A conversation with Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz

BrandeisNow spoke with the president as he prepared to take on his new role

Photo/Mike Lovett

Today, Brandeis welcomes its ninth president, Ronald D. Liebowitz. The former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, Liebowitz, 59, is a recognized leader in higher education. In 2009, Time magazine named him one of the 10 best U.S. college presidents. The native New Yorker received his BA in economics and geography at Bucknell University and his doctorate in geography at Columbia University.

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More coverage:

A message from Ron Liebowitz to the Brandeis community

Ronald D. Liebowitz takes office as ninth Brandeis president

Video: Introducing Brandeis' new president

Biography of Ron Liebowitz

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As he prepared for his new role, Liebowitz spoke to BrandeisNow about what brought him to the university, his impressions of Brandeis and its community, his own research, and baseball.

Q: As you begin serving as the ninth president of Brandeis, what are your thoughts on the university and your role?

RL: One of the most impressive things about Brandeis is how far it’s come in only 68 years. It was founded in 1948, and yet it has a remarkable legacy in the quality of the faculty and the accomplishments of its alumni. I see my charge as president as celebrating that legacy and extending it into the future, so that subsequent generations have the opportunity to study and research at a place of this quality.

Q: Since you were named president six months ago, you’ve spent many hours meeting with our community. What are your impressions?

RL: My overall impression is that everyone is passionate about Brandeis. People feel very strongly about the place. It’s small enough that people feel a sense of ownership, even though it’s a world-class research university. And people like to engage in issues very robustly, very openly, and we hope to continue that tradition.

Brandeis is recognizable everywhere we go. People who don’t even know about my new role hear I live in Newton — not far from Brandeis — and they offer an opinion about Brandeis.

One of the funniest examples was when someone stopped me while I was food shopping and asked, “Are you the newly appointed president of Brandeis?” and then proceeded to give me an earful. I wanted to get to my shopping so I interjected and said, “Excuse me, from what class did you graduate?” And he said, “Oh, I didn’t go to Brandeis.”

Q: What was the most intriguing part of the challenge of taking on this position?

RL: What appealed to me were three things. First was the mission of the institution, which combines a dedication to excellent undergraduate education with a top-flight research university. I think this speaks to the needs of society in the 21st century. Combining a broad-based liberal arts education with opportunities for deeper research across the liberal arts and in the sciences will produce graduates who are likely to make a difference in the world.

The second fundamental factor was the excellence of the faculty. They are remarkably dedicated, productive and committed teachers, which really stands out and makes me optimistic about the future.

And the third was the very reason why Brandeis exists: Its founding took place at a time when the best American universities imposed quotas that prevented Jewish students with a proven track record of academic excellence from joining the very best academic institutions. When you study this history, it is really compelling to see this university founded on the basis of providing access to those previously denied, which to me represents an important part of its mission for the future.

Q: So do you see the founding principles as guiding the university in its future endeavors?

RL: I do. Being the only Jewish-founded secular institution of higher education in the United States does make Brandeis unique in many important ways.

The Jewish values on which Brandeis was founded really are universal. Academic excellence. Critical thinking, including self-critical thinking — so one includes one’s own views when questioning positions — is fundamental to a vibrant educational enterprise. And tikkun olam, healing the world, using your knowledge and gifts to make others better and to help the world. All these values upon which the institution was founded are still relevant, and should be relevant to the future of the university.

Q: What you’re describing sounds, as we like to say, “Brandeisian.” You sound like you’re already a Brandeisian.

RL: I might be a Brandeisian already because I believe very strongly in those three values. So yes, I might be a Brandeisian.

Q: When you talked with students, they likely spoke about combining their intellectual efforts with a quest for social justice.

RL: I found the quest for social justice, the quest for bettering the world, prominent in every one of my conversations with students. I tried to steer those conversations into the question of being critical and self-critical. I asked students to tell me exactly what their idea of social justice was. Their responses were interesting, though not always clear to me. I look forward to continuing this particular conversation this coming year.

Q: What are some of the ways in which you plan to connect with faculty?

RL: I’m looking forward to having many ways of engaging with the faculty, including visiting each department to familiarize myself with colleagues, learn how the department views its work and how that work ties into the university. My wife, Jessica, and I had monthly lunches with faculty at Middlebury, and we plan to do that here at Brandeis as well. Faculty at Brandeis seem to be as passionate about the university as the students and the alums, and they appear to have the same firm commitment to social justice as well.

Q: You and your wife, Jessica, have been on sabbatical for the past year doing research. What were you exploring?

RL: We are looking at the future of doctoral education in the U.S. Over my 11 years as president at Middlebury, the two of us hosted monthly lunches with faculty prior to their first pretenure review — faculty in their first, second and third year of teaching. Many spoke eloquently about how their doctoral education did or did not prepare them for the rigors of being in front of a class at a place like Middlebury.

The major theme from those many years of lunches was that the world was changing dramatically and quickly, and higher education was not. For example, students coming into the classroom were highly technologically savvy and learned through a different [K-12] pedagogy from past generations of students. In addition, classroom demographics have changed rather dramatically, mirroring the country’s changing demographics. As a result, faculty members were teaching to a very different audience, and they were not fully prepared for that.

So we began a Boston-area project, conducting focus groups with PhD candidates enrolled at PhD-granting institutions. We are now putting together a set of ideas and questions to go forward.

Q: Do you think this research will inform your leadership at Brandeis?

RL: Yes, I do. The research topic is fascinating in its own right, and it’s interesting to me as an educator, period. But now being president of Brandeis, a research university, I think it’s invaluable because I hear firsthand what’s on the minds of the doctoral students from their perspective, from their generation, which will inform my own understanding of the challenges facing graduate education at Brandeis and beyond.

Q: You’re from New York, but you’ve spent 32 years in New England. So where are your baseball allegiances?

RL: I was born in Brooklyn the year the Dodgers moved out West, so I grew up in a household where the Dodgers were hated because they left beloved Ebbets Field. My family became Mets fans. But I’m a contrarian, and so I couldn’t ever root for the same team that my family, especially my older brother and my father, were rooting for. So as they became Mets fans, I retained my very strong Dodger allegiance, and that has stuck with me for all these years.

Middlebury sits on the great geographic baseball divide between the New York Yankees and Boston. So I enjoyed watching the battles between the Yankees and the Red Sox — and rooting for neither. Well, I must admit, because I’m a native New Yorker, when push comes to shove I do root (or at least in the past have rooted) for the Yankees.

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