President Liebowitz outlines vision for future of Brandeis
University President Ron Liebowitz urged the Brandeis community to strive for a strong, secure and sustainable future in a speech outlining his vision for the University yesterday. About 350 people attended the all-campus presidential announcement, with more watching the livestream, in which he shared the “Brandeis Value Proposition,” his framework for the University’s future.
Brandeis Value Proposition
Liebowitz described Brandeis as an “extraordinary institution” with “exceptional” students who love to learn and care about making the the world a better place. He highlighted the faculty and staff as the University’s “foundational strength” for their deep commitment to engaging in research with undergraduate and graduate students alike.
“I am inspired by the voracity and idealism that inspired this University,” Liebowitz said, noting that “Brandeis emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust.” According to him, Brandeis was founded on an early vision of inclusivity, a value he believes is not an “outdated relic,” but an integral value that should be re-committed to and underscored.
Brandeis is a small liberal arts institution with features of a large research university, Liebowitz said. Although Mark Neustadt, a creative marketing consultant, advised that the University “should clearly define itself as either a research university or a liberal arts college,” according to a Dec. 6 Justice article, Liebowitz sees the University differently.
In a joint interview with the Justice and The Brandeis Hoot, Liebowitz acknowledged Neustadt’s point of view but said that “the education and the mission come first,” not potential monetary gains from increasing or decreasing the size of the University’s student population to match that of a small liberal arts college or a larger research university.
“Too complex for our size and wealth”
Liebowitz admitted that many of the University’s programs lack “youthful energy” — faculty are “stretched thin” and the University has no clear priorities. He described the root of these “self-inflicted” problems as an overcommitment of resources and attempts to compensate for scarcity with ambition. “We are too complex for our size and wealth,” Liebowitz said. Right now, “Brandeis is less than the sum of its outstanding parts.”
Vision for the future
To counteract these problems, Liebowitz proposed three strategic initiatives that will build on the University’s strengths. Later this week, a more detailed proposal will be available online at brandeis.edu/framework.
The first initiative will attempt to restructure social life on campus, with the goal of creating an improved student collegiate experience. Liebowitz cited the possible introduction of smaller residential communities and the establishment of stronger connections between undergraduate and graduate students as strategies to improve student life. “Personal and emotional development should be considered alongside academic development,” he said.
Liebowitz recounted stories alumni tell about how much they loved participating in Greek life at Brandeis, and emphasized the need to understand why these organizations are so important to many students.“Something has to explain why students want to join off-campus activities. Are we too bureaucratic?” he asked. He explained that while he himself does not support “single-sex” organizations, which he feels are not in line with the University’s values, he remains open-minded about understanding why Brandeis students are drawn to Greek organizations.
Another initiative intends to create additional opportunities for scholarly pursuits, Liebowitz said. The University should aim to provide better staff support, to increase research funding and to offer more ambitious sabbatical leave opportunities for faculty, he added. Liebowitz hopes to see more interdisciplinary collaboration between programs and departments, such as the existing Health, Science, Society, and Policy major offered by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management in conjunction with the College of Arts and Sciences.
The third initiative will honor Brandeis’ founding values, per Liebowitz’s speech. He reminded the audience of the University’s Jewish roots and described his ideal Brandeis as one that is a “repository for research on Judaism” and a beacon of learning and excellence. The openness and inclusivity of the University should continue to provide opportunities to new groups today, he said.
Addressing current challenges
Liebowitz then turned to specific problems that his framework aims to address. In response to an audience member’s question about divestment from fossil fuels, he explained that the construction of the University's current endowment portfolio makes divestment a difficult prospect. The Board of Trustees is discussing minimizing fossil fuel holdings where possible, which, Liebowitz said, is generating debate. In a follow-up interview, he clarified that withdrawing investments takes time and an early withdrawal would incur large fees. “There are real risks in doing this,” Liebowitz said, calling it “deleterious” to financial aid programs. He also warned that withdrawal may come at the expense of professorships.
Regarding the University’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Liebowitz said the campus was not “conducive to ADA.” He explained many buildings, such as Edison-Lecks, Spingold and some residence halls, need to be either renovated or rebuilt to avoid further safety and accessibility issues, though he highlighted the Skyline Residence Hall as an example of a new, accessible building. He added that there are currently no systems in place to set aside money in the endowment for the maintenance of these older buildings.
In the interview, Liebowitz said that Brandeis will select an outside group from among three contenders to assess which buildings need renovation and which are too old to merit further investment.
Another point Liebowitz highlighted in the interview was the need to support programs that mirror the University’s founding mission. He brought up the the hypothetical of eliminating the Classics department as an example. While departments such as this do not provide any significant revenue flow, as a strong liberal arts college Brandeis cannot cut funding to these programs. “Finances alone will never dictate what we do or don’t do,” he told the audience.
Liebowitz then pivoted to discuss the University’s finances. He described the ongoing structural deficit as a challenge in the long term, since the University currently takes more from the endowment than is financially prudent. Regarding donations, Liebowitz said in the interview that although alumni tend to have positive academic experiences, they often report negative experiences at Brandeis overall. Addressing the issue of raising money in the short term, which could be accomplished through increases in room-and-board fees, Liebowitz said that pursuing these avenues is not worth the negative feelings of students who have to pay for meal plans even though they have kitchens.
The current donation rate from alumni is 19 percent, but Liebowitz said that he hopes this can increase to 30 to 35 percent. If the University were to implement a capital campaign, the goal would be closer to $1 billion than $100 million, he said.
Over the next few months, three task forces will be appointed to determine how best to mobilize the University’s resources, Liebowitz said. The task forces will focus on founding values, student life and strategy and planning. The student life task force will include students. Members of the Brandeis community will be invited to attend open meetings on these issues, and the University will send surveys to alumni and parents.
In yesterday’s remarks, Liebowitz focused on the Strategy and Planning Committee, which will propose a timeline for obtaining and restructuring the University’s human and financial resources. One of the problems the University faces today is the lack of administration centralization, which results in gaps of information flow within departments such as Human Resources, Institutional Advancement, Academic Affairs and even in the Brandeis Library, he said. The committee would aim to rebuild and centralize these key administrative functions, which could include redefining existing job descriptions and introducing new processes and procedures.
In the joint interview, Liebowitz explained that Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stewart Uretsky led an effort to create a new financial model that will now be used by the committees in the upcoming months. The previous model was unable to calculate indirect costs, such as time spent soliciting donors or reserving spaces on- and off-campus, distorting the University’s perception of its finances, he explained.
Accomplishing these goals will not be a simple or easy task, and will require great patience, difficult decisions and sacrifices, Liebowitz said. “This framework cannot be achieved in a few years, not even at the end of my presidency.” He called for the community to be a part of this change and work together to build the future. “Brandeis is worth the effort,” he concluded.