Fred reflects part 1
President Lawrence sat down with justFeatures to speak about his term as president and the University’s future. Below is the unabridged interview.
justFeatures: Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to accept the presidency back in 2010 after Jehuda Reinharz had first stepped down?
Frederick Lawrence: I think a couple of things. One is the overall reputation of the University, and the model of the University as a research university and liberal arts college, which was fascinating to me from the beginning and continues to be. And the way in which the school, without being a religious institution, is an iconic institution for the American Jewish community. It has roots in the American Jewish community, which to me, was the opportunity, as I said at my inauguration, to tie all the threads of my life together.
JF: Shortly after you first entered the presidency you announced the Strategic Plan, this big project. In 2013 the Strategic Plan came out. There were several initiatives that were part of it and I wanted to go through a couple of them now that we’re at the end of your time as president and sort of reflect on how you think those have gone.
JF: The Strategic Plan said you wanted to make education “flexible and individualized to enable students to realize their personal and professional aspirations while also encouraging them to explore new areas and broaden their horizons.” Do you think you’ve been successful with personalizing education for Brandeis students?
FL: I think we have been able to maintain the focus on teaching which is a real challenge at research universities, so I continue to take pride in that. I think we have expanded the opportunity for undergraduates to work seamlessly in the undergraduate and graduate programs. So that you see this in an expanded [Health, Science and Social Policy] major, you see this in expanding the five-year B.A.-M.B.A. program, you see this in terms of other ways in which research opportunities were expanded. So all of this was designed to allow students to spend their four years as undergraduates not just thinking narrowly about pursuing a degree but more broadly how they’re going to pursue their education.
JF: Another one of these points was that you wanted to “attract and retain top quality faculty and staff.” In February, Prof. Gordie Fellman (SOC) told the Times of Israel that “staff morale has never been so low during my now 51 years at Brandeis.” He said “Fred has taken some peculiar stands on civility and free speech that have bothered many faculty.” How do you respond to that?
FL: Overall, I think the faculty understand that what I have tried to do is to maintain a broad range of free expression but also to articulate what the message of civility would be. And that’s a complicated thing. But at the same time [that] students and faculty alike are free to share their views and to share them widely, ... there are times when people say things that, in my view, are of a nature that is so inconsistent with the way in which we ought to communicate on campus that it’s appropriate for the president to weigh in and express a view on it. I want to make that very clear. That’s not limiting anybody’s right to speak, that’s not putting any negative consequences on anybody exercising their right to speak, but the president also has a right to speak.
I’d also add in terms of faculty that we have had great success with hiring last year. This year, in fact, I just received very, very recently the information for the current group of hires, which is to say the faculty who will be starting next year, that we’ll be bringing more than ten new faculty on. The vast majority of those hires were all our first choices, so I take enormous pride that we’re able to continue to be able to attract the best faculty here.
JF: You said that you wanted to “make a lifelong community where prospective students are strongly drawn, current students are deeply attached and alumni are enduringly committed.” We’ve seen record-high applicants and high class sizes. This is also coming at a time when more and more students are applying to college in general, but we’ve also had these record highs. Meanwhile, many are citing your low fundraising numbers as a reason for stepping down. How do you respond to that accusation?
FL: They’re not low fundraising numbers. I mean, let’s just start with the numbers. The number of dollars raised as cash in or pledges during my presidency is over 225 million dollars. And that compares very favorably with any comparable time in this University, or other universities. If you compare my first four years with the last four years of a capital campaign, not surprisingly, the numbers are not going to be the same. On the other hand, if you compare it with the first four years of any of my predecessors, or any other University, it compares very favorably. Most successful first four years of any president at Brandeis.
In terms of the overall outreach, I think I was able to reach out broadly to alumni, and there’s a wide range of alumni who’ve reconnected with the University. There’s a lot more to be done in fundraising, there’s a lot more to be done in alumni relations, but that’s always the case. So I’m very pleased with what we’ve been able to achieve in both those areas.
JF: One last question on the topic of the Strategic Plan. You said that “Brandeis will be innovative in order to lead in areas of strength. We must identify and support programmatic initiatives that advance path-breaking research, scholarship and creativity, and that enhance our undergraduate and graduate curricula.” What would say are some of those areas of strength? What are the initiatives that are breaking new ground?
FL: I think in the sciences, continuing to fortify research opportunities both for undergraduates and, of course, graduate students—and a good example of that is we established a partnership with Israeli post-doctoral students in neuroscience to come to Brandeis. The fact that a small institution like Brandeis relative to other research universities was able to get that prominence in neuroscience is a good example where we make a big difference. I think the teaching innovation center that was established during my time is a great example to a real commitment to teaching and the science of teaching. We take teaching very seriously here, and I think students are the beneficiaries of that. So I think that’s another good example. There’s a real focus both on the teaching side as well as on the research side. Unusual for a research university to take teaching undergraduates so seriously.
JF: Some members of the administration have said that your legacy as a president will be that you pulled the university into the black after 2008, after Bernie Madoff. That’s kind of interesting, since you came in with a background in law, not necessarily a background in finance. So what do you think of that?
FL: You take the challenges as you find them. I’m very proud of the fact that I came to a University with an endowment that was … 670, 680—today it’s over 900 million dollars. Highest in the history of the University. The draw rate, the amount we take out of the endowment, has gone dramatically down since I became president to a much more sustainable level and will continue to. We’re on a glide path now to bring it down even lower over the coming five years, ten years. The fact that we have a budget that, with a reduced draw rate in the endowment, actually shows a surplus, not a deficit, is something I take enormous pride in. So no, I didn’t come here with a finance background, but I had run a large complex law school where I was in charge of the finances among other things.
I would add, by the way, when I think about my legacy that yes, it’s the financial side of the house, and I take enormous pride in the money that we raised for the growth of the endowment and the budget being on a sustainable course that allows us to go forward on a much better and healthier way financially. I also take enormous pride in the Rose Art Museum. When I think about walking around campus and the places that I feel have made a big difference, that part of campus—both the Rose Museum itself as well as the wonderful Light of Reason sculpture in front of it—the building of the Board of Overseers in the Rose, which had largely come to a standstill. We added 15 new members to that board who now play a major role in supporting it, so that’s something I take enormous pride in.
You mentioned applications before. It’s true that applications are up at other schools, but over my time, [they are up] well over 35 percent. That’s not true at most schools. So I’m very pleased with that. And all the quality numbers of our students, however you measure these things, have certainly gone up. And I think the campus shows the look of what we’ve been able to do. In the time that I’ve been here, we’ve quadrupled the amount spent on deferred maintenance, which is something nobody likes to talk about since it doesn’t sound interesting, but boy, you sure can see the difference. On a spring day like today, the campus sparkles and it looks the way it’s supposed to look. Everything from the grounds to reopening the pool, to the new grounds center to the new Lemberg Center, to renovations in East, Ziv—a lot of the work that we have been able to do really changes the look and feel of campus.
JF: And I think that you’ve also just answered the questions I was going to ask, which were What do you think you’ll be remembered for? and What do you want to be remembered for?
FL: I think ... you should let other people tell you what you’ll be remembered for. You shouldn’t say what you want to be remembered for. But I will say that one of the things that I will miss most about being president is time on campus, and engaging with staff, engaging with faculty, but especially engaging with students. And that’s everything from going to plays and concerts and sports events to attending religious services of all kinds on campus to just the informal interactions of stopping while walking on campus and chatting with people. So I think that I would have been able to play that role in the life of campus. One of the very first things I did—before you [the interviewer] came [to Brandeis]—was a battle of the DJ’s that we did up in Levin ballroom, where I actually got cornered into doing a little freestyle rapping alongside the president of the Student Union. I told him at the end of that I was going to retire undefeated. I thought, “I held my own in one, and that’s it.”
Interim Vice President for Communications Judy Glasser: Is there a tape recording of that?
FL: I hope not. But what it speaks to is that I hope that I’ve been able to be part of the community, and will be remembered for that.
JF: Let’s talk a little bit about the University as a whole. How do you feel that Brandeis is positioning itself in the year 2015?
FL: Well some of these are things we’ve talked about. I think—you know, in-house things—financially, I feel like we’re far more stable than when I came, and that gives us a good position to go forward. I think we have positioned ourselves as a major research university, as I said, that’s got a strong undergraduate component and teaching position. And as a result, I think we do attract a kind of student who is interested in learning, interested in an engaged form of learning, of being part of an intimate community, but also wants to think beyond college. And whether that’s on the business side, on the health policy side, on the sciences, social sciences, humanities, creative arts—pushing themselves to do research. So I think we’re well positioned in that.
The fact that we have this unique position of having a grounding in the American Jewish community and therefore we’re inextricably ... connected with the state of Israel gives us a special standing as well I think to continue to play a role in those issues. And that’s not a political connection. That is a deep connection between this institution as a nonsectarian, Jewishly grounded university and a nonreligious state of Israel. So I think we have a special role to play in that as well.
And then we have a number of areas where we continue to present ourselves with a national, international caliber of research. Neuroscience [and] biochemistry are two very good examples of that. But you look across the program in other departments like Judaic studies, like history, like music, like math, where we attract international or national recognition. The Heller School of Social Policy and Management and the Business school [are] really emerging in that way. So I think that we present ourselves as a small, intimate, powerful liberal arts research university.
JF: If you had to pick one thing, what would you say is the greatest strength of the University right now?
FL: You know, it’s hard to say a single thing. But I think it’s the people. It’s the students who we attract, the faculty who we attract and retain. People come to Brandeis to give, not to take, and that’s who we attract, and that’s what makes it the place that it is.
JF: Conversely, what would you say is the greatest weakness?
FL: I think a challenge for us and for all higher education is to continue to raise the funds that we’re going to need to be able to meet the needs that we have. One of the reasons that I launched that Catalyst Fund for Financial Aid, a hundred-million-dollar fund all designed to support financial aid, is that is a crucial need for this and any top-flight university. Now, we’re nearly halfway through that campaign, so that’s a very good thing. But that has to be completed, and we need to be able to maintain our historic commitment to be able to bring the best and brightest students to Brandeis regardless of their ability to pay. And that’s going to continue to be a challenge. It’s a good challenge, because we’re talking about raising funds to support a very strong program. But that’s going to continue to be an important challenge.
JF: Over the past two years we’ve seen a ten percent increase in admitted students, and meanwhile this year, US News and World Reports declared that our most popular majors, in their view, are in Biology, Economics, Psychology, Business and HSSP. So, according to them at least, all of our most popular programs are now in the social sciences and sciences. We don’t have as much in the liberal arts. You mentioned that we have this balance between being a liberal arts university and a research university. What do you think of this current balance?
FL: Don’t forget that depending on the year, something close to half of our students at least double-major, or major and minor, or triple major or double major and minor, and so those programs that are mentioned are among the most popular, but a lot of those students majoring in those areas are also double-majoring in something in the humanities or something in the creative arts. And that’s actually what attracts those students to us. I’ve seen this locally talking to students here and our students on campus. I remember talking to a group of students in India, and the fact that we could offer opportunities across the curriculum just absolutely amazed several of these students. I’ll never forget one student who wound up coming here said that he wanted to be a doctor, he was probably coming here to study biology or biochemistry and be pre-med, but he loved theater. And he assumed that when he came to university he would have to give that up. And the idea that he didn’t have to give that up was one of the major attractions in his coming here.
JF: How would you define the Brandeis character?