A Framework for Our Future

The following are the prepared remarks of Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz from the All-Campus Presidential Event on Oct. 29, 2018:

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining me here today.

Since arriving at Brandeis two years ago, I have been deeply immersed in learning about this institution.

It’s been a wonderful journey, and I want to thank the many faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends of Brandeis for helping both me and Jessica deepen our understanding, appreciation, and fondness for this remarkable university.

I’ve learned much about the genuine commitment that virtually every member of this community feels toward the university.

I’ve learned much about the university’s incredible founding 70 years ago, including from our pioneer alumni — those who were in the first graduating classes. I remain inspired by the audacity and the idealism that characterized our early years.

I’ve now met with more than 1,000 staff, students, and faculty in small-group lunches alone, and at least that many alumni and friends while on the road.

I listened attentively to the voices and stories of Brandeisians who care deeply about who we are, where we came from, and where we should be heading. There is much at Brandeis that should generate great pride among our current students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends.

This is an extraordinary institution in so many ways, and I need to remind those who have been here much longer than I have of this objective reality. As I transition from being an “outsider” and unbiased observer to insider-in-chief and major cheerleader to the outside world, I can see both the remarkable strengths of this institution and its significant challenges. It’s easy to be overly critical as I believe many here are when some of the institution’s problems appear to be self-inflicted and others seem never to be addressed. But I can say that with whatever challenges we face as an institution, our strengths, values, and talents should give all Brandeisians great optimism as we chart the university’s future.

As all of you can attest, Brandeis is too complex, and our community too spirited, for me to make sweeping generalizations about what everyone thinks or wishes for the university. Nevertheless, several observations have emerged over the past two years, and I want to share them with you. I believe they represent aspects of the university that should sow among you seeds of enthusiasm for our future as they have done for me.

I want to start with the observation that we have a spectacular faculty and staff. Brandeis professors are unusual in that while they recognize and pursue the scholarly and mentoring expectations of a major Research-1 university, they are also fully committed to teaching undergraduates. That is, they are deeply committed to their research and their work with graduate students, as well as with first-year undergraduates. They are the foundational strength of this university. Likewise, the excellence of our academic program would not be possible without our loyal and talented staff, many of whom themselves are educators to our students, and trusted advisers and colleagues to our faculty. I believe the talents of our staff are not always tapped, and we would be wise to find ways to offer those interested a way to work more closely with our students.

My next observation is about our students. In short, they are exceptional. They are smart, and they care. They are intellectually curious and act on a deep commitment to justice — a great and powerful combination. They have diverse interests and personalities, but the common denominator, as I have observed, is that they love to learn and they care about making the world a better place. Faculty at our small weekly lunches have corroborated this dual characterization, with one senior colleague emphatically exhorting — or really warning me while waving her finger — not to change those aspects of our student body. I wouldn’t dare to!

My next observation relates to our institutional values. Brandeis was founded as a gift from the American Jewish community and was established for reasons unlike any other university. It was created in order to counter bigotry and anti-Semitism … to open doors to Jews, blacks, women, and other groups who previously had been denied access to higher education simply on account of who they were. These values of openness and inclusion were exceptional back in 1948, and should be underscored and recommitted to for the Brandeis of today and tomorrow.

And the final observation I will note is how our size and our location are great assets rather than problems about which to wring our collective hands. The university’s relatively small size allows us to combine the best elements of a traditional liberal arts college with those of a major research university. In our case, this claim is more than the cliché it seems to be at the peer institutions I have studied. As for location: In addition to Waltham being named by Money magazine as the No. 1 community in which to live in Massachusetts this past year, our campus literally looks out on a dynamic international city a mere nine miles away. (And now home to the World Series champs, and I say that with regret as a lifelong Dodger fan!)

In fact, one of my key observations has been that, due to the intimacy in the learning environment made possible by our 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 often collaborate with colleagues across disciplinary, departmental, and school boundaries.

I call the first of these two characteristics “vertical connectivity” — where undergraduate students work closely with faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and doctoral students — and the second characteristic “horizontal connectivity” — where faculty transcend their departmental affiliations to collaborate with colleagues from different disciplines. These faculty don’t abandon their expertise and disciplinary rigor when they enter into these collaborations. They approach related questions and problems from different perspectives, sometimes discovering groundbreaking ideas, as happened in the case of last year’s Nobel Prize winners, Brandeis faculty members Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash.

This kind of learning environment, with its horizontal and vertical connectivity, reflects our exciting dual mission of offering both student-centered baccalaureate and intimate doctoral programs. The atmosphere for learning is quite extraordinary, and it differentiates Brandeis from the very best liberal arts colleges and Research-1 universities. Liberal arts colleges can offer a student-centered education, but it cannot introduce its undergraduates to consequential scholarly and creative work. Research-1 universities tend to provide neither: Their classes are too large to offer a student-centered undergraduate education, and virtually all collaborative scholarly work with faculty is available only to graduate students.

Brandeis is indeed unique. It occupies a special space in higher education, and it offers what I call Brandeis’ value proposition for the future. We must take advantage of this unique space with greater focus and intentionality.

Exceptional faculty … Talented students … A unique set of founding values … A commitment to a dual mission of world-class inquiry and first-rate undergraduate education … An enviable location … And a collective passion and depth of loyalty that motivates faculty and staff to go beyond the call to the benefit of the institution. Those are among our incredible strengths and assets, and collectively provide a foundation upon which to build our future.

But as those here today know, Brandeis also faces some major challenges. There is much work to do. And because we carry the venerable name of Louis Brandeis, there will always be much to do to live up to our name. Just before the university opened its doors and when the Brandeis name was finalized, Albert Einstein, who was a major figure in the push to create any and then this particular Jewish-sponsored university, cautioned that “Brandeis is a name that cannot merely be adopted. It is one that must be achieved.” Now, seven decades later, as stewards of a great and important legacy, I ask that you join me in helping to create an institution that will live up to the expectations of the Brandeis name.

So now let me share with you my vision for Brandeis’ future — a framework that I hope will motivate and organize our collective efforts over the next decade. This is an abbreviated version of that framework. If you’d like to read the longer, more detailed description, it will be available on a new website later this week, and you will find it on the president’s webpage. I invite you to read the fuller version and offer your comments and suggestions.

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I want to begin in 1948. That’s when a small but bold group came together to establish the only secular university in the United States to be founded by the American Jewish community.

The group saw Brandeis as a new kind of university, emerging from the ashes of the Holocaust, and at a time when bigotry, anti-Semitism, and quotas kept Jews, blacks, and others from attending America’s elite private institutions. Admission to Brandeis was to be open to all who were academically qualified, a distinct innovation in American higher education. From the beginning, Brandeis was open, exciting, and rooted in a number of traditional Jewish values: a reverence for learning, a commitment to critical thinking and vigorous debate, and tikkun olam — the millennia-old tradition of performing kind acts to help repair the world.

My vision for Brandeis is firmly rooted in the institution’s early commitment to openness and inclusivity, and to the three aforementioned traditional Jewish values. These collectively are not outdated or charming relics from our past, but, rather the foundation for what I believe will propel us forward. They are unique to Brandeis, and we should celebrate them and embrace them for the future.

My vision for Brandeis is also rooted in the reality that Brandeis today faces some strong headwinds. Having started 70 years ago with no endowment, alumni body, or institutional reputation, and with little more than promise, the university evolved by making do with what was available, typically over-committing its resources with bold ambitions. The institution operated without a clearly articulated strategy and apparently without the desire or discipline to establish priorities. An entrepreneurial spirit led to the creation of exciting though disparate initiatives, each seemingly with its independent mandate and own constituency. Over time, Brandeis evolved into a widely dispersed and somewhat disconnected institution, much like an archipelago.

The result, while breathtaking in overall achievement, has led to a number of challenges. Many of our programs lack the necessary resources to sustain their youthful energy, while others operate in relative isolation. Too many staff and faculty are stretched thin; our institutional focus has turned inward; and, despite our most enviable location in Greater Boston, we seem less connected to and engaged with the outside world than we were 70 years ago. The net effect is that Brandeis the institution has become less than the sum of its many outstanding parts.

As I noted in my inaugural address two years ago, Brandeis needs to move beyond its startup phase in how it approaches its planning, how it prioritizes what is most important, and how it allocates its resources. The university needs to begin to create out of its many excellent parts a unified and centralized institutional vision to support its dual mission.

The vision for Brandeis begins with the value proposition and then articulates three broad strategic initiatives. The value proposition is defined by a student-centered education — as one would find at an Amherst, Middlebury, or Swarthmore — combined with the opportunity to participate in high-level scholarly pursuits with acclaimed scholars and researchers. Some parts of our academic program already offer this kind of education, and our faculty culture is generally well-aligned with this pedagogy. We now need to focus our efforts to support those faculty and staff across the curriculum who are willing to make the high-touch/high-level scholarly opportunities with students a defining characteristic of a Brandeis education.

The three strategic initiatives that emerge from the Brandeis value proposition will build upon some of the university’s recognized strengths, and will together transform our intellectual and physical assets in significant ways. At the same time, each of the initiatives seeks to retain the essence of the university so it will remain familiar to alumni from all generations — from the pioneer classes of the 1950s to our most recent graduates.

The first initiative is to attain excellence in our students’ overall educational experience. We need to focus our efforts so that the co-curricular and social aspects of a Brandeis education match the excellence of our academic program. This will require a rethinking of our residential living environments, most likely creating smaller learning communities within the larger campus. These residential communities should be places that encourage students to engage one another as well as graduate students, postdoctoral students, staff, and faculty in discussion of any and all issues in a relaxed environment. They could serve as the organizing principle for intramural competition, for debate teams, for theater and comedy troupes, and more.

We need to ensure that our students’ personal and emotional development are considered alongside their intellectual growth. This will require us to reassess how we advise, mentor, and provide support to students, as well as create opportunities for them to learn some life skills they will need following graduation. It will also require us to review the range of social life options on campus, including the role of the non-university-affiliated off-campus Greek system. And it will involve finding ways to expand on-campus social options that reflect and celebrate the diversity of our student body.

The second strategic initiative will be to secure our place as a leading Research-1 university. Though our faculty already conduct and produce world-class scholarship, and Brandeis is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, we as an institution must do more to strengthen our institution’s scholarly endeavor. We need to offer a more ambitious sabbatical leave program, improve our academic facilities and technological infrastructure, and provide greater staff support. Increased funding for research is crucial not only for the sake of our faculty’s productivity and professional standing, but also for the meaningful opportunities such high-level scholarly inquiry presents for our graduate and undergraduate students.

We need to extend the cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary, and connected inquiry that we see most visibly in the STEM fields into every intellectual domain of the university. This kind of collaborative scholarly work is common in the sciences, and occurs to a limited extent between our professional schools and the College of Arts and Sciences. As an example, the Heller School and Arts and Sciences offer the timely and popular Health: Science, Society, and Policy major that cuts across disciplines, departments, and schools. And our International Business School collaborates with our economics department in offering an undergraduate business major and a joint PhD program. Though there are successful collaborations across departments in the social sciences and in the creative arts, they face bureaucratic challenges and receive limited institutional support.

We need to look out on a horizon where every Brandeis student interested in doing scholarly or creative work alongside faculty either individually or in small groups is given that opportunity. It is a vision in which every faculty member who wishes to include students in their scholarly and creative pursuits is given the support they need to do so.

The third strategic initiative brings us back to the university’s remarkable beginnings 70 years ago. We will honor Brandeis’ Jewish roots and its founding values with intentionality and new energy. Brandeis should be the university to which American Jews turn for answers to their most pressing questions and issues of concern. It should be the leading repository of research, learning, and teaching about Judaism and Israel. We already possess formidable resources in our academic departments, research centers, and institutes that focus on Jewish and Israel studies. We must now leverage those strengths to become a beacon of learning and a standard of excellence in the study of Jewish thought, tradition, and experience for American Jewry.

Our founding values are as relevant today as they were in 1948, and are even more important now. The openness and inclusivity that served as an antidote to bigotry and anti-Semitism seven decades ago must today provide opportunities to new groups who have faced persistent barriers to higher education. While we are fortunate to have outstanding programs to ensure access to historically under-served student populations, we have much work to do to create the inclusive, welcoming, and respectful environment for all of our students as was envisioned 70 years ago.

Our students’ reverence for learning and our faculty’s commitment to academic rigor have not waned over time, and we must be sure it never does. And the commitment to justice still runs deep among alumni and current students. My vision places our historic passion for justice and inclusion at the center of our community, helping, along with the excellence of our classrooms, to shape brilliant young minds into responsible citizens and future leaders with the skills, values, idealism, and tenacity to help repair the world.

And the fourth and final strategic initiative will be to reimagine and revitalize our campus to support the value proposition and the three strategic initiatives. It will require us to anticipate new research and teaching frontiers on the horizon, envision how disciplines will evolve in the coming decades, identify which among these will be a focus for Brandeis, and then design and allocate space accordingly. Departments and disciplines or subdisciplines we never thought to co-locate or be situated near one another might become so in the future due to the similar questions they seek to answer and the common problems they attempt to solve.

To make this vision a reality, to move beyond a framework and towards a concrete, integrated plan, I will later this week appoint three task forces — on student life, on inquiry and research, and on our institution’s founding values. The charges to these task forces will reflect the considerable work done during a previous planning process in 2013; it will include perspectives from the more than 30 self-reflection documents completed last year by faculty, staff, and administrators, as well as suggestions offered by students, faculty, and staff to my office and to other senior administrators over the past two years.

The groups will work during the next five to six months, soliciting input from students, faculty, and staff through open meetings, and from alumni, parents, and friends through short surveys. There will also be a dedicated website to which one can provide feedback, ask questions, and provide recommendations.

These task forces will submit a set of recommendations to our newly formed committee on strategy and planning, which I will chair. Other members of the committee include the provost, the deans of each of our schools, and six faculty who have already been elected by their peers from the professional schools and the four divisions within the College of Arts and Sciences. The committee will review the recommendations from the task forces and produce an integrated plan of prioritized action items, a financial model that estimates the necessary resources to achieve those action items, a proposed timeline that aligns our available resources — both financial and human — with our initiatives, and a narrative on how we plan to acquire the additional resources to make the vision possible.

What I have shared with you today, what I am asking each of us to pursue, is not a simple or easy task. It will be challenging, call for great patience, and include making some difficult decisions. And it will require additional resources. Significant resources. Let me add some commentary to these observations.

On the challenges: A number of recommendations will likely involve redefining job descriptions, reorganizing departments and reporting lines, and adopting new processes and procedures that align more consistently with those across the university. These anticipated changes are difficult to introduce at any time but will be even more so following the past 10 years of staff reductions and budgetary freezes across many departments.

On seeking patience: It is clear that many in the community are anxious to kick-start the university to generate momentum and address many long-term issues that remain unresolved. But as we move forward and make the necessary visible or more obvious changes to get us moving forward faster, we also need to address the less-visible ones. The good news is that we have been working on some of the more significant items during the past two years, and are now in the process of sharing or discussing the resulting changes with the campus community. These include introducing a new financial model to replace the current one, which was unable to calculate the full costs of developing or running existing programs. One significant consequence of the old financial model was an annual budgeting process based on inertia rather than a more rational approach, which would include consideration of both the full cost of our programs as well as the contributions they provide to the university’s mission.

A second area requiring some patience is our university governance. How do students, faculty, and staff provide meaningful input into the governing of the university? What are the avenues for input into administrative decisions at the department, school, and university level? Thanks to the good and hard work of the Task Force on Faculty Governance, we have begun the process of reworking our decision-making structures when it comes to the longer-term strategic direction of the university and the shorter-term annual budgeting process. Both processes should reflect the priorities of the university first and foremost, and the allocation of resources to all units should align with and not contradict those priorities.

The new Committee on Strategy and Planning is a good first step to a more unified approach to decision making and resource allocation, but there is much to do on the governance front. And as we develop these processes and structures, we want to be sure not to dampen the creativity of faculty, staff, and students that has been a hallmark of the university from its beginning. For example, if humanities faculty wish to offer programs like the one we have in Siena — so, with their students, they can together live the subject matter as they teach and learn it — what is the path? If math, computer science, and natural science faculty wish to introduce an innovative program in engineering at the university, what is their path? If members of the visual arts faculty wish to establish gallery space to show works of their students or their own, or faculty in the performing arts seek pianos for their students in more campus locations, what is the path? And if students wish to establish a startup on campus, how do they avoid what they have called Brandeis’ bureaucratic black box?

And a third area requiring patience is in the rebuilding of key administrative functions that provide services to all parts of the university. The impact of the 2008 recession is not only still with us, but 10 years later many of the activities no longer done centrally have left significant gaps in service and placed increased burdens on local offices that try to cover what had been done centrally. Human Resources, Institutional Advancement, Finance, Student Services, Academic Affairs, and our libraries all require infusions of human and financial resources to allow us to provide the level of support needed to fulfill our educational mission.

On the issue of making difficult choices: We learned from the extensive financial analysis done in the fall of 2016 that the university has an ongoing structural deficit. This deficit reflects the enormous creative energy of the university over its seven decades, but it also presents great challenges, especially for the long term. We cover this deficit each year by taking more from our endowment than is prudent and deferring investments in our buildings, equipment, technological infrastructure, and people. The result has been the development of a rich array of programs and activities, but it has come at the expense of our financial strength, adds significantly to our faculty and staff workload, and leaves us with a significant amount of deferred maintenance. We are, as that 2016 financial study concluded, far too complex an institution for our size and wealth, which means we do way too much with too few staff and financial resources.

We will therefore need to assess the breadth of all we do and find ways to do them more efficiently or do less. This is not a new problem, nor one that is particular to Brandeis. Yet it is crucial that we cover the cost of our operations with available resources and invest properly in our future. If we don’t, it will be more difficult in the coming years to matriculate excellent students, match our financial aid program, and attract and retain superb faculty and staff. I should stress that finances alone will not dictate what we do and don’t do. Most activities and non-master’s degree programs at a university require subsidies, and so the process we will follow to make future decisions will not be based solely on the bottom line. More important will be an assessment of an activity’s or program’s “contribution to mission.” The newly created Committee on Planning and Strategy, with input from the relevant university committees and governing bodies, will oversee the eventual assessment of activities supported by the university budget and make recommendations to the president and provost.

And finally, on the need to generate significant new resources: Increased support from alumni will be the most important source of incremental revenue that we will need to sustain Brandeis. Luckily, the vast majority of our alumni look back on their time at Brandeis and have extremely positive things to say about their academic experiences. They note in past surveys and in all of my encounters with them their great respect and admiration for the faculty and their true affection for their classmates. But their collective love for the institution is not as positive for a host of reasons. Winning their attention and gaining their support is challenging, as there are many competing causes to which they lend their time and resources.

We must, therefore, intensify our efforts in alumni engagement and create more opportunities for increasing the ways alumni can interact with faculty, students, and the university. Our mission and vision for the future must be compelling to draw alumni interest and support, and we need to do more to communicate all the great and positive things our faculty, staff, and students do inside and outside the classroom.

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What I have presented as a framework for our future cannot be achieved in a few years or even during my presidency. But this is the framework, these are the guideposts, and this is the vision that I deeply believe represents the best path forward for Brandeis. I am prepared and eager to lead the effort and to raise the funds necessary to make the new vision for Brandeis a reality. But I need to enlist all of you if we are to succeed. You are Brandeis, and Brandeis needs you at this juncture in its history.

One of the most often quoted nuggets of wisdom spoken by our namesake, Louis Brandeis, is quite apt for us at this moment. He said that “most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” Brandeis University was an impossible dream before it was founded 70 years ago. It was a long shot to succeed. Yet, from its humble beginnings, the university quickly emerged as a serious, significant, and respected institution.

I’m calling upon our community — this community — to summon the energy, idealism, and audacity of our founders to do in our time what they did in theirs, and to set Brandeis on a strong, secure, and sustainable future.

We need now to forge ahead with confidence and discipline to build the Brandeis of the future. It is a worthy task. Indeed, it is a noble undertaking. And so I ask, once again, please join with me and one another in making it a reality. Brandeis is so very much worth the effort, no matter how great.

Thank you.