Presidential Address

May 1, 2023

Thank you for joining me today as we come to the end of another busy academic year.

I’d like to begin by offering my gratitude to each one of you. This year has been a challenging one, for a variety of reasons.

We’ve reemerged from the Covid pandemic, and for many of us, it has taken time to adjust to being back on campus, to reestablishing work routines, reconnecting socially, and simply being in a new, though once very familiar, environment.

Throughout the period of extended uncertainty, you’ve adapted and persevered with an openness to new ways of learning and teaching, a remarkable amount of flexibility, and a kind willingness to adjust to changing norms and circumstances.

We’ve grieved the loss of one of our own, Vanessa Mark, following the shuttle accident, and many other members of our community have continued to heal from their injuries—both physical and emotional—following the terrible tragedy. We have felt a profound, communal sense of loss.

Yet, in the time of sadness immediately following the accident, you came together to care for one another, to offer support, comfort, and love for your classmates, friends, students, and colleagues. I am, and I know so many others are, so impressed by your collective kindness for, and commitment to, one another. As I have said before, I am grateful to be part of the Brandeis community.

It goes without saying that we live in a difficult time, and it is easy to become consumed by all of the social ills that plague us, from economic inequality, to senseless violence, to the increasing threat created by climate change, and the divisive rhetoric that dominates our national and international politics that has fueled the rise in many forms of hate.

All of these issues provide daily, stressful reminders as to how much work we all have ahead of us in our shared commitment to create a better world. And those stresses are in addition to the more localized, personal difficulties that members of the community face and which we need to address—issues related to accessibility in all its forms, to mental health, to housing, to the cost of living, and more.

With limited resources, like all institutions and even individual households, we must prioritize what we do first, second, and so on, recognizing that it will take time to address all the things that deserve and need to be addressed. We must be willing to change parts of our culture—meaning the way we have done things and do things—so we can better achieve the goals related to our most important priorities. This is no small task, especially in an environment of economic uncertainty, political polarization, and widespread issues of trust in authority.

Yet, as I stand here today, and reflect on where we are as a university about to celebrate its 75th anniversary, I am filled with a resounding sense of optimism for the future.

I feel this way because I believe in the character and soul of this institution. Since its founding, there has been a “can do” and “will do” collective attitude for all the right reasons.

Brandeis has come so far in such a short time, and this is because of the unique values upon which the university was founded that appealed to many both inside and external to the institution. And when times are challenging amid a swirl of conflicts and problems, it is natural to turn inward and connect with our most powerful values and ask what we can do to address the challenges. I believe that is where we are as an institution, and it is what I would like to talk about today.

I am eager to discuss with you just how much further I believe we can take this remarkable institution, and I do so with an optimism that is grounded, as I said, in the faith I have in our people on campus, our alumni, and our friends, and is reflected in our relatively brief, but unique and compelling history.

That history contains our institutional DNA—it represents something unique in higher education. And though all institutions evolve over time, including Brandeis, the essence, or what I referred to as the soul of this university, is immutable and should serve as an inspiration for our next 75 years.

As many of you know, Brandeis’ remarkable story begins in 1948. Our university was founded by proud members of the American Jewish community largely as a response to the restrictive quotas placed on Jews at leading colleges and universities during the early part of the 20th century.

Albert Einstein, for one, was an important part of the founding. The world’s most famous scientist lent his name to, and support for, the effort to establish a Jewish-founded and Jewish-led university, because he was most concerned that young Jews were being denied access to a rigorous science and mathematics education simply because of who they were.

The fundraising arm established to collect funds for the would-be university bore Einstein’s name, and he participated in a number of major fundraising events. Though there were twists and turns and ups and downs in the Einstein-Brandeis relationship, Einstein’s influence and support was key to the successful launch of the new university.

Yet, when Brandeis opened its doors in 1948, it wasn’t only for Jewish students. From its beginning, as it remains today, Brandeis was welcoming to all students regardless of their race, religion, ethnic group, gender, or belief system. Our founders broke the mold of the traditional university, including Jews, women, and Blacks into Brandeis, and hired as faculty brilliant refugees, immigrants, and even Communist sympathizers—the majority of whom were Jewish—when they couldn’t get faculty appointments elsewhere due to antisemitism and bigotry.

Very quickly, Brandeis was seen as an institution on the leading edge of higher education: bold and beyond convention, forced to do things a bit unconventionally because of the lack of an established and well-funded endowment and no alumni from whom to garner support since it was a brand-new institution.

Happily, and against all odds, this unique experiment that delivered a new, more inclusive university took hold—and did much, much more.

Through the leadership of our founding president Abram Sachar, and significant philanthropic support from Jews across the country, Brandeis achieved success quickly. A women’s national committee was established to help fundraise and through its literally thousands of volunteers, raised enough funds—and collected enough books—to build and begin the university’s library. Can one imagine this happening today? Anywhere?

Members of this Women’s National Committee, along with the many friends who contributed early to the university—including gifts of $5 and $10—were dubbed “foster alumni” by President Sachar, since the university would not graduate its first group of alumni until 1952. Sachar understood the critical role alumni play in supporting their colleges and universities, not only through financial contributions, but through networking, recruiting students, and spreading the good word by being dedicated ambassadors in their communities.

In just a few short decades, Brandeis earned a reputation for academic excellence and rigor thanks to a number of factors: the extraordinary generosity of the American Jewish community; the contributions of those immigrant faculty members who were welcomed by Brandeis when the world was being transformed by a new wave of scientific and technological discovery; the widespread culture of entrepreneurism—somewhat through necessity; and, not incidentally, thanks to a fierce determination to build an institution that would last—and one that would allow Jews, for the first time in the U.S. to become, as President Sachar noted, “hosts” rather than the all-too-familiar unwelcomed guests elsewhere.

Signs of the university’s rapid success were many. Brandeis received a Phi Beta Kappa chapter after only 13 years, and in 1985 was invited into the leading association of Research-1 institutions in the U.S. and Canada—the AAU. Both of these honors came sooner to Brandeis than to any other university. This latter recognition is all the more noteworthy because Brandeis is, along with Cal Tech, the smallest Research-1 university in the country. And while it is the most under-resourced of the AAU institutions, Brandeis early on punched well above its weight through the brilliance of its faculty, their willingness to work across academic departments to counter their small size, and do things a bit unconventionally. Many faculty were, and continue to be, inducted into prestigious national academies and societies, and alumni quickly began to occupy leadership positions across all professions.

It’s important to remember that the idea of a Jewish-founded university emerged well before 1948. Yet it took the horrors of World War II and the aftermath of the Holocaust to catalyze those who previously could not overcome strong divisions on the concept, including opposition coming from within the Jewish community.

And so here we are. We can all be proud of and greatly thankful to those Brandeisians who have come before us to shatter barriers in higher education, and show how an institution can boldly break ranks, show leadership, and give once-excluded groups the opportunity to attend and teach at a first-rate university—free to pursue what we have embedded in our university seal: truth, even unto its innermost parts.

The successful launch of Brandeis is important to our future because it was an expression of a mission and set of ideals that were clearly a reflection of their time, but also of timeless relevance. And, of course, it was the improbability of success that cannot be ignored or even minimized—the ability to undertake what didn’t look like should be possible, was realized. This university was a longshot in the making, and what made for its successful launch, remains an important part of it today.

Since the first class of 107 intrepid students arrived in Waltham in 1948, much throughout higher education and on the Brandeis campus has changed. The civil rights movement had a profound impact on college and university campuses, and Brandeis found itself in the thick of it. As Class of 1963 alumnus Stephen Donadio has said, “...for good or for bad, the 1960s were invented here at Brandeis.”

Most of what happened was for the good. Barriers to a college education for previously excluded groups were finally lowered, mirroring what Brandeis did decades earlier. The university’s raison d’etre—which was to provide Jewish students with access to a quality education—appeared to have been solved and Jews found themselves enrolled in much larger numbers, even at the formerly most restrictive universities.

Achievements in science were spectacular: the space program took off after the Sputnik scare; there were major medical discoveries; and advances in engineering catapulted the country into a new modern age. Brandeis played a role in this era of scientific advance with its leadership in new fields like biochemistry, and through innovative approaches to interdisciplinary collaboration and research across scientific disciplines.

But while there were great advances in the university’s first 75 years, there were, and remain, a number of interrelated challenges that, as we look toward our future, must be addressed. First, there is the challenge of financial sustainability—something Brandeis has faced, well, forever. The growth and aspirations of the institution have long outstripped an aging physical infrastructure, putting constant pressure on the operating budget.

Second is a challenge that many institutions in higher education face: the pressure to maintain a certain standard of research excellence and breadth of curricular offerings. Because of the unique space Brandeis occupies in higher education—being an R-1 university and at the same time committed to providing a comprehensive and personalized undergraduate liberal arts program—the pressure is especially great; it is all the more challenging given the university’s relatively young and undersized endowment, and the small size of the student body to help defray the institution’s fixed costs.

Third is the polarization of American society, which has led to challenges related to trust, the increased intolerance of differing opinions, controversies surrounding free and restricted speech, and the significant loss of confidence in higher education on the part of the general population. Though Brandeis was once in the forefront of modeling an inclusive community, the subject of a very positive article in a 1952 edition of Ebony, the leading African American magazine of the day, there remains a lot of work to be done to make Brandeis as welcoming a place for all of our students as was envisioned in 1948, when the institution was much smaller and the world far less complex.

And fourth is the challenge that comes with the well-documented rise in antisemitism, including on college and university campuses, and what that means for Brandeis as the singular non-sectarian university founded by the American Jewish community. Though the share of Jewish students is no longer a majority on campus, it is critical for any institution to be confident about its history and identity. It is also critical for a university to develop traditions that bring diverse groups together to create the connective tissue that unites and strengthens the institution. This has been an ongoing challenge at Brandeis and one that we must engage more deliberately and consistently.

And so, as we prepare to celebrate our 75th anniversary, we find ourselves at a critical point—a defining period for the university. Ironically, while there were great advances in our early history, there are challenges we face due to what powered and propelled the university to such rapid success. We were—and really had to be—scrappy, reaching boldly to achieve what it meant to be a great university, taking risks, which left us with a level of administrative complexity and a weak set of central institutions that planted the seeds for the structural issues that today need our attention.

Those seeds have grown and created a system that lacks the kind of administrative practices one expects in a mature organization. It has a decision-making process that is highly decentralized, and a mixed model of budgetary and financial oversight that has proven inefficient in allowing us to direct institutional resources to the university’s highest priorities. All of these thing have made it more difficult to recruit and retain leading faculty and staff, to offer a more generous financial aid program to attract and matriculate the most talented students, to invest in our academic programs, to renovate our buildings and technological infrastructure, to build needed new facilities, and to pursue new initiatives.

And so, what are our options? First—I want to be very clear: we are not in a financial crisis. We can stay the course if we so choose to. We could choose this easy path, ignore the structural challenges, and defer the major changes necessary to address what I have just described. That is, we could kick the can down the road a bit further and leave it to our successors to resolve what we inherited.

However, in the extremely competitive higher education market in which we recruit our faculty and students, to stand still is to fall further behind. Our inability over the past several decades to address the many structural challenges the university has faced while our peers have invested heavily in people, programs, and infrastructure has hurt our competitive standing and limited our flexibility to change our trajectory.

As many of you know, we have already experienced a weakened position in the market place. Whether one subscribes to rankings or not, we have slipped several places on a number of these lists; student demand has softened a bit—measured by the number of applicants and our yield on offers of admission—and alumni participation in the annual fund has fallen a bit. And so, while we are not in an immediate crisis, we are also not in the best place if we wish to remain the first-rate institution we are, and reclaim our reputation as a vibrant, innovative university, with great aspirations.

A second approach, and just as unattractive in terms of our long-term success and competitiveness, would be to oversimplify the challenges before us and implement cuts across the board to eliminate our structural gap. This would be another “easy” way out, but it would weaken all of our programs, most painfully our strongest ones that deserve more, not less, funding. And while our financial ledger might look cleaner to outside auditors and rating agencies, we would be a weaker institution and find ourselves in a difficult position from which to recover.

I should note that we are not alone in the academy in experiencing major challenges, but those challenges only add to the urgency of our own situation. Higher education in general is facing a number of critical issues: there is a significant of list of small colleges and universities that are experiencing large enrollment declines and must consider merging with other institutions or closing; a good part of the general citizenry now questions the very need for a college degree; politicians question the government’s role in providing funds for higher education, including critical research funding; the cost to attend college continues to outpace general consumer price increases; expectations on the part of families as to what a college education should provide for students increase each year; and rising student debt threatens continuing matriculation, which reduces tuition revenue—the lifeblood of most colleges and universities.

Most institutions are at a loss to articulate the role they can play within this changing American higher education landscape to position themselves to meet these challenges. We, however, are in a very different situation. We know, or should know, what our role can be because we had a specific, original, and timeless mission to begin with. The path to that role would require a doubling down on our inspiring founding values—values rooted in Jewish history and tradition and contemporized for the future. Those values, just as a reminder, include:

  • Rigorous academics through the engagement of texts and argumentation—argumentation whose goal is not to prove others wrong, but to strengthen one’s own position and extend one’s learning
  • Critical thinking, including a willingness to be self-critical, virtually absent in today’s polarized society, where everyone else is to blame for whatever is wrong
  • Being open and inclusive and welcoming the stranger—knowing from experience what it means to be strangers as the Jews had experienced for centuries in the Land of Egypt
  • And a deep commitment to justice by including in our mission the commitment to help repair the world

It would also require taking advantage of what we defined in the Framework for the Future planning process as horizontal and vertical integration of people and programs. Schools, departments, programs, centers, and institutes should cross administrative boundaries more freely to collaborate and create new and exciting opportunities for our students. This would advance two important purposes: first, expanding academic options for our students, including the unusual pedagogical advantage of having undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, researchers, and faculty—or some combination of them—working side-by-side wherever possible; and, two, working collaboratively to create more of a critical mass in our smaller academic programs and to reduce redundancies in positions, thereby creating savings to be used for reinvestment in the university’s highest areas of need.

The road to reestablishing our unique space in higher education also means reclaiming our collective willingness to innovate and to do things in ways that are out of our comfort zone or current institutional culture—something very difficult in environments filled with uncertainty. This would mean, as an example, using technology more extensively—and more aggressively—by expanding online education to cohorts of learners of all ages, including traditional college-age students, who cannot or prefer not to be in residence for the undergraduate experience. It means offering certificate programs in curricular areas of high demand, offering continuing education programs, and collaborating through technology with other academic institutions. And it means being open to proposals for new revenue streams for the university, including pursuing translational research and collaboration with the scientific business community—something virtually all other Research-1 universities do and have reaped significant benefits.

Above all, however, we must be willing to forego the aforementioned easy routes, which are really false choices. We must instead turn our attention to reminding ourselves of who we are, how we got here, where we can lead, and how best we can more sharply differentiate ourselves among so many other colleges and universities given our history and proven strengths. A failure to do so is likely to beg the question of our very relevance—ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road.

As to who we are and who we wish to be: we cannot turn away from our original mission and fail to lead among all other universities in the fight against the resurgent threats to Jews. We need to speak out against antisemitism along with all forms of hate on our own campus and across the academy. Once again, this is the one and only secular university in the United States founded by the American Jewish community, and if anyone in higher ed should lead on this issue, it should be Brandeis. And we have begun to do this through our initiative on antisemitism, which, through three programs, will provide opportunities for students, leaders in higher ed, and future Jewish professional leaders to engage the issue of antisemitism and seek ways to counter the impact of this form of hate.

Our impressive academic standing attained so quickly requires us to go further in our responsibilities related to our founding values. We must use our strength, especially in the sciences because that is arguably where it is most needed, to address the deep and large gaps in faculty representation across scientific disciplines throughout higher education. The number of African Americans and Native Americans, in particular, graduating from doctoral programs within the sciences is abysmally low, and much lower than in the humanities and social sciences. Addressing the issue cannot be solved simply by recruiting students more aggressively from those populations; it will require some new and creative thinking and programming to overcome the inequality of opportunity, which begins well before one applies to graduate school.

This is but one example of how Brandeis can reconnect with its history and founding values and make a significant impact on higher education and society. To that end, we have begun planning a pilot program that would help expand the Ph.D. pipeline of underrepresented minorities in the sciences, drawing from a pool of students at two-year community colleges.

If successful, this kind of program would likely be replicated by other Research-1 universities, just as so many other universities followed Brandeis’s lead and removed admissions quotas on Jews and other minorities. This kind of program will help overcome one of the leading reasons why too many talented and passionate minority students claim they steer away from pursuing advanced degrees in the sciences: the lack of mentors they see in front of the classroom who look like them and have shared their life experiences. In addition, and hardly insignificantly, the focus of the program is on disciplines that will define so much of our shared future.

And so, what lies ahead? I believe that if we can rise to the challenges we face—and really only if we do—we have the opportunity to become a stronger and more deeply consequential university than ever before. The strengths we have built into the process—clarity about our identity and using our comparative strengths for the greater good—will only be more important in the decades that follow.

To choose this path will require us to reach inside ourselves and also reach outwards to become both the best of who we have been, and something that we’ve never been before. It will require a significant culture shift, where the university’s priorities take precedence over one’s program, major, department, center, institute, or school. It will require the most aggressive fundraising effort in our 75 years—an effort to which I am fully committed, and I invite all faculty and staff to be part of the effort to the extent they can and desire. It will require a return to the “can do and will do” mentality of our early years, and a rejection of the doubts and cynicism born out of the frustrations of previous starts and stops to address many of these all-too-familiar issues.

More specifically, we will need to address the following issues if we sidestep the easy path and instead follow the one that gives us the best chance to create a stronger Brandeis.

  • Reducing the complexity of the institution while remaining true to our strong commitment to the liberal arts
  • Establishing university-wide institutions, policies, and processes that align with the university’s direction
  • Making hard decisions on resource allocation and reallocation so they align with the university’s most pressing priorities
  • Being comfortable with emphasizing what differentiates us from other universities—that is, recognizing what makes us distinct to our advantage
  • And becoming the fully open and inclusive institution that our founders envisioned—one that provides a learning community in which students from every background have access to all Brandeis has to offer

In case you have not figured out by now, I have chosen the more challenging path to follow, and so our work begins today.

I will be spending the summer, and then some, laying out a plan for how we can get from here to there. Undoubtedly, the plan will require some hard choices.  My belief, however, is that what I have laid out today should not be compromised as we have compromised on many of these issues, too many times.

Before I finish today, I would like to ask you to share with me a vision.

Envision, if you will, a Brandeis University that trips off the tongue when those in the know mention American academic institutions that make a difference.

An institution where exceptional undergraduate and graduate students feel honored to attend.

An institution where faculty are recipients of the Nobel Prize, along with many Pulitzers, MacArthurs, Emmys, Oscars, National Book Awards, and other honors.

An institution known for its students’, faculty’s, and staff’s commitment to social justice.

And an institution able to marshal its vast intellectual capital to be the best source of information for the American Jewish community on issues of their greatest concern.

Many of you will say, “Well Ron, Brandeis is already these things.” And I would agree with them.

But I also know we can, and must, be each of these things, to a much greater degree. We must visualize ourselves at an even higher level than today, and one that is built upon a solid foundation to ensure the institution’s financial and mission sustainability.

Let’s lead the way in preparing compassionate and empathetic graduates who go out and help repair the world, and indeed change the world for the good.

Let’s continue to create opportunity through our research, scholarship, creative work, activism, and teaching, and let’s do so in new and exciting ways, which we unabashedly celebrate.

Let’s break down barriers to inclusivity in higher education, being mindful of our own history and our unique strengths as a pioneer in inclusion, to make greater progress in strengthening our campus community and the wider academy.

And let’s be a leader in battling the rise in antisemitism.

When Albert Einstein was asked to support the creation of this university, he said, “Brandeis is a name that cannot be merely adopted. It is one that must be achieved.”

I am asking you—our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends—to join together and help us to achieve a great future.

Working together, I know that we can establish Brandeis as one of the preeminent institutions of higher education—and one that can serve as its guiding light.

Thank you for spending some time with me today. I look forward to our ongoing relationship and partnership in this important and defining work for the university.

Ron Liebowitz