What on earth is happening at Brandeis?
Most institutions of higher learning will have to weather a certain number of scandals and bad press. These stories are usually balanced with coverage of great faculty discoveries, inspiring student stories, or big new donations for the next new student center or auditorium.
Brandeis University, founded in 1948 as a non-sectarian, coeducational institution sponsored by the Jewish community, is having more than its fair share of the former.
The latest public row is between the Brandeis Board of Trustees and President Ron Liebowitz over whether Liebowtiz should keep his job. This escalated last Tuesday when Liebowitz released a statement announcing that he would not accept a one-year contract offer put forward by the board. The dispute, at its core, appeared to be over missed fundraising targets from the past year.
Liebowitz, who joined Brandeis in 2016 after serving as president at Middlebury, is currently six months from the end of his term, and in a statement to the press called the previously-offered new contract offer “a dead end.”
In his statement, Liebowitz said that the Board’s reasoning for a one-year contract came down to a feeling “that fundraising has been insufficient.” Liebowitz also disputed this, claiming that “fundraising had turned a corner,” and that 2020 had actually been one of the most profitable fundraising years for Brandeis since 2010, despite the pandemic.
This does not mean that Liebowitz has resigned, but he emphasized that the limited time period would not allow him to complete the fundraising he is currently undertaking for Brandeis, and further that several potential big donors had asked him about his longevity.
The Boston Globe first carried the news that Liebowitz had rejected the offer, and reported that the president had until Monday to make a decision.
The Globe initially quoted Faculty Senate Chairman Joel Christensen saying “President Liebowitz has been an excellent president; we would like to see him continue.” But when reached for comment by the Forward, Christensen declined to say anything further due to the ongoing nature of the negotiations.
In a statement to the Forward, board chairman Meyer Koplow said Liebowtiz made “additional financial demands we could not agree to.” This, coupled with the fact that “he was not meeting fund-raising expectations,” led the board to offer just one more year “to see if he could succeed in his efforts.” Liebowitz’s statement staunchly denied that he was making such demands.
Meanwhile, the story has left some alumni wondering, why on earth does this keep happening?
Liebowitz, by all accounts, was specifically brought into Brandeis for his stellar fundraising reputation, particularly right off a successful and highly-regarded term as president of Middlebury .
“I had taken my son around for college tours two years ago, and we went to Middlebury, and I kept thinking, ‘Did they build this a year ago?’ Every building was brand new,” said Stan Brooks, a ‘79 Brandeis alumnus who works in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. “I looked around and thought, ‘How did they do this?’ And the person giving the tour said they had this president who was unbelievable at fundraising and redid every building.
Brooks said Liebowitz should be given five to 10 years to do the same thing for Brandeis.
“He just got there!” said Brooks.
Dan Adler, an ‘85 alum who also lives in L.A., hypothesized that one reason Liebowitz felt the need to go public about the negotiations was that he felt backed into a corner. “I lament, if it’s true, that the situation became so untenable that he felt the only way to conduct his negotiation was in court of public opinion,” Adler said.
Brooks also pointed to the fact that the faculty was behind him as evidence that the wheels might be turning in Liebowtiz’s favor. The same wasn’t true for several previous presidents who had short or short-ish terms, especially Frederick Lawrence, who was ousted in 2015.
Lawrence’s departure hangs like a shadow over much of this recent brouhaha. He left Brandeis for Yale in 2015 after losing faculty support, in part over lackluster fundraising and for imposing some financial austerity while increasing his own pay, the Forward reported at the time.
Another blow to Lawrence came when the university had to announce it would be revoking an invitation to activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree over “past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”
But even prior to Lawrence leaving, there had been problems.
The university came under scrutiny in 2008 for a plan from the Board of Trustees to sell the art works in the Rose Art Museum, a proposal that met furious resistance. Shortly after, the Forward reported that then-President Jehuda Reinharz was stepping down.
And as recently as 2017, Brandeis found itself again in an imbroglio over first commissioning a new play about comedian Lenny Bruce and then cancelling the performance. That particular scandal caught the attention of none other than Massachusetts native Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame who lamented the irony in USA Today that a school that acquired Bruce’s papers would then censor him.
The churn of presidents hasn’t helped the university’s image. “It has certainly had more than one turnover in the last 20 years, more than similar institutions, is my gut feeling,” said Adler. “I think that Brandeis has had a set of issues around its identity for a long time and I think that has been reflected in its leadership and in its challenges of its leadership.”
“Can’t we get into the news for something good, please?” Brooks lamented.
The Forward has reached out to President Liebowitz for further comment. As of this writing, Meyer Koplow confirmed that the negotiations are still ongoing.