A Vision for Brandeis University
I have been spending time since I arrived at Brandeis listening and learning. Brandeis is a complex institution, and before I put forth ideas for the university’s future, I wanted to understand its many dimensions. Now, after my first two academic years on campus, I have developed enough of an understanding of the institution to provide a context and a path for the university.
After a remarkable founding in 1948, and decades of growth, evolution, and challenges, Brandeis needs a renewal of institutional focus, increased alumni engagement, and an affirmation of its student-centered mission. I would like to lay out the major themes of my leadership as we begin the process of re-engagement and renewal. They are based on the following goals:
Establishing the Brandeis value proposition: We must capitalize on the unique combination of small size, and major research achievements and potential to create a distinctive teaching and learning environment. This represents Brandeis’ “value proposition” for future students and faculty.
Making choices with strategy and discipline: We must allocate institutional resources strategically with specific purpose and discipline, in a way that will (1) enhance the student experience; (2) increase our research/scholarly capacity and impact beyond the campus; and (3) honor our founding values, including commitments to the American Jewish community.
Revitalizing and reimagining the campus: We must upgrade our physical plant to inspire the creativity, collaboration, and environment in which we can best pursue and ultimately achieve the university’s aspirations.
Before I provide a narrative on each of these goals, let me provide some context to all that will follow by relating some of Brandeis’ relatively brief but meaningful history. It is a history of recent-enough vintage that I am fortunate to have spoken to a number of those who were students when the institution was founded — members of the so-called pioneer classes.
The Historical Context
It would be impossible not to admire the incredible excitement, risk-taking, and audacity of the university’s early years. Brandeis would be a much poorer institution if it ever lost its connection to that history. It is principled in that it reflects an institution created not to educate the elite or the next generation of clergy but to provide access to an excellent education for Jewish students and others who had been denied access because of bigotry and anti-Semitism. This history is unique among American universities, and the values upon which the university was founded remain relevant and important, and should engender pride in alumni, and resonate with current and future generations.
Brandeis was founded in 1948, just three years following the end of World War II and five months after the creation of the state of Israel. Its rise was fueled by enormous energy and generosity on the part of Jewish donors, students, and scholars, many of whom were world-class scientists fleeing Europe and its Nazi scourge. Importantly, and sometimes forgotten, the institution’s openness extended beyond Jews. From its start, Brandeis welcomed qualified students from all backgrounds, regardless of their gender, religion, race, or ethnicity. It was founded with millennia-old values and a culture steeped in deep study, the close reading of the written word, intense argumentation, and an openness to self-criticism, rooted in ancient Jewish texts. Hence our motto: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.”
These founding values promote the core components of today’s Brandeis education: a reverence for learning; critical thinking; and tikkun olam, the use of one’s intellectual and material gifts to help repair the world. When one walks the campus and engages our students, one cannot help but feel a deep commitment to justice, something that our namesake, Louis Brandeis, believed in strongly and wrote about extensively a century ago. Many universities have more recently come to promote social justice as an important part of their institution’s culture, yet it was an important part of Brandeis from its beginning — a major reason for its founding — and remains front and center today. Our new general education requirements, passed this past year, speak to the expectation that all Brandeis graduates should understand justice and inclusion, and faculty from across the curriculum include materials that address and analyze these important concepts.
The university was intended as a gift from the Jewish community to American higher education. At the same time, it was never envisioned as a narrow or religiously based institution on the model of Yeshiva University, the Catholic University of America, or Baylor University. Rather, it was to be like Harvard, Princeton, or Swarthmore. It was, at its founding, a decidedly secular and nonsectarian institution, and aspired to pre-eminence across its liberal arts and sciences curriculum.
Against long odds, Brandeis succeeded. The university achieved external recognition for excellence faster than any university before it: Phi Beta Kappa approved a Brandeis chapter in 1961, just 13 years after the university’s founding, and the Association of American Universities (AAU) — the leading 62 research universities in North America — invited Brandeis into its prestigious ranks in 1985. Brandeis is the smallest university and second-smallest institution in the association.
Today, seven decades after its founding, Brandeis finds itself requiring renewal. The university faces many of the challenges higher education in general faces, but there are also some challenges that are specific to Brandeis, largely because of its relative youth and size. Most notably, there is a lack of financial resources relative to what is required to meet the university’s dual mission of providing an excellent undergraduate education and producing world-class research. This combination requires a faculty large enough to offer small classes and give significant attention to undergraduates, as well as the facilities and support staff necessary for doctoral students and faculty to engage in serious research and creative work.
From its start, because there was no endowment to support operations or an alumni body to help the university create the networks to support its mission, Brandeis focused on the near term. Planning was a year-to-year exercise rather than an activity rooted in a longer time horizon. There was hope that the endowment would eventually become large enough to provide fiscal security, and free up time and space to plan for mid- and long-term development.
Although the endowment just surpassed the $1 billion mark, something we should celebrate, we will need substantial additional resources to ensure that we maintain and achieve excellence in all that we do, especially given the breadth and depth of our operations and our aspirations. Our peer institutions have financial resources that are far greater, which allow for better compensation for faculty and staff; support for research, including costly equipment and facilities; financial aid to attract the best students; the updating of physical facilities, such as the library and residence halls; and more.
The near-term planning horizon that dates back to the university’s start has yet to give way to a longer-term, strategic mindset. Annual budgeting has been the dominant approach to planning, and so a lot of energy has been devoted to balancing the annual budget rather than envisioning how Brandeis might evolve and regain its founding energy, creativity, and pioneering spirit. Over time, the focus on the near term forced an inward-looking culture, which replaced the outward-looking mindset that was so central to the institution’s founding and early success. As a consequence, many of the university’s once formidable departments, and a number of the signature strengths of nonacademic life at the university, lost some of their vitality and confidence.
We need now to adopt a longer-term, strategic mindset. We, of course, must balance our annual budget, but I believe it is imperative that we also budget in order to fulfill our long-term strategic priorities. Specifically, we need first to envision how Brandeis might evolve in ways that retain our founding energy, creativity, and pioneering spirit, and then intentionally direct our resources to realize that vision.
I. Establishing the Foundation for Brandeis’ Renewal — the Brandeis Value Proposition
Let me start by referencing our namesake, Louis Brandeis. Justice Brandeis was a champion of the small. He wrote about the “curse of bigness,” by which he meant the tendency of industrial giants to rob people of individual autonomy and the experiences they need to govern themselves wisely and thoughtfully. Of course, Justice Brandeis was thinking about the world of commerce when he warned about the curse of bigness. Yet it is fitting to borrow some of his thinking for the institution that bears his name.
Following two years of learning about our institution, including reading more than 30 self-reflection documents written by faculty and administrators, and having met with more than 1,000 students, faculty, and staff in small-group lunches alone, and more than 1,000 alumni and friends while on the road, I believe strongly that the starting point for a guiding vision for Brandeis must center on the advantages of the university’s relatively small size. It is something that could very well be the most important differentiator for the university in the coming decades.
Of the 62 AAU member institutions, representing the leading research universities in North America, Brandeis is the second-smallest. The only one smaller is the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Brandeis’ small size has typically been described and accepted as a liability or a weakness, because high-level research is costly in terms of facilities and equipment, and it requires a critical mass of faculty and student researchers. The high cost of operations — equipment and personnel — is spread over fewer tuition-paying students at Brandeis than at other major research institutions. Yet this perceived weakness can also be a great asset.
In fact, one of my key observations to date has been that, due to the intimacy in the learning environment made possible by its smaller size, Brandeis is a place with permeable boundaries, where students can have a direct and meaningful relationship with even our most esteemed faculty. It is a place where scholars have the ability to collaborate with colleagues across disciplinary, departmental, and school boundaries. I call the first of these two characteristics “vertical connectivity” — students working closely with faculty, postdocs, and doctoral students — and the second, “horizontal connectivity” — faculty transcending their academic specializations and departmental boundaries to collaborate with colleagues from different disciplines. It is precisely because of the relatively small size of our university, and the intimacy of our physical and intellectual interactions across the community, that Brandeis has a competitive advantage in fostering and promoting a genuine culture of creative collaboration.
The best example of horizontal and vertical connectivity at Brandeis is found in the science division. For decades, departments within the sciences have shown enormous resourcefulness in maintaining and advancing their programs, developing new areas of inquiry, and recruiting colleagues who can thrive in an ecosystem based on collaboration and cooperation across disciplinary boundaries. The connectivity within the sciences is both vertical and horizontal: Undergraduates routinely participate with graduate students, postdocs, and professors in groundbreaking research, and faculty in the sciences collaborate with others across multiple disciplines. This collaboration includes curricular innovation, the coordination of proposals for research grants, and requests for faculty positions, so that the contribution to both scientific inquiry and the greater university is considered alongside any one department’s or discipline’s needs.
The sciences at Brandeis pursued and achieved horizontal and vertical connectivity early in the university’s history. With limited resources and a relatively small number of faculty, Brandeis scientists recognized that, in order to create the critical mass needed to conduct consequential research, they needed to band together, and conceive of their work and the science curriculum as interrelated, somewhat free from conventional divisions. Disciplinary expertise mattered, but working across scientific specializations became commonplace, including exploring how the respective disciplines related to one another. Such collaboration was behind the creation of the graduate biochemistry department in the 1950s and the recently awarded Nobel Prize to two Brandeis faculty members: Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey Hall have said they never would have conducted the collaborative research that led to the Nobel Prize had they been anywhere other than Brandeis.
The ease with which our scientists engage one another, conceive of their research, and consider both graduate and undergraduate curricula should be a paradigm for our entire faculty — from the arts, to the humanities, to the social sciences, to our current interdisciplinary programs. Not only would our students benefit from such an environment, but so would the faculty and the larger university curriculum. Current small departments, many reduced in size since the recession a decade ago, could create the kind of critical mass the scientists created in the 1950s and 1960s, and, in doing so, broaden and enrich their curricula and their own creative and scholarly pursuits.
And while the horizontal connectivity in the university’s early years was largely focused on the science departments, the opportunities today include the sciences and extend across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and professional schools. Important and exciting examples of trans-school, cross-departmental, and cross-arts/humanities topics for collaborative teaching and scholarly pursuits might include: The Humanistic Dimension of Technological Change, Power and Inequality, Society and the Public Humanities, Advancing Social Policy to Reduce Inequality, The Creative Process and Freedom of Expression, The Ethics and Business of Monetizing Scientific Discovery, Pursuing Environmental Sustainability and Reducing Global Poverty, The Business and Social Impact of Health-Care Reform, and more. We must encourage and support faculty to develop courses that are both timeless and important to our future.
Students benefit, too, from vertical connectivity, which makes possible a superior and distinctive learning environment. Science students in particular have the advantage of observing and learning science from mentors who are at varying levels of experience and expertise — the doctoral student, the postdoc, and the faculty member. This multilevel learning environment is both rare and invaluable in higher education. Undergraduate students observe and learn science with increasing complexity and sophistication; doctoral students learn how to mentor and teach undergraduates how to work in the lab, an effort that requires them to know both content and pedagogy; postdocs develop managerial skills while conducting major research; and faculty members take pride in building a collaborative environment that trains future scientists from beginning to advanced levels.
One can see the benefits of this vertical connectivity at the annual summer SciFest event. More than 100 undergraduate students, from rising sophomores to rising seniors, explain the research they conduct in faculty labs. The depth of knowledge they exhibit in presenting and explaining the research to scientists and nonscientists reflects the value of vertical connectivity. They have clearly benefited from having mentors at multiple levels of expertise from whom to learn. At the same time, while serving as a model for other parts of the curriculum, the sciences could also look more outward — moving beyond their intra-division collaboration to find meaningful partnerships with social scientists, humanists, artists, and colleagues from our professional schools.
Vertical connectivity occurs less frequently and may be more difficult to achieve across disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and arts. The language and methods within these fields are dynamic, diverse, and challenging, requiring much more mentoring of undergraduate students. We will need to call upon our Brandeis creativity and boldness, and be willing to break conventions and challenge current assumptions to encourage intense study at different levels of expertise, from undergraduate through postdoctoral researchers, in areas across the curriculum. If we do this right, we would succeed at offering a unique and invaluable undergraduate academic experience — one that combines the best of a small liberal arts college with the extraordinary research opportunities of a comprehensive major university — and establish one of the university’s defining characteristics.
In all this, Brandeis has the opportunity — perhaps, we might say, the obligation — to pioneer a new path for the academy: first, by connecting students at all levels with faculty; second, by connecting more faculty across disciplines with one another with greater intentionality; and third, by creating a genuine culture of collaboration. Brandeis can show how to combine scholarly inquiry and knowledge creation with the ability to act in the world — sparking innovation across the campus, and encouraging students and faculty alike to find ways to allow intellectual inquiry to contribute to a better world.
Achieving the Brandeis Value Proposition
Providing a learning environment that includes horizontal and vertical connectivity in the arts, humanities, and social sciences will require a mindset analogous to the way in which the science departments have operated for years. This includes sharing disciplinary and functional expertise across departments, research centers, and institutes; considering new faculty positions beyond one department; and rethinking and integrating curricula more broadly, including across our professional schools.
We will need to ask, for example, what are the intellectual tangents among our literature, film, arts, and theater programs? How do they intersect practically with psychology, sociology, politics, business, or economics — or any other discipline — to create the critical mass that would enhance our academic offerings and collective research capabilities? What potential relationships between our professional schools and majors within the College of Arts and Sciences — beyond those between the Heller School and the Arts and Sciences departments that created the highly successful HSSP (Health: Science, Society, and Policy) major, or the collaboration between the economics department and Brandeis International Business School — can offer new insights and approaches to questions and research we pursue in the liberal arts? How can the functional expertise of members of our research centers and institutes complement the current capacities of our teaching faculty to expand offerings and create a greater depth of offerings in our degree programs? In short, how do we make the whole greater than the sum of our parts, too many of which have become too small to offer the level of quality to which we aspire in our academic programs? How do we ignite the dynamism and create the kind of energy so present during our founding decades, and promote the porousness and connectivity of our culture that allow us to reap the benefits of our relatively small size?
Answering these kinds of questions, and thinking and working in new ways will be a challenge. Departmental boundaries are the norm in the American university despite the evolution of disciplines and the growth of subdisciplines. Surveys conducted over the past 50 years in higher education reveal how faculty increasingly identify more with their disciplines and professional organizations than with their universities. And those sentiments have become hardened since 2008 due to increased competition for resources following the Great Recession. We are fortunate that the Brandeis faculty cares deeply about the university and our students, yet there is no doubt faculty engagement in institutional governance at Brandeis has waned. It will be critical for a greater number of faculty to be involved in asking and answering these questions.
In addition, pursuing major changes in how individual faculty, departments, and schools think about themselves within the profession will be time-consuming and can generate counterproductive sentiments, including the fear of perceived “winners” and “losers.” Academic institutions tend to avoid such initiatives, and moving in such a direction will require skilled persuasion and meaningful incentives. If rethinking how faculty identify with their disciplines, departments, and programs is successful, not only will it transform and energize the faculty, it will also appeal to and attract the kind of talented and intrepid students who took a risk to come to a new (and non-accredited) university in Brandeis’ early years. They, along with an excellent faculty, established the vibrant intellectual atmosphere we cherish today. That in itself should be a compelling rationale for faculty and staff colleagues to take a risk on such an undertaking.
Ten years from now, Brandeis should be known as a place that is daring and agile, that leverages its relatively small size to its advantage, that pioneers new disciplines and perspectives, and that has conceived of new ways of integrating the knowledge of our current and future faculty. It should be a place where the best ideas emerging from our scientists’ labs meet the entrepreneurial spirit in our professional schools to address some of the world’s great challenges. It should be a place where insights from our humanities faculty help us better understand the ethical and moral issues associated with new opportunities that come from advances in technology. It should be a place where the work of our artists opens new avenues for understanding and interpreting human creativity and the world around us. It should be a place where our professional schools — Heller and Brandeis International Business School (IBS) — influence policy makers on critical issues, including health care, international development, affordable housing, and the growing inequality within American society. And it should be known as the place one attends because of its vibrant and dynamic approach to a wide range of human pursuits, and a place where conventions are challenged for the benefit of meaningful intellectual engagement. This includes a revisiting of and recommitment to the founding values of the institution: openness and inclusiveness, rooted in the pursuit of justice.
A critical way we will rekindle the pioneering and creative environment at the university is the recruitment of new faculty. Many of our faculty are approaching retirement. As we recruit the next generation of professors, we will focus on candidates who are most highly regarded by their peers; have a record of academic excellence; and show an enduring commitment to research, and an unwavering dedication to mentoring and teaching students. They will be faculty who will draw upon expertise in multiple fields to shed light on both timeless questions and ones not yet posed. With an estimated quarter of our faculty expected to retire in the next decade, we have a great opportunity to ensure the dynamic, collaborative culture we will need to succeed and thrive.
We will need to provide institutional support and incentives to achieve our goals. Current faculty speak with pride about the collaboration that now takes place across disciplines, but, to the extent it happens, it is largely voluntary, at times met with resistance, and therefore limited. With greater and more intentional support, we could do more. The university administration must encourage, facilitate, and reward collaboration if it is a major strategic initiative. To do so effectively will involve a rethinking of how we provide staff support, financial resources, and university recognition, as well as how we create physical spaces that promote and support collaborative work.
Concluding Thoughts on the Brandeis Value Proposition
There is a common tendency in higher education for institutions to “grow” in order to increase their financial capacity and “do more.” There is, however, an inflection point beyond which the financial impact of growth becomes burdensome, not beneficial — where the marginal cost of adding students, faculty, services, and infrastructure exceeds the marginal revenue. More important, for a place like Brandeis, for which size and scale represent its competitive advantage, much more than possible financial gain would be lost.
Although its relatively small size constrains it from doing some things that larger institutions can do, Brandeis offers a very special kind of education that neither smaller liberal arts colleges nor larger research universities can provide. The vertical and horizontal connectivity, combined with our size and values, makes us a unique and powerful community of learners who care for one another and the world beyond Brandeis. Our “niche” — offering the personalized undergraduate education of a top liberal arts college, accompanied by opportunities to participate in world-class research and learn from leading scholars — represents the most compelling future for Brandeis.
II. Making Choices with Strategy and Discipline
As Brandeis sets forth to achieve its value proposition, the university will pursue three strategic initiatives. Within each of the initiatives, we will focus institutional resources on the university’s existing strengths and a small number of areas identified as future areas of excellence. This will require tough decisions; the reallocation of resources; and a major increase in fundraising from alumni, friends, foundations, and corporate partners.
The first strategic initiative is to redefine the student experience.
Undergraduate Education. There is little doubt that, since the university’s founding, Brandeis graduates appreciate and think highly of their education. Results from several surveys and focus groups with alumni/ae show great satisfaction with their academic experience. More than 80 percent of graduates from every decade since the first graduating class (1952) responded with “extremely satisfied” or “very satisfied” when asked about their education. However, the same survey and focus-group responses reflect criticism of the social experience from graduates across virtually all decades.
There are many explanations for the negative perceptions of social life on campus. Many of the innovations in student life introduced at peer universities since the 1980s bypassed Brandeis. The importance of peer-to-peer learning; decentralizing advising and mentoring; building smaller, supportive residential communities within the larger campus; reviewing and updating rules and regulations governing social life; and strengthening intergenerational engagement (among undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff) are but some of the aspects of residential life that require our focused attention.
What stands out to me after two years of observing and discussing the issue with students and younger alumni/ae is the imbalance between what students find in the traditional learning environments — classrooms, labs, studios, and performance spaces — on the one hand, and what they find in their residence halls, dining halls, and social spaces. The library is packed daily, and science labs are busy for hours after dinner. This can be explained in part by the heavy academic workload at Brandeis. But more important than the workload is where our students find their strongest communities.
The university offers an impressive array of services to our students, but how they are organized, where they are located, and how they are made available to students does not always align with how our students go about their lives. The result is lower satisfaction among our students. In addition, students speak often about the heavy-handed bureaucracy at the university, pointing to rules and regulations that, in their view, make meaningful social engagement on campus more challenging. Consequently, a good portion of the student body looks for a more engaging social life off campus.
The university will undertake a full review of student life this coming year. We will review, for starters, curricular choice and course availability; our faculty’s preparation for the classroom’s changing demographics and diverse learning environment; the campus climate for living and learning, especially for our underrepresented students; the state of intellectual diversity on campus; the role of athletics and wellness in a Brandeis education; the quality of advising and mentoring; the level of engagement with faculty and staff outside the classroom; the support for spiritual and religious life; and more.
To address these and other issues that arise, we will consider a residential model with a number of small communities (six to seven) within the larger undergraduate population, based on (1) residential continuity within each community for two years, including retaining one’s “dean”; (2) local, decentralized “deans” who oversee each residential community; (3) decentralization of some student services into the residential clusters; (4) facilities that encourage collaborative, creative, and innovative exploration complementary to formal course work; and (5) engagement with students in each residential community by faculty, postdocs, and doctoral students.
We will also think about our students’ experiences and how we can best support them following graduation in light of technological changes, global competition, and a dynamic labor market. And we must strengthen the lifelong ties to our alumni by enriching their lives during their time as students, by establishing strong networks that provide support during and after their Brandeis careers, and by instilling in our community the level of pride one expects for — and that should be earned by — a university of Brandeis’ caliber.
Graduate Education. Brandeis offers a wide range of master’s and PhD programs, many of which are highly regarded within the academy. Even some of our smaller doctoral programs are unusually successful in placing their graduates in academic, academic-related, and nonacademic-related positions. At the same time, the number of master’s programs has grown significantly in the past 10-15 years while the size of our teaching complement has remained constant, creating severe pressure on our faculty. The result is less time available for the faculty to spend with students, and on their own research and creative endeavors.
It is time to assess each of our degree programs in order to be more sensitive to their impact on faculty and our undergraduate program. We will establish criteria to assess these programs, including a program’s contribution to the university’s mission, its contribution to the financial strength of the university, its placement record for alumni, its standing/reputation within its field, and others.
We need to identify those programs that the university will support fully, at or near the level of the leading graduate programs in the country. This means competitive stipends and student services for our doctoral students, consistent mentoring that includes support for careers both within and outside the academy, affordable housing and meal options, opportunities for those pursuing academic careers to teach one’s own courses, consequential roles in student-residential life for those wishing to gain experience with undergraduate education, and more.
And our graduate programs will need to play a major role in the Brandeis value proposition if the university is to fulfill its aspirations. This means that, in addition to preparing our graduate students through rigorous academic engagement, we will develop programs that teach them the skills they will need to mentor, collaborate, and apply their knowledge to the benefit of society.
The second strategic initiative is to commit to the highest standards for research, scholarly inquiry, and the support of the pursuit and creation of new knowledge. At Brandeis, this must also include contributions to the development of effective social policy — domestic and international — from our professional schools. As the only research university along the burgeoning high-tech corridor on Route 128, Brandeis could do more than just pursue vertical and horizontal connectivity on campus; it could also connect our students and faculty more deeply to research and business ventures in our hometown of Waltham, the New England region, Israel, China, and elsewhere.
We must commit to recruiting faculty with demonstrated excellence in scholarship who also show a distinct aptitude for taking advantage of the creativity in research pursuits made possible by the disciplinary porousness of a small university. This will require a more unified or “university-centric” approach to building faculty than is typical within the academy. And we must recruit and support the strongest PhD candidates to work with our faculty and undergraduate students to create the unique learning environment that defines our value proposition.
We must also commit to establishing clear and high expectations for faculty scholarly achievement, especially after promotion to associate professor with tenure. Such expectations will require significant institutional support for faculty development programs across all disciplines, including a revamped research leave program, and travel support for presenting and collaborating in scholarly work.
And finally, we must ensure that all of our undergraduate students, regardless of their majors, will have the opportunity to work with research-active faculty and learn from high-level scholarly opportunities. This will require increased funding in support of collaborative research across all academic divisions and schools.
And our third strategic initiative is to honor our founding values, including commitments to the American Jewish community. Our foundational values of openness — which, at the start, meant the absence of quotas, and an admissions process based on merit and inclusiveness regardless of race, religion, and gender; academic rigor; and a commitment to social justice — are as relevant today as they were in 1948. But while we need to define these values for the present and the future, and then ensure that our policies and practices reinforce and support them, we should reaffirm our commitment to an open and inclusive student body, and renew our efforts to celebrate our unique Jewish founding and identity. These two goals, both Jewish and secular, were never mutually exclusive, but rather two sides of the same coin.
Our three institutional commitments related to our founding by the American Jewish community, first articulated by founding president Abram Sachar, included (1) to be vitally concerned with Jewish studies, (2) to share a close relationship to the educational institutions of Israel, and (3) to show proper respect for the Jewish tradition. Implied in Sachar’s first commitment is that, within the American academy, Brandeis should be the place to which the American Jewish community turns to engage in and learn about topics of greatest concern. Today, these topics include the rise in anti-Semitism, the future of Jewish peoplehood, and the evolving relationship between Israel and diaspora (particularly American) Jews. It is important to note that, when Sachar set forth these commitments to the American Jewish community, he also stated that the university was to be nonsectarian and open to all.
Since its founding, Brandeis has been a leader in Jewish studies, with among the largest Jewish studies faculty complement outside of Israel. Courses on Jewish history, literature, religion, and culture related to the Bible and the ancient Near East are taught in the university’s NEJS — Near Eastern and Judaic studies — department. In addition, there are eight research centers and institutes that advance research on issues related to Judaism, Jewish life, and Israel. Addressing issues most on the minds of American Jewry will require bringing the extensive talent and resources in our academic departments, research centers, and institutes into closer collaboration. In addition to the prodigious scholarly research our individual faculty members and researchers will continue to produce, greater collaboration among scholars from across the institution will help address the most pressing issues of interest within the American Jewish community. There is, quite clearly, a richness of academic resources that projects what Sachar called a “vital concern” with Jewish studies, yet there is much more we can do in this area. We must now leverage these strengths to become a beacon of learning and provide a standard of excellence in the study of Jewish thought, tradition, and experience for American Jewry.
The second commitment — close relationships with educational institutions of Israel — was pursued early on but has waxed and waned over time. As Israeli higher education has expanded and grown, the nature of and opportunities for collaboration have evolved, and we need today to assess and focus on what makes the most sense for our students and faculty. Many institution-to-institution, program-to-program, and faculty member-to-faculty member relationships have been formed over the decades. It is time to determine which relationships should be long-term and supported, given our strengths and priorities, and those of Israeli partner institutions. We need to determine where collaboration between institutions makes the most sense and how best to provide “seed funding” to enable “bottom-up” collaborations among faculty.
The third commitment — respect for the Jewish tradition — will require us to articulate the values and principles that define the Jewish tradition as it relates to a university: a reverence for learning; the development and exercise of critical thinking, including self-criticism; and service to humankind, to help make the world a better place.
There is, quite clearly, a richness of academic resources at the university that allows it to fulfill and deepen its commitment to the American Jewish community first made seven decades ago; the task now is to bring all that talent and resources into a more coherent and integrated structure.
Looking at the other branch of our founding values, the university must also re-energize its commitment to a culture of openness to the world beyond Brandeis, and to a culture of open-mindedness that was characteristic of the institution in its early decades. It was a culture that not only reflected an unprecedented moral imperative of openness in admitting students and hiring immigrant scholars who were shunned on account of bigotry and anti-Semitism, but also understood the importance of openness in the classroom, in everyday campus banter, and in scholarship. It was a culture rooted deeply in the commitment to and the pursuit of justice. And it was a culture that depended on decisiveness and the ability of institutional leadership to recognize the most important trends in higher education and society.
We have by no means lost sight of these values. Today, socially conscious conversations echo across every corner of the university — often within the crucial framework of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Students, faculty, and alumni/ae alike readily invoke our legacy of social justice when discussing Brandeis’ ethos and the university’s unique community. And yearly events like ’DEIS Impact, a weeklong university-wide exploration of questions of social justice, and the work of the Waltham Group exemplify a clear devotion to these foundational goals and principles.
Yet, in practice, the watchwords “openness” and “justice” have changed in meaning over the past seven decades. It is time for us to embolden our engagement with these principles, renewing and reimagining them for today’s challenges and opportunities — in the classroom and throughout our community, both on campus and beyond.
III. Revitalizing and Reimagining the Campus
In order to achieve institutional priorities, and bring together university constituencies and programs related to those initiatives, we need to address major deficiencies in our campus infrastructure. We should enter this process, however, thinking not just about the campus’ extensive deferred maintenance. We need to think, too, about how we modernize and reconceive the campus to help us achieve our value proposition: facilitating horizontal connectivity across the faculty and academic programs as well as vertical connectivity among undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs, support staff, and faculty.
To the extent possible, the campus infrastructure should be renovated and organized to take into account two principal goals. First, we need to place our students at the center of our activities so their Brandeis education is excellent both academically and socially. And second, we need to facilitate and promote collaboration and interaction among our teachers, scholars, and researchers. The first goal, as it relates to infrastructure, will require a full reconsideration of how we create and support our student residential communities, including a look at alternative residential models. The second goal, as it relates to the organizing of our schools and academic programs, requires us to think about the big questions and challenges our scholars and researchers are likely to pursue both in the classroom and in their research (examples noted in Section I, “Establishing the Foundation for Brandeis’ Renewal — the Brandeis Value Proposition”). This goal will also require us to consider and then address the centrality of our library in meeting the increasingly diverse ways in which information is disseminated and used in teaching, learning, and inquiry. We should be looking to reshape the campus, wherever possible, to better integrate teaching and learning, and take advantage of our current — and anticipated — curricular and research strengths.
One example of how this might take form involves the great need for an additional building for IBS. Instead of simply adding what would be a third structure to the two existing IBS buildings on the southern part of campus, we would move IBS adjacent to the science/math complex, and include spaces for the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center and MakerLab, and a new incubator space. This move would take advantage of the increasing role of computational sciences and advanced analytics across the sciences and business. Another would be to complete the Mandel Humanities Quad. This would involve linking the Mandel Center for the Humanities to a renovated Golding, Lown, Shiffman, and Olin-Sang, which would bring together faculty studying in or collaborating with the humanities. Such a grouping would spur collaborative research and teaching, both to the benefit of our students. It would elevate a vital aspect of the liberal arts curriculum that is facing its greatest challenge within the academy.
This reorganizing of the campus is a long-term project due to the financial costs and political challenges it is likely to entail. However, in my opinion, this is the key to Brandeis’ future — to giving the university the chance to distinguish itself in what it can offer to intellectually curious students who wish to learn in a special kind of environment and engage important issues rooted in the past but, at the same time, look to the future.
Brandeis was an audacious undertaking a mere seven decades ago. Without an alumni/ae body to support it or an endowment to provide guaranteed financial support, the university was forced to choose a different path for its development. It was an unquestionable success, but it failed to create a sustainable model or an institutional culture that could adjust for great changes in higher education. We now have the opportunity to do that.
We need to update our current mode of operations, which is based on structures, assumptions, and a financial model that are decades old. To stay the current course will neither ensure institution-wide excellence nor allow us to compete for and retain excellent faculty, staff, and students. As the saying goes, “to stand still is to fall behind.” And we have been standing still for too long.
To conceive of, and pursue energetically and successfully a different approach, as Brandeis did at its founding, would be to become a leader in higher education — regionally, nationally, and globally. We would be offering a different model for higher education and attract greater support from alumni, foundations, parents, and friends. We would provide an invaluable education for our students, and we would support our faculty as they seek to make meaningful contributions to our world. It is a challenging though inspiring path to choose, and it would be true to our past while committing to a sustainable and exciting future for the institution.