Fred Reflects: Part 2
President Lawrence sat down with justFeatures to speak about his term as president and the future of the University. Below is the unabridged version of the interview.
FL: The Brandeis character is a commitment to inquiry. It’s a commitment to excellence, and a commitment to challenging oneself. And on top of all of those things, or as part of all of those things, a commitment to the institution. Again, as I said, not a place to come to to take and leave, but a place to contribute and to leave something for yourself on that.
JF: You mentioned the role of Judaism a little bit earlier. I was wondering if you could expand on that a bit. What do you see as the role of Judaism at Brandeis in 2015?
FL: The roots of our university are in the American Jewish community. So I think it bespeaks a part of our commitment in terms of the curriculum. We’ll always have a very strong Judaic studies program; we’ll always have a strong Hebrew language program. But beyond that, we’ll have a strong Israel studies center. I think, by most measures, it is one of the top Israel studies programs in the world. Certainly, in my view, the top one in the United States. A very strong Middle Eastern studies program, and the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies, one of the top Middle Eastern studies centers in the country. So it affects us curricularly. It affects us culturally in terms of the wide range of activities—religious, social, secular, political—that involve, by the way, not just Jewish students but students from a whole range of backgrounds.
And it can be something as informal as the wonderful break-fast that we have at the end of Yom Kippur every year. For the last couple of years we have had over two thousand students breaking fast together. And I can tell you some of those students are coming from services where they’ve been all day and some of those students have never been to a break-fast before in their lives and this is a brand new thing to them. One of the things I like to do at the break-fast is collect stories. You wander around there and you see people from all over the world, and I’ll never forget running into a student from Kenya, who was a graduate student at Heller, who was amazed at this whole institution of the break-fast and has observed all the different parts of the Jewish community at Brandeis and the non-Jewish community at Brandeis all coming together under this tent. What he said to me was “So the essence of this is communities within communities. And that,” he said, “is the essence of community.” And that’s a very Brandeis moment. So I think we can provide that in a way really no other University can.
JF: You also briefly mentioned the University’s relationship to Israel. You’ve been criticized by some faculty members for increasing the school’s commitment to the state of Israel, especially when the school’s mission statement specifies that it “cherish[es] its independence from any doctrine or government.” Do you see that as contradictory in any way?
FL: Not at all. Because it’s not a political position. I don’t think that we have a commitment to any government, but our commitment is in terms of bringing the best and the brightest students from Israel. I think they have played an instrumental role in building some of the Israel programs on campus, which, when you think about them, are hardly doctrinary. Something like BVIEW—Brandeis Visions of Israel in an Evolving World—is exactly the opposite of a doctrinary approach. I take enormous pride in the fact that on this campus, maybe uniquely, we’re able to have an Israel discussion group that includes our AIPAC chapter, our J Street chapter and everything in between. There are many places where those groups don’t even talk to each other. On this campus, they build together. The fact that we’ve been able to draw undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students from Israel, the fact that the Braman Foundation gave us a gift to incentivize faculty from any field—it didn’t matter what the project was, best idea wins—so long as it’s in collaboration with some Israeli partner. That’s not about politics. That’s about neuroscience; that’s about cognitive psychology; that’s about film studies; that’s about a whole host of different academic programs having nothing to do with the politics of it. So I think to view it as a political connection is to miss the point. It’s a deep, sustaining social commitment and connection.
JF: In your words, what is social justice?
FL: Albert Einstein said, “We are on this earth for the benefit of each other.” And it is about living in a way where you leave the world better than you found it. And giving back in a whole range of different ways as different people are able to. So I think social justice is not a narrow commitment to a specific set of programs; it’s a broad view that says that “to those to whom much has been given, much is expected.” And everyone who has the privilege to be on this campus has been given a lot. So much is expected of us all.
JF: How do you think social justice fits into the character of Brandeis as a whole?
FL: I think it animates a lot of what we do here in terms of our academic programs. It’s not just studying subjects in the abstract but thinking about how they affect the world. I think it affects a lot of the activities on campus. I think it explains in some deep way how it is possible that a campus this size, it’s not all that big, can produce in the last year 60 thousand hours of community service in the city of Waltham. That’s a group of undergraduate students particularly, graduate students too, who are committed to making a difference and to giving themselves. That’s not going to help you get a job. That’s not going to help you make a living—it will help you make a life.
JF: I want to talk a little bit about last year specifically. There was one major event where the University severed its ties with Al-Quds University—
FL: Not severed. Suspended.
FL: There is a significant difference.
JF: It was due to this rally with Fascist imagery, and their president’s poor response to that. Do you stand by the choice to suspend that relationship?
FL: I certainly stand by that decision to suspend that relationship. I have been asked, particularly recently, whether we would restore the full relationship, and I have said that I really think that that is the role of my successor. That given the fact from the time conversations started in the last months of my presidency, it would not be appropriate for me to make that decision. But I wanted to do two things that we’ve been able to do. One is to make a clear statement that given what happened, and given the reaction to it in Al-Quds, that we had to make some stand in terms of the nature of the relationship. Which is why, with pressure on both sides to do nothing and to sever, I chose a different course which was to suspend, to allow a conversation to continue. So that’s one thing.
The second thing is to make sure that the channels of communication do remain open. And in the time since the suspension faculty have gone back and forth, and students have gone back and forth, with complete awareness and support from this office. This is about maintaining communication and maintaining that level of connectedness. And we’ll see what the future holds.
JF: Those students who went back and forth—much of that was through an independent student program which hasn’t been officially recognized by the University through its official capacity. A lot of those students have demanded to speak to you—they’ve protested outside of your office. So what do you think of that, that these students are opening up these channels of communication on their own but that that hasn’t been formally recognized by the University?
FL: The students who were in front of my office—I met with students, by the way, on a couple of occasions. Provost Lynch met with students. So we certainly have met with the students who were concerned. I hear their views. But there’s a difference between being agreed with and being heard. Everybody was heard. And I think it has been possible for them to continue that. But under the circumstances, to restore full relations did not seem to me to be the appropriate thing to do.
JF: Tell me a little bit about the decision to rescind Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s degree last year. Why did you make that choice?
FL: I made that choice, first of all, in consultation with others. It was not my decision in isolation. But I made that decision because information that came to my attention, subsequent to the invitation—and I wish we’d had it before—but subsequent to the invitation made clear that in addition to the many very impressive things she has done, that there were comments she was identified with and had never stepped back from that were delegitimizing in a way that I thought at the time, and still think, was inconsistent with the best values of Brandeis. And that’s why we had to make that decision.
JF: Do you stand by that choice?
FL: What I wish very much is that I had known in advance of the statements. Had I, we could have made a different decision about the invitation. I think very highly of much of what she has done, I think she’s a very brave person. She has a standing invitation to speak on campus—I would love to have her speak on campus, I communicated that. I’m glad that we have screened Honor Diaries on campus, and I attended that screening myself. But yes, I stand by that decision.
JF: What was going through your mind when the national media started to pick up the story?
FL: You try to make the best decision that you can with the information that you’ve got, and you try to respond as clearly as you can. In the world of national media and the world of social media, it’s hard sometimes to control stories the way one might want to. Much of what was said was not accurate. For example, the decision had nothing to do with pressure from outside the university from any particular groups. I can assure you that there [were] huge amounts of lobbying and email that came in on both sides of the issue, all of which were essentially disregarded. I was talking to and listening to people from inside the community on campus and the Brandeis family outside campus and trying to make a decision based on that. But other than that, you know, you make a decision based on principle, and then you try to execute it as best you can.
JF: Early this academic year, many faculty members criticized your letter in response to an article about the “Concerned” Listserv. They said that this letter was chilling to free speech on campus. What do you think of that?
FL: I think it’s not chilling in the sense of really what I said earlier. No one, so long as I’ve been president in the balance of my term—no one will be in any way negatively affected, punished in any way for expressing views. But there are statements people will make that comment, I think, on the president to comment in response. And I don’t think that chills speech. I think people have to have their rights to speech protected and that’s part of the president’s role, but the president also has the right to participate within the discussion. So I’m not going to agree with everybody, and they’re not going to agree with me. I don’t view the things that they said to chill my speech, and I don’t think the things I said chill their speech.
JF: On a similar topic, for the past two years now Brandeis has been listed on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's list of the schools that are worst for free speech. Brandeis is getting a little bit of a reputation for being a poor school for free speech. What do you think of that?
FL: I’m not sure that that is in fact the reputation, but if it is, it’s not accurate. I think if you look at the range of discussion that goes on on this campus on every issue including the most controversial issues, it is a place that is safe to express those views. Students are able to protest in a whole range of venues and forums; students are free to gather outside my office; they’re free to be present when we dedicate the Light of Reason; they are free to use this campus as a major free expression forum. I encourage that. And I think the people who by and large say on the outside that it’s not a place where free speech is protected—I think they ought to spend a little time on campus. My guess is you’ll find most of them haven’t spent a lot of time here. We’ve had speakers on almost every side of every issue on this campus, and certainly no speaker is restricted from campus based on that speaker’s views, and I get calls on a regular basis from people who want to know, “How can so-and-so speak on this side of the issue? How can so-and-so speak on that side of the issue?” That’s what a university is about.
JF: Your predecessor’s post-presidency compensation was fairly widely criticized when it was first published in the last academic year. It was announced at a faculty meeting a few weeks ago that you would be receiving some generous compensation for the first year and nine months after you officially step down from the presidency—1.4 million dollars in annual salary, and your apartment in the Watch Factory. What would you say to people who might criticize that?
FL: I would say that what I’m receiving is appropriate for what I’ve done. It’s a year’s sabbatical, as well as compensation for the year that follows. I think that if you look at where it puts my compensation relative to other presidents of universities of our size, or for that matter larger, it is perfectly appropriate and by no means out of proportion for what’s appropriate. I’d also add that one of the changes that we made to the rules when I came in is that post-presidential compensation would be announced in real-time—it would be announced at the faculty meeting. Those weren’t rules that most universities have. We took it upon ourselves, and I’m pleased that we did that. [In] most universities, particularly private universities, the president’s compensation gets reported on the 990, as you probably know because the Justice follows that closely, that then finally comes out and there’s a substantial time-lag. About a two year time lag. We tell presidential compensation in real time. We take that upon ourselves, and I was part of that process to revamp those rules, and I was enthusiastic about doing so.
JF: What do you think is the biggest thing that people either don’t realize or don’t understand about the role of the president?
FL: There are just so many constituencies that you have to deal with. The president is the one who is dealing with students and faculty and staff—which most people think about—and alumni and the Board of Trustees and other friends of the school who are not alumni but are supporters of the school and the Waltham community and the greater education community and, on some issues, the global community. All of that comes through, and that’s many constituencies to handle and many constituencies to balance. And it’s very difficult to make all of those people happy all the time. I think that’s an ongoing challenge for any president.
JF: Where do you see Brandeis in ten years?
FL: Oh, I think Brandeis in ten years is going to continue to attract terrific students. I see us increasing the number of students, just as I’ve increased it by about 35 percent over my years, to have that trajectory continue. I see it continuing to play a major global role, both in terms of where our students come from and in terms of the impact that they have. I see the sciences remaining strong. I see the arts returning to their position of great strength. I see our footprint in terms of business and economics increasing. I see the message of us being a seamless integration of an undergraduate and graduate institution continues in a very important way. And I think we continue to play a very important role in the international and global Jewish community and in terms of continuing internal dialogue with Israel.
JF: Do you see yourself being involved with Brandeis in any capacity in ten years?
FL: Ten years is a long time out to think. I will always remain connected to this University wherever the road leads me. These have been very special years for me. So I will certainly always have a strong feeling for this school, and more directly, I will always be available to help in any way that I can. And as I step down as president, I remain a member of the faculty, a member of the politics department and also an affiliated member of Heller School of Social Policy and Management. Any way I can be helpful. Right now I can tell you that I’m really focusing on next year at Yale Law School. I’ve got several projects I want to work on. That’s my short-term focus. After that things will become a little bit clearer.
JF: What are some of those short-term projects at Yale?
FL: I expect to take on a book-length project dealing with some of the issues that you and I have been talking about. Which is to say the challenges and the interrelation between free expression and civility, specifically within a college campus but even perhaps beyond a college campus. A lot of my earlier scholarly work in the area of bias-motivated violence dealt with the free expression issues that are implicated by hate crime law. So much of that has been of intellectual interest to me going way back. In fact, my law journal note that I wrote in 1979 to 1980 was about First Amendment issues. So these go way back; they’re of great interest for me. So I think that will be an important part of what I’m doing. And I have no teaching obligations for next year, so it really will be a research time, and a thinking time and a writing time.
JF: In the long term, would you ever see yourself going back into higher education leadership or administration?
FL: I’d think about that. I’d have to see what different possibilities there are. As I say, right now I’m focusing on the next six weeks, the next two weeks to graduation and the next six weeks that I finish my term, and the year beyond that. But I will be open to lots of different possibilities.