‘Fred, President Fred!” a gaggle of upperclassmen shouted as the president of Brandeis University, Frederick Lawrence, strode down the stairs and onto the floor of the university’s basketball arena.
The students, clad in shorts and yellow orientation leader T-shirts, cheered and applauded when Lawrence stopped to chat. Lawrence, due in just minutes to deliver a freshman-orientation speech , was in conservative garb: gray suit, white shirt and blue-and-white striped tie. But the 56-year-old college president’s demeanor was blue jeans casual as he joked and commiserated with orientation leaders about their previous days’ challenge: helping freshmen move into the Waltham, Mass., campus as Hurricane Irene approached New England.
To many students and faculty, Lawrence has practically achieved rock star status. A former dean of The George Washington University Law School, he became president in January of a university that had been hamstrung by financial difficulties and embroiled in controversy.
He succeeded Jehuda Reinharz, whose 17-year tenure ended in a cloud. Reinharz, born in Haifa in 1944, was viewed by many faculty and students as too pro-Israel, too distant and not collaborative enough. Lawrence, who campus historians say is the most religiously observant president Brandeis has ever had, seems to have a more measured approach, according to students and faculty. Plus, they add, his down-to-earth style and background as a lawyer with civil rights expertise could make him better equipped to deal with the university’s persistent identity crisis. Just how Jewish — and pro-Israel — should Brandeis be?
“The chief issue that Fred Lawrence will face is the chief issue that Jehuda Reinharz has faced,” said Stephen Whitfield, professor of American studies. “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?”
Lawrence, the university’s eighth president, has not announced a major initiative; he has rapidly installed a new leadership team. On September 1, a new provost and a new senior vice president of students and enrollment began; a new dean of arts and sciences had come on board earlier. On September 8, Lawrence announced a campuswide effort to create a strategic plan, with a goal of having an approved plan by December 2012. The provost will lead a broad group of people as they set the university’s direction for the next five years and beyond.
“It’s a new day,” said Michael Rosbash, a biology professor for nearly 37 years. “It’s almost new from top to bottom. The guy is smart, energetic, a good listener and enthusiastic. Only a curmudgeon would not be optimistic.”
Reinharz, who now leads the Mandel Foundation, was under fire for months after he and trustees approved a proposal calling for selling art from the university’s Rose Art Museum and for no longer operating the facility as a museum. No art was sold. But the controversy became emblematic of other problems: Brandeis was in the middle of a financial crisis, and its longtime leader’s take-charge style had worn thin.
This past June, Brandeis settled differences with four Rose museum supporters who had filed suit in 2009, opposing plans to sell Rose art to raise money. The settlement resulted in a dismissal of the lawsuit and in the university’s commitment to keep the museum open and not sell the artwork.
Under Reinharz, the endowment grew to $712 million in 2008 from $194 million in 1994. Brandeis added programs and had an infrastructure boom: At least a dozen new buildings opened. But when the economy crashed, the endowment dropped by 22% percent, to $558 million, in 2009.
Like most universities, Brandeis scrambled to balance its budget. Between 2009 and 2010, 76 staff positions were eliminated through attrition and layoffs. By 2015 or 2016, the university aims to reduce full-time faculty by 35, roughly 10%, through attrition, early retirements and resignations. And to bring in more tuition revenue, the university in the fall of 2009 started adding 100 undergraduate students a year — a four-year plan.
The endowment this year is at $704 million, closer to the university’s past high. But Brandeis, now with 3,500 undergraduates, compared with roughly 3,200 in 2008, remains in recovery mode.
Lawrence said it is not likely that he will lead a building boom, and that he will focus mostly on improving programs and on building relationships on campus and abroad. He is well aware that he is leading a university that has a unique history. Founded in 1948, Brandeis describes itself as the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in the country.
“The genius of this place is it’s both an open nonsectarian institution and a school that has deep roots in the Jewish community,” Lawrence said in a recent interview. “I do not see that as a paradox.… You always embrace your strengths. We should be able to embrace relationships with Israel, but not only Israel.”
Lawrence, who said he wants to expand the university’s existing programs in India, already is showing that he’s in tune with the school’s Jewish flavor as well as with its diversity, students say. He attends all types of student events regularly, whether it’s a Southeast Asia Club meeting — according to enrollment data, 12%of the university’s 3,500 undergraduates are Asian — or a Sabbath service.
Lawrence’s predecessor also won kudos at the start of his tenure for striking the right balance between the school’s Jewish roots and its desire to not just be a “Jewish” school. Reinharz became Brandeis’s president following turmoil over a previous president’s efforts to downplay the school’s Jewish roots. Evelyn Handler, who led the school from 1983 to 1991, introduced pork and shellfish in the student cafeteria to attract more Asian students. The university fell out of favor with prominent Jewish donors, professors recall.
Reinharz came in as “the balancing act, in effect to say, ‘We remain a school dedicated to preserving your Jewish heritage, however defined,” Whitfield said.
But later in his tenure, Reinharz drew barbs from students and faculty who thought he was stifling speech to placate donors. He was criticized for his actions regarding former president Jimmy Carter’s visit to Brandeis in 2007 to talk about his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” which many Jews view as anti-Israel. Reinharz was out of town during the president’s speech, and some people viewed this as a snub and the easy way out. In 2006, he was the flashpoint for protests by students who were upset about the sudden dismantling of a Palestinian art exhibit from the university library.
In response, Reinharz said that he was not consulted as to the date of the Carter visit, and he had a fund-raising meeting he could not reschedule. All Brandeis presidents must balance the needs of the entire university community when it comes to Israel, he said.
“We have a very active student population, very smart, and they’re very interested in politics,” Reinharz said. “Sooner or later, an event happens, you can’t control it, and you then have to decide where do you stand.”
Professors say that Reinharz re-established the university’s Jewish identity in concrete ways, including the addition of programs on the Middle East and on Judaic studies. He also improved the university’s competitiveness: In the mid-1990s, Brandeis accepted two-thirds of applicants; now, it accepts a little more than one-third.
Lawrence, some faculty members say, at the minimum adds a new chapter to the university’s history because of his religiosity. He keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath. Last fall, before his official start, he sang the Kol Nidre prayer at a campus service, and the baritone will do so again in October.
“On the one hand, it is a statement that the university’s president is someone with a deep Jewish identity,” said Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis professor of American Jewish history since 1990. “It was a signal on the part of the trustees that they remained committed to the special place of Brandeis within the world of universities as a Jewish-inspired university.
“On the other hand, presidents are tested when an issue comes up and they have to make difficult choices. All presidents have honeymoons. It was true of President Obama, and it is true of President Lawrence. I think he’s on a honeymoon.”
Lawrence’s profession as a lawyer may be a better predictor than his religiosity of how he could respond to touchy issues, professors and students say.
Reinharz “was more Israeli than Jewish,” said graduate student Sahar Massachi, 22, of Rochester, N.Y. “There were always fights around Israel. He had to walk a fine line.”
Massachi, who as an undergraduate started a blog about Brandeis, said Lawrence seems more progressive. “I think Fred can help us figure out what a progressive, pro-Israel stance is,” he said.
Over the summer, Lawrence gave a hint of how he might deal with conflicts regarding Israel. In June he spent two weeks in Israel, meeting with alumni and visiting partnership sites such as Al-Quds University, an Arab university in Jerusalem. He chronicled his journey on his presidential blog, and his post about his positive experience at Al-Quds provoked a rare missive from a reader.
Irwin Z. Hoffman, a 1964 Brandeis alumnus, wrote that he was disappointed that Lawrence’s account of his trip “does not seem to include even a smidge of critical reflection on Israeli policies, on the occupation, on ‘social justice’ as it pertains to the Palestinian people.”
Lawrence responded, “This was an educational mission, not a political one.” He included information about the university’s goals for exchanges and collaborations. Hoffman retorted: “I believe Fred Lawrence’s journey and the proud, joyful report of it to the Brandeis community and to the world are thoroughly political.”
Lawrence’s final blog entry on the trip, though, won him effusive praise from a 1954 alumnus, Robert Samuels, a rabbi from Haifa who met with the Brandeis president in Israel. Samuels, former director of Haifa’s Leo Baeck Education Center, described the encounter as “a faith-restoring engagement with a man of vision and passion for the humane values which I experienced at Brandeis in the first pioneering years.”
Echoing the sentiment of many on campus today, Samuels added, “Brandeis is in for an exciting and heartwarming renewal.”
Linda K. Wertheimer, a freelance writer based in Lexington, Mass., is writing a memoir about grief and the Jewish faith. Follow her on Twitter @lindakwert .