Report on the Board Meeting; Open Meetings

Sept. 16, 2016

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

After each meeting of the Board of Trustees, I plan to send a summary of topics discussed and resolutions passed in order to keep you informed on the work of the Board. At times, I will propose open meetings at which we can share more specific information and engage in discussion on issues related to the actions taken by the Board. This is one of those times.

The Board’s Executive Committee met this past Tuesday afternoon and was then joined by the full Board for a working dinner and a full day of meetings on Wednesday. During the executive session, I provided the Board with my early impressions of the university. Though these impressions were based on only two months on the job, and after only two weeks of classes, I felt confident in describing what I have experienced thus far: a vibrant campus, with, as advertised, a faculty who is fully committed to excellent undergraduate and graduate teaching, and to producing high-level research and artistic work.

I relayed to the Board what I witnessed at August’s SciFest as just one example of the remarkable learning experiences available to our undergraduates. Students in the sciences are able to engage in high-level research alongside graduate students, post-docs, and faculty in what is an unusual and invaluable multi-generational way to learn. Working with those who become mentors at three different levels of expertise allows students to observe and experience the progression of learning that is rare and I am sure so beneficial to the overall educational process. Few, if any, institutions can provide this kind of collaborative learning environment, yet it is commonplace here at Brandeis.

I noted, too, how I have seen, through their day-to-day work and from the lunches my wife Jessica and I have hosted during the past two months, a faculty and staff fully dedicated to the mission of the university and to creating the best learning environment for our students. In the coming months, I look forward to learning much more about the teaching, learning, research, and creative process on campus, and to understanding both the strengths and challenges we face as a university in providing the best educational environment possible for our students.

The first topic on the Board’s agenda was a report from the special task force on board governance that was appointed in June by new Board chair Larry Kanarek ’76. Board members discussed and then voted on proposed changes to the Board’s committee structure and composition.  The proposals sought to align the Board’s structure and work with its fiduciary responsibilities and to enable trustees to best address the challenges facing higher education in general and Brandeis in particular. Though both the external and internal environments affecting Brandeis have changed markedly over the past decade, the Board’s approach to its work has not. The governance task force made recommendations on “Board culture,” meaning how it works effectively among itself, on clarifying its role as the body ultimately responsible for the financial and legal standing of the university, and on how it can best work with the administration, faculty, staff, and students. The sole resolution related to the proposed changes was passed unanimously. A full summary of the changes in board governance and bylaws will be shared in the near future.

The second topic was to hear an update from Mark Neustadt, an experienced consultant who has worked with many colleges and universities over the past twenty-five years. For the past four months, Mark has been meeting with and interviewing multiple internal and external constituencies, holding focus groups, and conducting two surveys of alumni/alumnae and prospective students. The goal of his project is to provide for us a snapshot of how Brandeis is perceived both here on campus and in the wider world, and how we might better communicate the university’s strengths, exceptional characteristics, history, and, down the road, our institution’s aspirations.

Mark has not yet completed his work, having just conducted his final three focus groups last week, but he was able to provide the Board with the major themes he has heard from the disparate groups with whom he has met (e.g., alumni groups of different generations; current students—both undergraduate and graduate, from across the university’s schools; center and institute scholars; faculty from all the schools; staff; trustees; academic thought leaders). Mark explained the importance and challenge of creating a unifying and clear narrative for Brandeis that both recognizes its unique founding by the American Jewish community and contemporizes the values embedded in the university’s founding given the changes in the world and our environment since then. The Board engaged the issue with great gusto and looks forward to discussing Mark’s final report next month. We will host open meetings to discuss Mark’s work following the November Board meeting.

The third and final topic was a deep dive into the financial health and structure of the university. Kermit Daniel, an economist and former Wharton faculty member and Vice President for Financial Strategy at the University of Chicago, provided a detailed and integrated report that seeks to explain the historical and ongoing challenges an institution of our size faces as both a top-rated research university and exceptional, relatively small liberal arts college. Since April, Kermit has collected data with the help of many staff, both in the financial offices and in departments across the university and met with more than 40 administrative and staff colleagues to standardize and test the data.

In his report, Kermit highlighted how unique Brandeis is in meeting its dual educational and research mission and doing it with distinction, yet noted the perpetual financial stresses and strains that come with our mission and aspirations given our small size, modest resource base, and breadth of offerings. Institutions that attempt to do as much as we do, Kermit noted, are much larger, much wealthier, and/or far more specialized than Brandeis. Our size does not allow for economies of scale—a common benefit enjoyed by larger universities; our endowment does not allow for the kind of subsidy other universities enjoy; and the broad array of courses, programs, majors, degrees, and activities we offer requires greater staffing than one finds in more specialized institutions.

We, as a community, need to better understand how the university is financed and then begin a process for addressing, over time, the financial stresses we have faced if we are to ensure the long-term health of the institution. Brandeis is not alone in recognizing the financial challenges within the higher education “business model.” Many institutions live with great uncertainty due to the lack of flexibility one has within one’s overall resource base, the challenge of generating enough funding from year to year from a limited number of “revenue streams,” and the long-term nature of a university’s major investments—in people, programs, and infrastructure—and competing priorities within those investments—appropriately compensating excellent faculty and staff; providing greater access to talented students through a robust financial aid program; ensuring an inclusive living, learning, and working environment for students, faculty, and staff; maintaining a safe and up-to-date campus infrastructure; providing internship opportunities across the curriculum; and more.

To begin these important discussions on Brandeis’ finances, Executive Vice President Stew Uretsky, Provost Lisa Lynch, and I will host three open meetings (Thursday, September 22 from 12:00 to 1:30 p.m. in Levin Ballroom; Monday, September 26 from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Levin Ballroom; and Wednesday, September 28 from 8:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in Sherman Hall) at which Kermit Daniel will present his findings, followed by an open discussion with Kermit, Stew, Lisa, and me. We are most fortunate to be able to engage these challenges from a position of strength: the quality of our faculty and students is exceptional and the level of staff support provided to both students and faculty is exemplary. I hope many of you can join one of the meetings to begin this important conversation.

Ron Liebowitz