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Former President Evelyn Handler struck and killed by car

By Andrew Wingens
On December 24, 2011

Evelyn E. Handler, 78, Brandeis' fifth president, died Dec. 23 after being struck by a car in Bedford, N.H.

Handler served as president of the University from 1983 to 1991 and is the only woman to have held that position. Before joining Brandeis, she served as the first female president of the University of New Hampshire.

Bedford police said Handler was walking across South River Road to meet her husband, Eugene Handler, when an oncoming vehicle struck her at about 5:20 p.m. Dec. 23, according to the Nashua Telegraph.

"On behalf of the entire Brandeis community, we extend our deepest sympathies to the Handler family," wrote University President Frederick Lawrence and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Malcolm Sherman in a campuswide email announcing the death on Christmas day.

John Hose, associate vice president for university affairs, worked with Handler in various roles since 1972—11 years before they came to work at Brandeis together in 1983. From 1980 to 1983, Hose was an executive assistant to Handler at the University of New Hampshire.

"Evelyn Handler was a woman of principle, strong convictions and creative vision. Both the University of New Hampshire and Brandeis are better institutions today because of the standards she set and what she was able to accomplish in the course of her presidencies. She had amazing personal strength," wrote Hose in an email to the Justice.

During her tenure, Handler sparked controversy when she introduced pork and shellfish to Usdan cafeteria in what she termed an attempt to diversify and accommodate minorities at Brandeis. Pork and shellfish are prohibited under Jewish dietary law and their introduction sparked outrage from many in the larger Jewish community.

Handler also removed the names of Jewish holidays from the academic calendar and scheduled Founder's Day Convocation on a Saturday, the Sabbath, in 1987. These changes all contributed to the fear among some that Handler was trying to diminish the University's Jewish nature.

Some donors, Board members and students believed these acts to be an affront to the Jewish character of the University. Handler characterized her actions as an attempt to diversify the Brandeis student body and be more welcoming of international students.

"I intend to turn the face of the University outward, to broaden our appeal to the best and the brightest of our country's young people," said Handler in her inaugural address.

As president, Handler's accomplishments included the opening of a multi-million dollar science center and the strengthening of life sciences programs at the University, according to her profile on the Brandeis website.

Handler also gained the University admission to the Association of American Universities and Brandeis became a founding member of the University Athletic Association under her guidance.

"She made the case that by any measure, Brandeis deserved to be in the AAU despite its youth and relatively small size," said Sherman, chairman of the Board of Trustees, in a BrandeisNOW press release.

Handler was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1933. She immigrated to the United States with her family in 1940. She received a bachelor's degree from Hunter College, master's and doctoral degrees from New York University and a law degree from Franklin Pierce Law Center.

Handler began her career in education as a biology professor and dean of math and sciences at Hunter College in New York. She then came to Brandeis after serving from 1980 to 1983 as the first female president of the University of New Hampshire. Taking office on July 1, 1983, she replaced former University President Marver Bernstein.

Kriss Halpern '83 served as a student representative to the Presidential Search Committee that ultimately chose Handler to replace Bernstein.

Halpern wrote in an email to the Justice that he remembers meeting Handler in her office at the University of New Hampshire: "Evelyn Handler was extremely warm and charming on first meeting her and it was easy to like and respect her immensely."

Halpern commented that Handler satisfied both Board members who wanted a president with a strong fundraising and management background and those who wanted one with strong academic and progressive credentials.

"She was seen as having a very substantial academic and fundraising background.  The fact that she was a woman was something that I think satisfied some concerns with Brandeis moving forward in a more progressive and inclusive direction," wrote Halpern.

Handler announced her resignation June 15, 1990 and was succeeded by interim President Prof. Stuart Altman (Heller). Altman served as an interim president until former President Samuel Thier was chosen.

After leaving Brandeis, Handler was a research fellow and associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. She was the executive director and CEO of the California Academy of Sciences from 1994 to 1997.

Handler is survived by her husband, Eugene; her two sons Bradley Handler and Jeffrey Varsa; a sister, Adrianne Gluckmann; and three grandchildren.  

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