Liebowitz prepares to begin term in July
In anticipation of his inauguration as the University's ninth president, President-elect Ronald Liebowitz sat down with the Justice and the Brandeis Hoot to discuss his plans for his presidency and his preparation for the role over the past semester.
Liebowitz has been visiting the University campus weekly since Feb. 9, “trying to get a feel for student life, for the faculty, for the academic program” and also learning how to “not get lost,” he said. “I'm getting better at not getting lost. It was a hugely comical day one day when I had a meeting and … one of the secretaries said, ‘Oh, you want to go to Shapiro.’” Liebowitz explained that the ensuing confusion about which Shapiro building he needed to go to brought him to his meeting 25 minutes late.
Because of the confidential nature of the search process, Liebowitz couldn't just pick up the phone and talk to people he knew at Brandeis — instead, he had to do most of his research independently.
"I really started at the administrative level," he said, explaining that he began by getting to know Interim University President Lisa Lynch's staff and followed this by meeting with various University administrators and leadership, as well as the presidents of the undergraduate and graduate student unions and a number of faculty members.
"And I had some drop-in lunches at Sherman each time I came,” Liebowitz recalled. “I just went and sat down and tried to introduce myself. In some cases, students had no idea who I was, so I'd take them about 20 or 25 minutes into a long conversation about Brandeis life, and they’d say, ‘Well, who are you?’ — and the conversation shifted a little bit at that point."
Liebowitz described his impressions of Brandeis as “very positive,” citing the University’s compelling history and balance between liberal arts and research. Although he was initially uninterested in a second presidency, the University’s history, mission and atmosphere eventually won him over.
While Liebowitz hopes to draw on his experiences as former president of Middlebury College, he is also aware of the new challenges he will have to face at Brandeis. “Brandeis and Middlebury are extremely different,” he said. “Their missions are different, their locations are very different, [and] their histories are extremely different.” At the same time, he said he feels well prepared for the task ahead of him. “Life is a learning experience,” he said. “How you approach a problem, how you listen to individuals … that you kind of learn as being president.”
Moreover, Liebowitz is excited to come to a school that is less familiar to him than Middlebury was when he took office there. “You come with a clean slate,” he explained. “You bring a set of eyes that are fairly open, objective and are taking in new information without any of this historical bias."
When asked about his goals for his presidency, Liebowitz told the Justice that the focus of his presidency will depend on what the University requires of him and what the University’s financial capacity is. “The first year is really about listening,” he said. “But any university president is going to be focusing on the financial underpinnings of the institution to really get a feel for the finances .… We're trying to get a feel for the financial capacity and to really understand what the possibilities are before we go into some dreaming exercise … without some feet in reality.”
In order to become acquainted with the University’s financial status, Liebowitz has been reading audited statements, speaking with Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Steven Manos and working with former Vice President for Financial Strategy and Budget at the University of Chicago Kermit Daniel, a consultant who is conducting a full review of the University’s finances. Liebowitz is also looking at the relationships among the various parts of the University to understand how it currently allocates its financial resources.
In spite of his hesitance to name any specific goals for the presidency at this point, Liebowitz said that his overall hope was to leave the institution in a financially and academically stronger position than he found it in.
Liebowitz explained that in his view, the role of the president is to lead and facilitate in order to bring the University to the point where its constituents — students, faculty, trustees, parents and alumni, among others — want to see it.
"It's not 1948,” Liebowitz said. “We can't forget 1948, but the institution has grown over 67 years. The world has changed — outside of Brandeis and inside of Brandeis." Because of this, he said, it is necessary to constantly reevaluate the University’s direction and make sure that Brandeis’ goals are in line with those of its community members. Particularly, Liebowitz is hoping to focus on re-engaging young alumni — which requires that students graduate satisfied.
“The role of the president is bringing together all the parts of the University ... to work together rather than working apart, towards a goal and towards a set of goals and towards a vision," Liebowitz said.
"I don't think the president makes the university anything — I think the president can help lead the institution. ... I think facilitating, really opening doors and making it easier for students to pursue what interests them from their educations” — he elaborated that he especially hopes find ways to allow students to engage the Board of Trustees — “that's one of the tasks that I really look forward to.”