EDITORIAL: Reevaluate Lawrence presidency
Quell identity crisis
University President Frederick Lawrence announced his plans to step down from his position in an email to the University on Friday, saying he would serve to the end of this academic year and then accept a senior research scholar position at Yale University.
Lawrence wrote that he was “tremendously proud of the way Brandeis has grown and thrived” and cited both an all-time high endowment and an all-time high applicant pool as achievements during his presidency as well as the re-opened Rose Art Museum and “significant progress in balancing the University budget.”
Lawrence’s departure represents a potentially major shift in the University’s identity as both his successes and his failings are indicative of broader issues in the University at present. This board calls on the search committee to recognize these issues and select a president capable of reconciling them.
When Lawrence became University president in 2011, he came from a career as a leading expert in civil rights law and bias-based crimes. He had written several books on bias-motivated crime, constitutional law and free expression, including Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law. He was also among the most religiously active presidents in the University’s history, keeping kosher and regularly attending Shabbat services, according to a 2011 Jewish Daily Forward article—published only a few months after Lawrence’s tenure began. Between his professional career and his personal religious background, Lawrence appeared to be a living manifestation of the two major aspects of Brandeis’ identity: social justice and a historial commitment to the Jewish faith and itvalues. In the aforementioned Forward article, Prof. Stephen Whitfield (AMST) said, “The chief issue that Fred Lawrence will face is the chief issue that [former University President] Jehuda Reinharz has faced … That is, we honor our particular ethnic and religious past. We cherish it. Some of us want to cultivate it. And, how is that rendered compatible with the ideal of diversity?” Though on paper Lawrence appeared to perfectly represent both of these ideals, in practice he has been presented with difficult intersections of the two and has not often responded well.
This difficulty synthesizing the two elements is not a new issue when selecting University presidents. Reinharz became president after his predecessor, Evelyn Handler, controversially introduced pork and shellfish to campus dining in an effort to attract more Asian students, according to the Forward. This, in turn, led to a precipitous drop in donations from the University’s largely Jewish donor base, according to a March 2014 Justice article.
Later in his tenure, Reinharz was criticized for not being on campus when President Jimmy Carter spoke about his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in 2007 and for the sudden dismantling of a Palestinian art exhibit in Goldfarb Library in 2006. These examples illustrate the conflicts that can and have arisen from negotiating Brandeis’ history as a nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored University with its current identity and branding as a University committed to social justice values. While the University’s Jewish values and commitment to social justice don’t inherently conflict, it often becomes difficult for University presidents to both respect all ethnic and religious groups as equally valid and show particular sensitivity to the beliefs of one specific group. This forces University presidents to choose between pleasing donors and pleasing students, both of which are critical to the president’s twin roles as campus leader and fundraiser.
Analyzing Lawrence’s tenure through the context of incorporating the University’s social justice values and its status as a nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored University make many of the public scandals that have dotted his presidency more comprehensible. Brandeis ended its partnership with Al-Quds University in November 2013 after a rally on the Palestinian university’s campus evoked Fascist imagery and Al-Quds President Sari Nusseibeh responded inadequately. Here, Lawrence favored the deep offense many Jews felt toward that notorious statement but provoked the ire of critics who noted that a Jewish-sponsored University ending ties with a Palestinian university set a poor example for Israeli-Palestinian relations and free academic discourse in general.
In April 2014, Lawrence’s decision to rescind Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree at commencement earned applause from students and professors concerned with sensitivity to the campus’ Muslim community, but was seen as cowardly by critics on and off-campus. Many criticized the choice, including prominent members of the Jewish community: Tablet Magazine, a Jewish publication, offered Hirsi Ali their first ever “Moses Award” in response and stated that the University subjected “an outspoken dissident … to public pillory.” This scandal in particular highlighted a common complaint to Lawrence’s response—or lack thereof—to public scandals. This board has frequently criticized Lawrence’s silence in the face of the Hirsi Ali controversy, particularly as he himself was publicly attacked after the disinvitation.
As the University begins searching for its next president, this board hopes the search committee will recognize the lessons to be learned from Lawrence’s presidency: that the University must either find a way to adequately synthesize its ideals of social justice and Jewish sponsorship so that neither group is left disenfranchised or forge a new identity entirely that unites these two groups. But regardless of how the problem is addressed, we hope that it is considered fully and adequately. This board hopes that both the search committee and the next president acknowledge the need to learn from Lawrence’s tenure.