Fred Lawrence's inauguration focuses on the history and future of Brandeis

Symposia, ceremony and swing dance aim at academic and social engagement

Photos/Mike Lovett

Fred Lawrence, who will be formally invested March 31 as the eighth president of Brandeis University this week, already seems to know most everyone on campus. Many members of the faculty, student body and staff already have met him, beyond initial introductions, to talk business.

Lawrence began spending several days a week on campus right after his appointment by the Board of Trustees last summer; by mid-autumn he was meeting and greeting with enough intensity to be teased about it in the student humor newspaper, The Blowfish.

So what's to inaugurate?

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Lawrence and the professors who are participating in the inaugural programs have an answer: A serious round of consideration and reconsideration of where the university is now, where it wants to go and how it best can get there.

"A change in leadership speaks to the history of the school and to the continuity of the school," Lawrence said in a recent interview about the presidential transition. "This is a time to engage people academically and socially. It is a time to be aware, to focus on and to celebrate the history and the future of the school - to be cognizant of this place as a special institution."

To that end, four symposia, on Monday and Tuesday of this week, have been arranged to examine major questions facing a global liberal arts university known for its entrepreneurial environment and its outsized academic ambitions.

Bernadette Brooten, the Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, a participant in the symposium on diverse communities and the liberal arts, says the discussions amount to a "substantive academic business meeting."

"This is not about the president, it is about the university," Brooten said. "It is an opportunity for us to look at ourselves, what we're doing and debate it.

"In order to remain vital as a university, we need to take stock of where we are," Brooten said. "How has the world changed? How can our knowledge change the world? An inauguration is a fresh start, a chance to rethink what we are doing. President Lawrence has invited us to introduce ourselves and our thinking to him."

A central theme in Brooten's thinking, expressed in an essay posted on the inauguration website, is that Brandeis' current level of emphasis on proficiency in languages is insufficient for a global liberal arts university.

"We are very good at teaching students if they want to go to medical school they have to have this sort of course and that sort of internship," Brooten said. "We aren't communicating adequately to our students that if they want to reduce global poverty - which is certainly part of our social justice mission - they have to work with people as partners, and to do that they have to speak the language. Not spending a full year abroad, just a half year, can really be a disadvantage."

Lawrence's invitation to participants in the symposia has produced numerous suggestions (all explained in essays accessible through links on the inaugural schedule), and the objection that the university does not have requisite financial resources surely will be heard.

Anticipating it, Benjamin Gomes-Casseres '76, professor of international business, cast his essay in the form of a fictitious interview with Steve Jobs, the founder and, later, resuscitator, of Apple Computer, conducted by the provost search committee. An excerpt:

Search Committee:  As you know from the job description, we are a complex institution, with 8 schools, 47 undergraduate majors, 29 masters programs, 17 doctoral programs, 31 centers, and more. How would you manage this broad range of activities?

Steve Jobs: At Apple, we didn't have the resources we needed to do everything, so we have had to pick wisely. I'm a Zen minimalist. I'll give you an example. At my first board meeting as CEO, there was a wall displaying Apple's two dozen products. I think I raised some eyebrows when I began taking them down, one at a time. When I was done, only four were left. Those were the ones that I thought would give Apple new life by differentiating it in the marketplace. If I were Provost, I'd look carefully at what we really need to focus on to revive our business and return us to our core values.

Search Committee: Most of our faculty members are tenured, so you might not be able to do that here.

Steve Jobs: I didn't fire people at Apple when we slimmed down the product range. In fact, I stopped the lay-offs and we raised our investment in R&D. Our talented people are our most valuable resources, as they are for Brandeis. But we did move people to assignments where they could contribute the most to the overall mission of our organization.

Gomes-Casseres jokingly concludes Jobs probably would not be hired to be provost of Brandeis, had such an interview actually taken place.

"A university is not a computer company," he writes. "But we can ask what is behind Jobs's way of doing things and consider if it's worth adapting his methods to Brandeis's unique culture and mission. Let's see if we can learn from the art, not the artist."

Jobs "charted his course by being autocratic," Gomes-Casseres writes, and "this part of his style lost him the Provost position in his interview. Still, he has a point about bureaucracies and committees. Most of today's dynamic companies have done away with multiple layers and divisions, or never had them. Instead, they assign ambitious goals and give responsibility and authority to leaders throughout their organizations. The success of these leaders is then judged against performance. Are we ready for that?"

Daniel Terris, vice president for global affairs, suggests that while Brandeis is known as an entrepreneurial university "we have not done as well in creating a culture of entrepreneurship that can more systematically nurture, take advantage of, and reward the innovators on our campus who are willing to try new things.

"A culture of entrepreneurship would mean three things," Terris writes. "First, we would have to encourage new ideas for programs, and be willing to help faculty members to develop those ideas in ways that match the University's mission and priorities.

Second, we would set aside more funds for investment in new ideas, with the reasonable expectation that the proposers help develop the plan for how these ideas will be paid for over the long term. And third, we would think creatively about ways to reward those who are innovators...

"A fuller embrace of our status as a global liberal arts institution means not just doing more, but changing how we do things and with whom we do them," according to Terris. "Universities are used to going it alone - at least in institutional terms... We need a sustained effort to develop mutually beneficial relationships with a select group of institutions strategically situated around the world - universities principally, but also governments, non-governmental organizations, and corporations - that will allow us to expand our offerings and options for education and scholarship."

Gregory Petsko, the Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacodynamics, wrote an essay full of witty sarcasm aimed at virtually everyone and everything from the legal profession and the Catholic Church to C.P. Snow and zombies, leavened with a tender appreciation of some of what scientists and artists have in common.

"Science is for most scientists a form of self-expression, just as art is, which probably accounts for the almost romantic love that most scientists express for their work, except at grant-renewal time," Petsko writes.

A common belief "is that knowledge of the arts and humanities is ‘impractical' and therefore a waste of time compared with studies of business (a subject that, as we have seen lately, needs to have a double major in ethics as a requirement but obviously doesn't), pre-law (clearly important because of the serious shortage of lawyers, especially in the US), and other professional qualifiers," Petsko writes. "That market forces are the best way to set the value of everything, including an education, is a Zombie Principle, one that should have died a long time ago but still walks among us. The only market that has any place in higher education is the marketplace of ideas."

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