Three years ago, Ronald D. Liebowitz became the ninth president of Brandeis University. In honor of the Justice’s 70th anniversary, the Justice sat down for a one-on-one with President Liebowitz to reflect on Brandeis’ past and discuss its future.

Connected to Brandeis’ mission

When Liebowitz stepped down as Middlebury College’s 16th president after 11 years, he “had no desire to be a university president” elsewhere. So when Brandeis formed a search committee in 2015 to select the school’s next president, Liebowitz was not interested, but he decided to take a second look after encouragement from people connected to Brandeis, including calls to his wife about concerns over the value of a Brandeis degree. 

Liebowitz explained that he took out three books about Brandeis from founding President Abram Sachar, Prof. Stephen Whitfield (AMST) and founder Rabbi Israel Goldstein. “Once I read the history of Brandeis and what it stands for, any hesitation went to the wayside,” he explained. 

Attracted to Brandies because of its strong liberal arts education and high-quality research, Liebowitz discovered more about the University’s founding that gave Jewish and underrepresented students an opportunity to study at a first-rate university. “I was connected to the founding mission,” he added, “and what Brandeis stands for.”

President’s plan and vision

Liebowitz had a six-month learning period before assuming the presidency in July 2016.

Liebowitz discussed how at its founding, Brandeis broke a lot of mores and did not follow a template. For example, Brandeis required an arts course for a degree because “arts are important as a citizen.” Brandeis also hired faculty who could not get jobs at other colleges and became quickly a university of “research excellence.” Sachar and the founders took a chance, Liebowitz explained, and it had a huge positive “impact on the culture of the faculty.”

The president’s vision has focused on finances, infrastructure and relationships between the University and its students. As the University has grown over time, Liebowitz has observed that “Brandeis has gotten a little less confident” about its identity and purpose. He also found that students and alumni loved “the academics, faculty and social interaction,” but gave low ratings on social life. But “the students are superb,” he said, and so is “the intensity of the academic programs.” 

Liebowitz’s hope for Brandeis is to “shine a light on Brandeis and get the energy back.” He hopes to reenergize the institution so that, for students, Brandeis is their “first choice.” Brandeis should trumpet the story of its history and shine the light on its “niche, liberal arts higher education,” according to Liebowitz.

To that end, Liebowitz has engaged the whole University community in the process of redefining the school’s goals and priorities. From engaging different task forces comprised of students, alumni, administrators and faculty, Liebowitz came out with a framework focused on revving up its research, redefining student life and finding Brandeis’ identity again. 

Another issue that the president identified is that while Brandeis has focused on the last 30 to 40 years on its academic programs, it “deferred maintenance” and did not focus on its infrastructure.

With respect to research, Liebowitz wants to make sure Brandeis is supportive and focused on both horizontal and vertical opportunities. Liebowitz explained that horizontal connectivity reflects “departments working across other departments” and vertical connectivity refers to undergraduates working with graduate students and faculty. 

As to redefining student life, Liebowitz said the University is supportive of engaged undergraduates and is focusing on priorities for students. One change the new first year class will see is a general education reform where Brandeis has broken down “department silos” to “think about curriculum of the future,” which will connect multiple departments such as arts and technology or business and ethics. 

In addition to academics, Brandeis is focused on improving the infrastructure for the old buildings, such as the business school which is “bursting at its seams,” or the science buildings, as well as generally upgrading and modernizing the technology infrastructure. Brandeis is also studying the location of departments and where departments are best located. In addition, Liebowitz explained that, in the back office, Brandeis is redoing its whole financial underpinnings and examining its subsidies “to review programs worth subsidizing.”

With respect to identity, Liebowitz stressed that Brandeis was founded as a Jewish University open to others, but it is a delicate idea because, in the past, non-Jewish students may not have felt part of the institution and Jewish students may have felt a little guilt about the identity of the University. The president has chaired a task force to focus on the school’s identity and strengthening that identity. 

Brandeis is not without controversy

Brandeis is a university of “openness and critical thinking,” Liebowitz stressed, and said that this has become even more important in the current climate of racial and ethnic tensions in national politics. 

But Brandeis has also been the focus of these same tensions. Liebowitz had taken the helm following a few years when Brandeis made national news on the hot-button issues of campus free speech and racial diversity. In 2014, the University withdrew a speaking invitation to human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali over comments she had made criticizing Islam, prompting a divided Brandeis. Then, the campus was divided over inflammatory comments tweeted by an African American student following the funeral of two slain New York police officers and the critical response by a conservative Jewish student. Following that, the prior Brandeis president issued a statement to the Brandeis community to be a “climate of mutual respect and civility.”

Then, in 2017 and 2018, Brandeis was faced with allegations of discrimination and harassment regarding the actions of the men’s basketball coach, Brian Meehan. After putting the coach on administrative leave, Brandeis decided to fire him after a full investigation. Liebowitz stressed that the “campus responded” when the allegations arose. As a part of his statement to the Brandeis community, Liebowitz wrote, “The issues strike at the heart and soul of what Brandeis represents, and we will work with integrity and great intentionality to make things right.”

Message to students and alumni

One area Liebowitz would like to see improved is a stronger relationship with alumni. Brandeis has a lower percentage in the alumni fund than it should, he said. Liebowitz observed that Brandeis operated and focused on a year-to-year basis, thus losing strong ties to alumni. He acknowledged that Brandeis must “connect much better with students and alumni.” 

For current students, the president would love to see residential communities where the residence hall are supportive communities, as well as strong interaction between students and between students and faculty. For alumni, Liebowitz would like to see a well-developed class network.

When asked to describe Brandeis, Liebowitz said he would like to use the words “daring and prideful” and hopes Brandeis returns to that image. In five to ten years, Liebowitz sees the University as “a more outward looking institution feeling more prideful.” The president’s lasting message to alumni: “Brandeis is a remarkable institution in need of and deserving alumni support.”