. Some of the issues to address, a good number of which have been mentioned in the self-reflection documents, include:

The process to lay the appropriate groundwork so that “locomotive” Brandeis will have the necessary tracks on which to pursue its goals and articulate the details of its vision will be, by necessity, dynamic and iterative. Here is what I envision over the next nine months:

November 2017-March 2018

March-April 2018

April Board Meeting through August 2018

Concluding Thoughts

My first year and a half on campus has given me great confidence in Brandeis’ future. The exceptional quality, dedication, and loyalty of the faculty is the university’s strongest asset. The faculty is also the administration and board’s most important partner if the institution is to achieve its aspirations and live up to its founders’ high ideals.

Building what I believe can be our university’s most unique promise to our outstanding (current and future) undergraduate students — an education as exceptional as that offered by any residential liberal-arts college, along with collaborative research and creative work opportunities unavailable at those institutions — will require a new focus and a perspective rarely seen in the academy. Such a focus and perspective will involve a necessary softening of established and increasingly impervious silos in favor of a singular institutional perspective — moving beyond the interests of one’s own program and pursuing what is best for the university. It will mean accepting new ways of governing, new approaches to decision-making, and new methods of resource allocation. Ensuring excellence in our graduate programs will require a similar mindset if we are to address gaps in critical support of and services for our graduate students.

As a relative newcomer to Brandeis, I bring a fresh set of eyes to the university — at least for a while. These fresh eyes tell me there is something very special here, but it needs significant attention and care to thrive, or even simply to survive in the long term (though mere survival cannot be our goal).

I believe the university can no longer put off critical investments in a number of areas. To make these investments, we must align our aspirations with both our priorities and our available resources. I look forward to beginning this process on Tuesday, November 28.