President Ronald Liebowitz laid out his vision for the University’s future at his inauguration on Thursday, explaining, “It is time to declare the University’s ‘start-up phase’ over and done.” Liebowitz argued that the University must modernize and update its founders’ vision to stay competitive in a global higher-education market through examining discrimination on campus, providing opportunities to disempowered groups, unifying and recommitting to Jewish studies and more.
Liebowitz’s speech followed addresses from Provost Lisa Lynch and other higher education colleagues. Chairman of the Board of Trustees Larry Kanarek ’76 invested Liebowitz as the University’s ninth president to a crowd of students, alumni, faculty, trustees and administrators.
How We Got Here
Liebowitz began his speech by acknowledging the University’s relative youth as a 68-year-old university, calling it “in essence, a start-up within the world of higher education.” Despite that, he argued that the awards Brandeis faculty have won throughout the years and its admission to the prestigious American Association of Universities “belie its relative youth.”
“Founding President [Abram] Sachar proceeded from the start with a multi-dimensional understanding of Brandeis’ identity,” Liebowitz asserted. However, he said, historical events in subsequent decades led that vision to “come undone.”
When Ivy League universities lifted their quotas on Jewish students in the 1960s and 70s, they eliminated Brandeis’ old niche. Moreover, as American Jews began splintering in culture and opinion on the state of Israel, these macro-level conflicts found micro-level battlefields at Brandeis. “Policy discussions at Brandeis related to dietary options, academic year calendars, social life and the place of Jewish Studies in the broader curriculum reflected a gnawing discomfort over the institution’s identity,” Liebowitz said.
Brandeis also found itself part of the “amenities arms race” in higher education, according to Liebowitz. He said that expanding curriculums and demand for student services put more financial strain on the University. This meant the University’s leadership had to “deliberate about how best to move forward: about how — if at all — or to what degree to uphold the multi-dimensional qualities of its identity established early on.”
Yet Brandeis “did not have the necessary systems in place — systems that require transparency, the sharing of information and clarity about where the relevant responsibilities and authorities lie — to make such critical decisions,” he noted. While calling this “a pretty standard story for a start-up,” Liebowitz criticized “administrative fiefdoms” and “micromanagement from the Board of Trustees” at Brandeis. Now, the University needs to channel its “creative disorder” into stable and sustainable policies, which begins with aligning trustees, faculty and administrators on specific goals and clarifying who the University’s decision-makers are, he said.
Liebowitz went on to outline his vision for the University’s goals. First, he said the school’s community “should expand educational opportunities to gifted students from groups that have long faced prejudice in American society.” He said the school is best when it “successfully brings together — in discussion, debate and learning — students with different life experiences, perspectives and world views.”
He also called the University’s programs related to Judaism “disconnected” and said they needed more structure for collaboration and breadth of scope. He urged the community to have “the confidence to be self-critical” in the wake of last year’s Ford Hall 2015 protests. “The protests on campus last year revealed a deep sense of exclusion and alienation among some students, and we must take that sense of disconnectedness seriously.”
Liebowitz raised a series of questions for the University to consider as it continues its curriculum review throughout the year, which is the first major curriculum review the University has undertaken in 20 years. These questions included topics like ensuring diverse pedagogy, ensuring students have useful skills for the job market and investigating the different rates of technology use between students and faculty.
“Perhaps most importantly as we graduate from our ‘start-up’ phase: How will we make the difficult choices about which programs and activities we should and can support and which ones we cannot?” he asked in a section focused on the University’s graduate school.
Liebowitz also called for open disagreement and debate about the University’s future. He said that sharing information throughout the University, as well as delineating who makes what decisions, are necessary to the school’s success. “Openness will also require all of us to think institutionally, something that is difficult to do, especially when there is a mismatch between an institution’s great aspirations on the one hand and limited resources on the other,” he said.
Inaugural guest speakers attested to Liebowitz’s character and called for a return to Brandeis’ founding values. They expressed a need to address the inequity challenges and competitive frontiers of the higher education landscape.
“The generic set of criteria for president of university doesn’t quite do for Brandeis, with all its’ unique aspects, personality, and its pertinence,” said Chair of the Board of Trustees Larry Kanarek '76.
Kanarek said Liebowitz fulfilled primary qualities the search committee looked for: “[An individual] comfortable in his or her skin, who promotes openness and debate … who listens, connects and builds bridges … has the courage to make bold decisions and take risks and is unafraid of confrontation.”
Stephen Donadio ’63, a humanities professor at Middlebury College, shared the story of his entrance to Brandeis as a young man struggling financially, introducing the subject of Brandeis’ Jewish community and founding values that Liebowitz later expounded upon.
Donadio said of his acceptance by the University, “They were people who were part of a particular community with its own difficult history that thought my coming to this university ought to be made possible. … Their gift was the expression of ethical imperative that not only required no explanation but did not even need to be mentioned.”
“In selecting [Liebowitz] to guide the course of the University in this perilous time, Brandeis has made a wise choice, one in keeping with its persistent ambitions,” said Donadio, a former colleague of Liebowitz.
Alluding to future frontiers, Christine Ortiz, Professor of Material Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke of Liebowitz’s interest in innovation, research and global outreach.
“Ron Liebowitz has dedicated his life to this great calling of amassing education and research, and his impact will greatly benefit the students and [the] potential to greatly impact well beyond campus borders,” Ortiz said. She added that Liebowitz understands the four imminent drivers of change facing higher education: education technology, inter- and transdisciplinary education, access and globalization, and financial strain.
Ortiz enjoined the University to embrace changing technology while holding close the humanistic endeavors at Brandeis’ core and further emphasized the growing need for multidisciplinary education in “response to globalization, global collaboration and personalized learning.”
“Too often, we talk about Brandeis as a well-kept secret. Well, that must and will now change,” said Lynch, expressing similar concerns about bringing the University to a global stage. Complimenting Liebowitz as a good listener, Lynch also reiterated the importance of listening to the needs of the silent. “We must work to create a university where open dialogue, debate and discussion is something all must feel free to participate in,” she said.