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Tête à tête with the new EVP/COO Jeffrey Apfel

By chriscal

Section: Features

October 9, 2009

The Brandeis Hoot: You’re currently serving as Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance. When do you officially step into the position as executive vice president?

Jeffrey Apfel: At the board meeting coming at the end of October…It occurred to the people that were designing the job that a transitional period would make a lot of sense and it certainly does and it has…I came in at the end of August and [had] a several month period to kind of learn the ropes from Peter, who has been so critical to everything that’s gone on here.

Usually [the rule of thumb] in a lot of corporate situations is that you want to have good succession planning. You don’t just have someone quit and then go hire somebody. You spend time grooming someone, figuring out how they learn the ropes, to be able to move them into the position. It usually doesn’t happen in higher ed…What they decided to do here, and I applaud them for doing it, is to create this kind of mini succession plan, which is kind of unusual but I think it really works very well because I could come in and spend from August to October figuring out how the place works [and] learning from Peter.

BH: Prior to joining Brandeis, you worked at the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray. Can you describe your work there a little bit?

JA: That was a brief detour. My basic background over the last couple of decades has been in higher ed. I was at Rutgers [when] the idea of being the chief operating officer of a law firm intrigued me…Managing a law firm in some ways is not completely different [from working as a university administrator].

In higher ed, you’re the chief administrator but you’re typically of the faculty. And chief operating officer of a law firm is kind of similar; you’re kind of the chief administrative person, but you’re not a lawyer. So that’s why that concept seemed like it might be interesting to me. I’ve come to realize, though, that I’m better at higher ed than I am at a law firm…and I thought I really needed to get back to higher ed, so that’s what I’ve done.

BH: In reading your biography on the Brandeis website, it’s clear that much of your life’s work so far has been intimately related to higher education. What is it about higher education that you’re so passionate about?

JA: When you’re passionate about something, you can’t really explain it other than the fact that it’s just there…Even though I’ve done a number of different things and worked in a variety of fields, I’ve never been that far in my mind, or sometimes in my actual behaviors, from higher ed in terms of working.

It probably relates back to my childhood to the fact that my dad was so passionate about [education]. I’m first generation college [in my family], and growing up, my dad was rabid about “Thou shalt go to college.” It was a very formative time for me and I carry around his values with me, I guess.

BH: That’s a really interesting point because many people often have difficulty pinpointing why it is they love what they do.

JA: Well it’s interesting. When I was first looking to get into higher ed from investment banking, I was working with a lot of head hunting firms…And a head hunter called me one time [to tell me about an administrative finance position at a medium-sized teaching hospital where doctors play the role of faculty]. And I said, “I don’t want to do it…because I’m not passionate [about health care or hospitals].” Every time I go to a hospital and walk around, do I like it and do I get excited about it? No, I don’t get excited about it. If I go to a campus and walk around, I’m immediately thinking “What are we doing with the renovation over there? How does this fit together?” And I wonder what the students are thinking. You can’t always nail why you care about something, but you do [care].

BH: So far, how does Brandeis compare to the other schools you’ve worked at before?

JA: [Rhode Island School of Design] is the best art school, probably in the world, and Rutgers is a huge university. It’s more like a city than it is a university, it’s just sprawling… [But] I like the fact that [Brandeis] knows that it’s excellent and it’s rabid about maintaining its excellence.

BH: Have you gotten a chance to meet with many Brandeis students at all yet? And if so, what has your impression been of them?

JA: Not as much as I would like…I haven’t been asked yet to sort of meet in a social or presentation sense with different groups of students. But in the past, one of the things that I liked about working at a smaller college (like when I was working at RISD) was that I did get to know many of the faculty and students by name and my door was open to them and they could come by. And so that’s kind of my style. So I haven’t had enough of that here, but of course that’s something I would look forward to doing more of.

BH: What are your biggest hopes and fears coming into this job?

JA: To be brutally frank…there’s still some significant financial issues that we’ve got to put behind us over the next couple of years. And it’s nothing unique about Brandeis. We have been adversely affected by circumstances, but relative to many of our peer institutions and even bigger institutions, we haven’t been as adversely affected in terms of endowment or whatever else. The problem for us, though, is that we don’t have the resource base and the resource flexibility that many of our [peer] schools do…Even though our endowment losses were far less than [that of] most of peers, we don’t have the kind of financial base that they do to be able to suffer financial losses over an extended period of time.

So I’m very attentive to the fact that we need to address some of these financial issues. It’s not a panicked way, but in a very decided, clear, cool, calm, deliberative way over the next several years so that we can be certain that we can kind of weather the storm that’s hitting everyone in higher ed.

BH: Do you feel your extensive financial and administrative experience will help you to address these financial problems in a head-on manner?

JA: Well it’s interesting you should say that because one thing that Peter French and I have in common is that we both worked in New York City government during and after the famous fiscal crisis of the 1970s…I didn’t know Peter there (he was in the Parks department and I was at the Office of Management and Budget) but… a lot of Peter’s background as well as mine, in terms of our formative experiences in our 20s and 30s was in a situation in which you had to find a way to combine the desire to do the right thing with an honest to God resource scarcity question…And not that Peter and I will do everything exactly the same way, but both of us have had that kind of training with ‘How do you create a plan that people buy into, that people understand?’ [And we both understand] that something has got to give in order to get to the point where you have some stability.

BH: What are your hopes for your time at Brandeis?

JA: When I was at RISD, there was a board meeting and the students showed up to do a presentation at the board meeting. And they brought with them – because they’re very visual – a series of photographs. And they put 10 large format photographs in front of the room but they didn’t explain what it was, they just sort of let them sit there while they were at the meeting. And the trustees asked “What are these?”

They were pictures of doors on campus, and they said to the trustees, ‘We wanted to show you the doors of the few people on campus that [care about us].’ And I was one of the doors. It was actually one of the moments that I was happiest or proudest of my work there because it indicated that to me as finance and administrative person [who usually works behind the scenes] that the students would know enough or feel that I cared enough about what they did that they would put that picture up and say “Here are some of the people that you should really value because of what they do with students.”

That was, to me, an honor. And if I could aspire to anything like that around here that would make me happy.

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