Profile: Sitting down with the president
President Lawrence discusses his new position
It's been a busy week for University President Frederick Lawrence?-attending academic panels and receptions, participating in board meetings and, of course, the inauguration and ball. While his hands support the back of his head from exhaustion during our Friday afternoon interview, the new president's eyes swell with tears. "This was one of the greatest weeks of my life," he said last Friday in the interview.That was 3 months to the day since he took over for President Emeritus Jehuda Reinharz. Lawrence describes his time at Brandeis so far as "enriching." He estimates that he's met over 2,000 alumni, parents, students and other community members. He said there was something "extremely transformative about [Thursday's] ceremony."
At the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center last Thursday, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Malcolm Sherman and Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees Jonathan S. Jacobson placed a silver ceremonial chain around Lawrence's neck, the official invocation of Lawrence as president. When asked after the ceremony if the chain was heavy, Lawrence said, "I know this sounds cliché, but it's not today."
It's traditional at academic proceedings for faculty and administrators to wear gowns that reflect their highest educational degrees, but university presidents get to design their own robes. Rather than wearing one from Yale University Law School, from which he graduated in 1980, Lawrence designed a royal-blue gown trimmed with black and topped by a purple hood that signified his Juris doctorate degree.
"It's what a Brandeis gown might look like if the University offered an equivalent degree," Lawrence said. Lawrence's gown also had four black stripes along the sleeve, a trademark reserved only for university presidents.
Lawrence, 55, highlighted one particular moment walking into Gosman. "Coming in down the steps, I guess there was a whole group of students who got themselves on the wrong side of the procession, so they had to wait before they could come into the grandstands. . I knew I was supposed to stay in line, but I figured [the people in the procession] weren't going to go without me, so that's why I wanted to just go over and touch base [with the students], and I did get very choked up just seeing [the student] reaction and knowing how many students wanted to be there."
In his inaugural address, Lawrence spoke about how his mother, a high school English teacher in his hometown of Port Washington, N.Y., often reminded him, "Every student is somebody's child." This sentiment, he admitted in our interview, will help shape the relationship he hopes to have with the student body.
Students have multiple names for the new president such as "Fred," which he says is "fine," and "Prez Fred," which he calls "cute." Lawrence laughed and admitted that there are still the occasional few who call him President Lawrence. Lawrence understands that every student will want to have a different relationship with him. "I just try to make myself accessible to the community," he said.
"I'm still a member of the New York Bar," Lawrence said with a laugh. "If I didn't like being with students, there's a better way to make a living. But being with students is one of the great pluses of this job."
From Washington to Waltham
The decision to move to Brandeis was not initially obvious for Lawrence. "I really wasn't looking to leave [Washington, D.C.]," he said. Since 2005, Lawrence had served as dean and Robert Kramer Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. His wife, Kathy Lawrence, also taught courses at GWU, specializing in 19th-century American literature. They had a "comfortable setup" in the nation's capital, he said. When Brandeis' Presidential Search Committee first asked Lawrence in March 2010 if he was interested in Reinharz's position, he was flattered but declined.
Search Committee Chair and Member of the Board of Trustees Stephen Kay followed up with Lawrence a few times after the Committee first contacted him. They met in Logan International Airport for an interview during one of Lawrence's business trips to Boston. Lawrence explained that his interest in the job was "more of a continuum. Interested after the first meeting and more interested after the second." He recalled one moment, washing dishes with his wife-"How prosaic a setting is that?"-to the change in his decision. Lawrence described Kathy saying to him, "I still don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I'm pretty sure [the position] is your destiny."
The family moved to Boston in 1988 when Lawrence became a faculty member and associate dean of academic affairs at Boston University's School of Law. Now the family lives in Cambridge, anticipating this summer's move into Brandeis' presidential house in Newton, Mass.
A family man's priorities
Family is a team, as Lawrence sees it. "Spending time with each other is important," he said about his relationship with his wife Kathy, 25-year-old daughter Miriam and 23-year-old son Noah. In childhood, Noah noted, in a separate interview after Thursday's inauguration, that his father would play "legal hypotheticals" as a game with his children. "He would put cases to us of different scenarios and ask us who was right and who was wrong; and this to me gets at the core of what it means to be both a parent and a teacher. That education is fun."
Additionally, Noah recalled that though his mother left academia to raise him and his sister when he was around 11, she went back to receive her Ph.D. in American Studies from Boston University. "My dad actually drove carpool during those years. So when he says, 'The family is a team,' he means it and he lives by it."
Miriam, a Williams College graduate like her father, received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and is now on a fellowship from the University that is supporting her while she completes her fiction novel. Noah, who finished his undergraduate degree at Yale two years ago, now lives in Israel, writing and editing speeches and other English materials for Israeli Leader of the Opposition Tzipi Livni. "They are my sounding board," Lawrence said of his family.
Judaism, President Lawrence explained, "is the faith structure that gives rise to how I think about many things in my own life and in my family." He predicted that there will continue to be a "close relationship" between the American-Jewish community and the University, "at least in my presence here going forward," he added.
"The roots of this University, just like I think of my own Jewish roots, are not roots that are narrow and parochial, but they are roots that are broad and universal. ... It's hard to come up with a more universal impulse than the obligation to repair the world."
According to Lawrence, his wife is working to improve the University, most notably serving on Student Life Committee that planned last January's Battle of the Brandeis DJs event. He credits his wife for roping him into emceeing the evening but stresses that he still owns the bragging rights to his genuine freestyle rap. Off the cuff is Lawrence's specialty, and even in his inaugural address he admits that he strayed from the written script; "Maybe that's where the rapping comes from," Lawrence joked.
Building an ideal Brandeis
The President's involvement on campus goes unquestioned. Lawrence has circulated among academic departments, campus faith groups and other organizations, and he greeted first-years and midyears at move-in. He has appeared at athletic events to support the Judges, even when Brandeis plays his alma mater.
During the interview, Lawrence wore a Hoops for Haiti T-shirt, which he had on over his long-sleeve blue button-down from filming a promotional video for the charity event earlier that day.
Film and Visual Media Studies is one of the categories Lawrence mentioned as a "potential growth area" for the University. He also spoke of looking into an engineering program. "I think they're real potential growth areas, as long as we do them very carefully and really with an eye toward making sure what we're doing is embedded in the liberal arts."
The new president acknowledged that reports of grade inflation and a low intellectual climate on campus in the recent Wabash Study are a faculty concern and admitted that these are issues he will have to think more about. The connection between faculty and students is also on his mind. Whenever he asks alumni to tell him a favorite professor story, he measures how long it takes them to come up with one and how much "flash" is in their eyes when they tell it. "I have to tell you, overwhelmingly, the story comes up fast and the flash is real."
Lawrence will have his own chance to connect with students as a faculty member next fall. He will teach a senior-priority seminar titled "Punishment and Crime" that, according to its registrar course description, "examines theories justifying criminal punishment, and the practice of law enforcement, as a means of understanding our society and its values."
"If you ask my dad, 'Why are you teaching a class?'" Noah said, "he will say, 'I believe it's the core mission of the University, and I've got to support it and show that I'm part of it.' My dad wants to hear everybody's voice, . which doesn't mean always saying, 'That's correct,' but it means the fundamental affirmation that 'you're here, and I appreciate that, and we're going to make some progress.'"
Lawrence's legal background- working as a clerk for Judge Amalya L. Kearse of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and later, as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he was appointed chief of the Civil Rights Unit-mirrors the University's central emphasis on social justice.
Lawrence's ideal Brandeis would be a place "where people take their work seriously without taking themselves so seriously. Where people find that they have lots of different ways of connecting to the institution, formal and informal. Where people are engaged with repairing the world, not every second of every day but part of every week. And where people have a sense of what it means to belong and what it means to give back."
Is he nervous about the job ahead? "Not at all.