Stephen Donadio’s Remarks

Stephen Donadio '63, the John Hamilton Fulton Professor of Humanities at Middlebury College
Stephen Donadio '63, the John Hamilton Fulton Professor of Humanities at Middlebury College

Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students and alumni of Brandeis University, distinguished guests and friends.

It is a great honor to have been given an opportunity to speak here today on the occasion of the formal inauguration of Ronald Liebowitz as the new president of this remarkable institution. As someone who was graduated from Brandeis more than half a century ago, I have some firsthand experience of its past, and I hope I can suggest how that past might come to bear upon its future, and also why Ron Liebowitz, a geographer by training, is exceptionally well-prepared to lead the university into the largely unmapped territory of this new century. Before I offer some reflections, I think I need to tell you how it was that I ever found my way here and what that reveals about the nature of this place. This history, as will soon be evident, is by no means uniquely my own.

When I was 11 years old and living in Brooklyn, New York, my father began suffering from an incurable, progressive neurological disease; it was not long before he reached the point at which he could not move or communicate at all, though to the end he remained fully, agonizingly conscious. For the next five years he never left our second-story walk-up apartment, where my mother cared for him and for myself and my younger brother. We no longer had any source of income, and after signing over my father’s life insurance policy were dependent on the welfare system. The summer following my junior year of high school, my father died; he was 46 years old. My mother found a job working as a seamstress, and right around that time she bought us a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica from a traveling salesman. This was, I now think, an expression of what she wished for our future, the kind of life she hoped my brother and I would have; it was a life I imagine she wished she could have had herself, but as the eldest of five children of Italian immigrant parents during the Depression, after high school she had had to go to work to help support the family.

Given the financial situation at the time my father died, I didn’t know whether I should think about leaving home at all, much less go to college; but difficult as both those things would be for her, my mother told me that that was what my father would have wanted. As the books he left me made clear, before his illness he had been a deep reader and had serious ambitions as a writer, but his own immigrant Italian family circumstances had made it impossible for him to consider attending college; his own father had died before he himself was a year old, and his mother never learned to read or write. It would matter to him and might be a way of honoring his memory if I managed to succeed in doing something that he had never been able to do.

In the fall of my senior year of high school, after my father’s death, I began to think about the possibility of going to college, but I had no idea where I might go. After talking with some of my classmates I mailed out a few applications — to Brooklyn College, to Columbia, and (for reasons I can no longer recall) to the University of Wisconsin. I’d been reading a book about Franklin D. Roosevelt and learned that he had gone to Harvard, so I thought why not try to go there? I sent in the paperwork and was granted two interviews. Because I was applying for a scholarship, one of those interviews was with the Harvard Club of Long Island, which apparently had funds for that purpose. At that interview someone asked me, with what seemed an unusual degree of impatience, how I thought I could possibly go to Harvard if I didn’t have any money. Since I had assumed that addressing my financial difficulties was the purpose of our meeting, I had no answer to that question, but the way the question was asked taught me a lot. The interview did not go well.

My second interview, not related to a scholarship, was with a youngish Harvard graduate at the Museum of Natural History. During our conversation he remarked that if I was considering going to school around the Boston area there was a new place down the road I might want to look into; they were doing some interesting things there. That was how I first learned about Brandeis. A high-school teacher I knew mentioned that the literary critic Philip Rahv was there, and that Rahv had written the introduction to the Modern Library edition of selected stories of Franz Kafka; reading that introduction, in which Rahv asserted that Kafka should not be seen as a neurotic artist but as an artist of the neurotic, I had a feeling that this was someone from whom I would want to hear more. So I decided to apply to Brandeis, but without any real hope that I would ever find myself in Waltham, Massachusetts.

In the spring I got a phone call from Philip Driscoll, who was then director of admissions; he invited me to meet him for breakfast in New Haven, Connecticut. A few days later I got on the subway to Grand Central Station around 3 o’clock in the morning, wanting to be sure to arrive in time. Mr. Driscoll and I had a good talk; he had his own literary interests and later on I would hear him read aloud the ecstatic closing passages of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” — an experience I’ve not forgotten. When our time was just about up, he said, very simply, “We’d like you to come to Brandeis.” “I don’t have any money,” I said. “No money at all.” “We understand that,” he responded quietly, “and we’re prepared to take care of it.” “The whole thing?” “Yes, the whole thing.” The directness and simplicity of his response took my breath away; I was unprepared to accept this astonishing offer, which for me required rethinking everything, so I got up from the table awkwardly and mumbled that I would be sure to let him know.

The gift I was granted was the Joseph and Helen Regenstein Scholarship. It is no exaggeration to say that it changed my life, but I was very young then and in my youthful unawareness I never got around to thanking this Chicago couple personally for their immense generosity, which goes to prove that education is a lifelong process, and that you can sometimes get good grades while managing to miss the point entirely. By the time it dawned on me that I ought to acknowledge my gratitude to them, they were gone. What struck me most about this overwhelming gift was the utter matter-of-factness of it. I was not being addressed from a great height and reminded of my appropriate place. Nor did I have the sense that I had been identified as an exotic creature plucked from the wild to be exhibited as an emblem of virtue, but rather that I was seen as an ordinary kid with some promise — and every ordinary kid is a kid with some promise — who could use a break. It was in recognizing this that I began to be aware that it was hardly an inconsequential detail that Brandeis was an institution sponsored by the Jewish community. “We’d like you to come to Brandeis,” Mr. Driscoll had said; and he had been able to say that because there were people who were part of a particular community with its own difficult history that thought my coming to this university ought to be made possible. Their gift was the expression of an ethical imperative that not only required no explanation but did not even need to be mentioned. And what I gradually came to see was that one’s gratitude for such a gift was not to be expressed in words but in finding ways to help realize the promise of others.

To me, that recognition, so much easier to state than to act upon coherently, in time turned out to be one of the innermost parts of the truth — Emet — to whose discovery Brandeis was dedicated. Spared the glory of Harvard, I arrived here in the fall of 1959, and amazing as it now seems to me, at that time the university was barely more than a decade old; as one historian has observed, “its meteoric rise to academic excellence was without parallel in the history of American education.” Brandeis was founded in the same year as the State of Israel, with whose history its own history has continued to resonate in intricate ways. In the beginning, the university had a faculty of 13 and a student body of 107; but in a very short time these numbers increased dramatically.

When I got here, many of the buildings were new, but there was nothing tentative about the institution, and in the large new science complex the roar of activity was audible day and night. In fact the roar of activity and the clash of ideas were audible everywhere. Undergraduate and graduate students were pursuing a broad spectrum of disciplines, and the degree of their engagement was palpable. Brandeis had decided to give up football, and intellectual argument replaced it on campus as the principal contact sport. Speakers who came to present their work thinking that they would encounter the usual academic audience dutifully taking notes and occasionally nodding off found that they had another think coming as soon as the merciless question period began. Members of the faculty were not given an easier time: When a prominent member of the political science department began a talk on Arnold Toynbee’s controversial study of history by saying that he hadn’t read all of Toynbee’s 12-volume work, I can remember an undergraduate history major, moved to fury, noisily getting up and walking out. Regarding the seriousness of the students, the faculty had similar expectations. An unusual group, many of our teachers had not been trained in the traditional ways. They were not much inclined to see themselves as part of a certification process, as qualified graders of papers and exams, but as committed thinkers engaged in high-stakes exploration, and the passion they embodied was contagious. The campus was alive with contending philosophical, political, literary and aesthetic notions, each of them demanding its due, and there was no one willing to surrender. I could tell you stories.

For better and worse, the Sixties were invented here. To begin with, the German Marxist theoretician Herbert Marcuse was on the premises, and one of his most attentive students, Angela Davis, came to figure in the scene; Abbie Hoffman, a psychology major, had also gravitated toward Marcuse, and he had learned from the renowned Abraham Maslow about the need for “peak experiences,” which he went on to pursue with a singular disruptive determination.

Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Odetta were invited to perform. Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Norman Podhoretz, Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald and Norman O. Brown were among those who came to speak, and there were significant visits by Malcolm X and James Baldwin (as it happened, I was one of the passengers in a car that took Baldwin to Cambridge late one night to the grubby old Hayes-Bickford cafeteria, where he was going to meet Martin Luther King for the first time). Busloads of students went on Freedom Rides in support of voter registration drives in the segregated South. All this took place before the first Kennedy assassination and all the other assassinations, before Vietnam and the marches and the occupations and the riots and the holdups and the bombings. It wasn’t until later in the decade that places like Columbia, where I went next, began to catch up, when that university (along with others, later on) was shut down by people disaffected with the prevailing order in more ways than one could count.

That brings us back to the present. As our latest Nobel laureate in literature once observed, “Something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?” No one can doubt that this, too, is a moment of profound disorder, in regions of the world previously thought stable, in the domestic institutions in which we have placed our trust, in the domain of news reporting and analysis, and at every level of education, threatened by financial exigencies, mission creep and robotics of every sort; and there is very likely more disorder to come.

Our country is now attempting to elect a new president, and Brandeis is fortunate to have chosen a new leader already. The decisions made by both these presidents will have consequences — some anticipated, some not — that extend far into the future. In selecting Ron Liebowitz to guide the course of the university in these perilous times, Brandeis has made a wise choice, one in keeping with its persistent ambitions. I first got to know this new president after he arrived at Middlebury College in the mid-1980s. Although he was an untenured assistant professor of geography, he was instrumental in effectively remaking that beleaguered department, which was on the verge of extinction, transforming it into one of the most successful and intellectually demanding programs in the college. Later, as a member of the academic administration, he moved through a succession of senior positions and was ultimately named president, in which capacity he served for a dozen years. Over that time, he oversaw the expansion of Middlebury into an actual rather than merely rhetorical global educational enterprise, with resources situated all over the world. Among the things that seemed to me most meaningful was that he committed himself to securing substantial endowments that ensured the continuing publication of the New England Review, and guaranteed the future of the French School and the classics department — this last at a time when study of the classics was thought by some to be superfluous (anyone who holds this view might find some readings in the history of Rome unexpectedly illuminating just now).

President Liebowitz has a significant record of accomplishment, and he possesses many gifts, three in particular that in my view make him especially well-suited for the daunting job that he has taken on.

First, as a scholar trained in cultural economic and political geography, he has focused on the individual republics that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When in the late 1980s the Soviet Union collapsed, he was one of the few experts who had an informed sense of the specific histories and defining cultures of the many separate republics that had been wrangled into a confederation. To anyone familiar with the ways of the academy, this background of awareness may be seen as providing excellent preparation for a career in administration.

Second, ever since his college days, he has been an accomplished swimmer — an activity requiring many hours of solitary sustained concentration and extraordinary stamina. Perhaps as a consequence of this practice, unlike those given almost exclusively to disembodied abstractions, he seems to possess an almost immediate physical sense of what it actually takes to reach a goal.

Third, he grasps the implications of the far-reaching moral and educational project that demanded the creation of this university in the first place, and that remains at the heart of its existence. At a time when perfectly respectable institutions maintained quotas for Jewish students, Brandeis offered them a place where they could continue their education; and as a nondenominational secular institution it made a central component of its mission an insistence on offering that same opportunity to others seeking to realize their most challenging ambitions. From the outset, as I’ve suggested, the university moved aggressively to assemble a distinguished and exciting faculty, a number of whom would not have been welcome at more conventional institutions. During that earlier period, some of the most pre-eminent — Alexander Altmann and Nahum Glatzer, for example — were refugees from Nazism, and the ones to whom I myself was drawn — Philip Rahv and Irving Howe, both highly influential critics and editors — were actually New York intellectuals conducting their operations from this energized off-site location. In the end, the fact is that the university offered a home to both students and faculty members who might otherwise have found themselves homeless; and despite their often intense and irreconcilable disagreements, the participants in this community were united by a sense that there was really nowhere else where they belonged, or where the questions they raised would be taken more seriously or seen as more necessary.

It was a daring project then, as it is now, and it has always required daring leadership, willing to challenge the odds in pursuit of visionary aspirations. In the political, cultural and economic chaos of the present moment, leadership of this kind is especially difficult to achieve and sustain. But as this new era in the university’s history begins, we would do well to remember that the promise in the past with which we began in effect may be the future toward which we continue to strive. We may very well never get there, but this is part of a larger undertaking, that of perfecting the world and pursuing truth, even unto its innermost parts — beyond the numbingly familiar fashions of the moment and the unscrutinized preconceptions held by what Harold Rosenberg once called “the herd of independent minds.” As the sages have instructed us, although we ourselves may not succeed in bringing this exacting work to completion, neither may we desist from engaging in it. If I may presume to say so, it seems to me essential in the coming years that Brandeis find a way to stay true to its roots, that it remain committed to the deep, demanding, comprehensive ethical and intellectual impulse that first brought it into being. In celebrating Ron Liebowitz’s assumption of a range of challenging responsibilities today, I would urge us all to help him keep that faith.

Thank you for your attention.