Evelyn E. Handler
Evelyn E. Handler

Former President Handler Killed in Auto Accident

Evelyn E. Handler, 78, the only woman to serve as president of Brandeis University, died Friday, Dec. 23, 2011, after being struck by an automobile as she crossed a street in Bedford, N.H. Handler was the university’s fifth president and served from 1983 to 1991.

At the time Handler was named president, few women led major American universities. During her tenure, Brandeis was admitted to the Association of American Universities (AAU), a notable achievement for an institution fewer than four decades old.

A scientist whose research focused on leukemia, she was a passionate supporter of education and research into the life sciences who helped to launch the Volen National Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis and the program in neuroscience.

“She made the case that, by any measure, Brandeis deserved to be in the AAU despite its youth and relatively small size,” said Malcolm L. Sherman, chairman of the university’s board of trustees. “Because of her background in the sciences, she had an invaluable perspective in an area of great curricular strength at the university. That strength continues to be reflected at Brandeis today.”

“Brandeis is now nationally ranked in neuroscience and biochemistry, and her leadership played a major role in that,” concurred President Fred Lawrence.

During Handler’s administration, admissions grew more competitive and the university celebrated its 40th anniversary. Athletics took on a greater role as Brandeis became a founding member of the University Athletic Association sports conference and built the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center. Handler is also credited with laying the groundwork for what later became the Brandeis International Business School.

“As president, Evelyn Handler led Brandeis University’s growth from a high-quality liberal arts college with some outstanding graduate programs to a nationally and internationally respected small research university with an exceptionally strong undergraduate college at its core,” said Steven L. Burg, the Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Politics, who served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and associate dean of the faculty during Handler’s presidency.

Burg also credits the university’s fifth president with making the campus more welcoming to a larger and more diverse undergraduate student population, establishing the Intercultural Center and upholding Brandeis’ commitment to a need-blind admissions policy. “When Evelyn Handler departed Brandeis, she left behind a better, stronger, more competitive and respected university,” he noted.

Handler’s presidency was not without controversy. Some community members objected to what they saw as an aggressive style and eagerness for rapid change. For example, pork and shellfish were introduced to the student cafeteria menu, prompting a backlash by some who believed the university should adhere to certain Jewish dietary laws. The decision was later reversed.

Irving R. Epstein, the Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry and senior adviser to the provost for research, called Handler “a woman of strong opinions and big ideas who worked to make Brandeis a real player among top American research universities.”

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Handler immigrated to the United States with her family in 1940. She earned a B.A. at Hunter College in New York City and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from New York University. She also received a J.D. from Franklin Pierce Law Center.

Before arriving at Brandeis in 1983, Handler had served as the first female president of the University of New Hampshire and as dean of sciences and mathematics at Hunter College.

After leaving Brandeis in 1991, she was a research fellow and associate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. From 1994–97, she served as executive director and CEO of the California Academy of Sciences.

A resident of Bow, N.H., at the time of her death, Handler leaves her husband, Eugene, as well as three children and three grandchildren.

Bernard Reisman, Ph.D.’70
Bernard Reisman, Ph.D.’70

Community for All

The measure of longtime Brandeis professor Bernard Reisman, Ph.D.’70, was not his considerable scholarship, but his leadership, courage and humanity.

Bernie, who died on Nov. 21, 2011, came to Brandeis in the late 1960s to pursue doctoral studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. At Brandeis, he befriended the late professor Leon Jick, who was looking for someone to head a program to train professionals as leaders in the American Jewish community.

No one had ever heard of such a profession or program, but Bernie and Leon convinced the leaders of large national Jewish organizations that they had a responsibility to foster the development of future leaders. The program began to attract master’s degree candidates and found a donor — Benjamin Hornstein. So began the Hornstein Program for Jewish Communal Service, which Bernie went on to lead for 30 years.

I succeeded him as Hornstein director in 1994 while he remained as a faculty member. Soon thereafter I began to receive reports that Bernie was showing signs of mental confusion in class. It turned out he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Bernie did not run from Alzheimer’s. He sought help so he could co-teach classes and co-author scholarly works. He helped establish Brandeis’ lifelong learning program.

As the disease progressed, Bernie and his wife, Elaine, became active in the Alzheimer’s community and several times traveled to Washington to testify before Congress on the need to fund research. Imagine Bernie — the once elegantly fluent orator — struggling to coherently present testimony before a congressional panel. That is courage.

The disease ravished Bernie and turned his last years into a nightmare. But the message that Bernie would want to leave us with is not the tragedy of the disease, but our capacity to build humane communities to support one another, to include all — whatever their condition — and to struggle with the great mystery of why even the righteous must suffer.

— Joseph Reimer, M.A.’70

Joseph Reimer is a professor at Brandeis.