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Hail to the chief: A Brandeis history of inaugurations

By Jon Ostrowsky

Section: Features, Top Stories

March 25, 2011

When Fred Lawrence delivers his inaugural address Thursday afternoon inside the Gosman Athletic Center, the Brandeis community will gather in a far different context than it did on an October evening 63 years ago inside the walls of Symphony Hall to hear Abram Leon Sachar, the first university president, deliver his.

The times have simply changed. The Nuremburg trials, Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement are no longer the context in which a new university president assumes the leadership of Brandeis.

Sachar’s words echo differently than they did on Oct. 7, 1948 inside Symphony Hall.

“A new institution must move slowly and modestly as it seeks a place in such a company; the first president of such a new institution must pray for strength and wisdom and courage as he is admitted to such a faculty,” he said.

Amid the pace of life in the 21st century, the university seeks to promote change and grow as an institution at a quicker pace, with different risks than the ones it inherited in 1948.

But in many ways, the themes that have defined inaugurations from Sachar to Reinharz remain constant, reminding a community that the pillars of its university are rooted in history and a common devotion to the future.

“An institution which is built on such principles – on the integrity of learning and research, on the passion for service, on the right of equal opportunity – only such an institution will be worthy of the intellectual and spiritual mantle of Louis Dembitz Brandeis whose name it is to bear,” Sachar said.

The university as government

The rhetoric in the speeches of presidents from Sachar to Reinharz emphasizes the role of the university as an imperative function in society.

On Oct. 5, 1972, Marver Hillel Bernstein, who served as a budget examiner for the federal government and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs before assuming the presidency of Brandeis, said that the university plays a necessary role in society.

“The university not only undertakes a unique function in society; it also has a fascinating organizational character that differentiates it from other institutions,” Bernstein said. “It depends more strongly on shared values and mutual understandings than any other human organization.”

Bernstein said that the most significant goal for Brandeis in 1972 was to strengthen “the quality of education,” which “requires a process of full communication and meaningful participation in making difficult choices.”

Urging students, faculty and trustees to participate in Brandeis as an organization, Bernstein admitted that making decisions to build and grow a university requires disagreement and compromise.

“Sharing in the responsibility for governing, however, is sobering. It requires hard, continuing effort,” Bernstein said.

Samuel Osiah Their, who served as president of Brandeis from 1991-1994 and later president of Massachusetts General Hospital, conveyed the same tone that universities have always held a critical function for developing change among individuals and society.

“Universities, as established in the great medieval cities of Europe, are among society’s most enduring creations,” Their said on April 10, 1992.

Their told the community that universities should be considered in a separate group when budgets are cut because their contribution to society is difficult to measure.

“The punitive approach to the expenditure of public funds for research, which calls for arbitrary formularistic reductions, threatens the already-weakened infrastructure of the universities,” Their said. “And society does not yet fully realize that weakening the research universities is a direct threat to the social and economic future of this country.”

Joining Their at his inaugural festivities for an academic lecture that week was Morris B. Abram, who served as Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the European Office of the United Nations in Geneva, and president of Brandeis from 1968-1970.

Abram’s service to the United Nations embodied a generational value to Charles Irwin Schottland, the third president of Brandeis, who also served as Commissioner of Social Security in the Eisenhower administration.

It was the baby-boom generation, the parents of the Vietnam protestors who “resisted territorial ambitions of others during World War II” and “created the United Nations as the symbol and protector of the costly victory they had won.”

Several Brandeis presidents advocated for the values of government and public service and the lessons they provide for Brandeis.

Former President Jehuda Reinharz embraced the analogy to government in his inaugural remarks on April 9, 1995.

“A university president is not unlike the mayor of a small city, who is involved in education, construction and facilities maintenance, snow removal, housing, dining services, security, athletic and entertainment programs, business and transportation services, and, of course, parking,” Reinharz said. “And always there are budgetary concerns. Like a city, we, too, have elections, a council – actually many councils and governing groups – numerous competing interests all vying for the same finite resources.”

Reinharz, who served as president during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, said more than a decade before that Brandeis as a university, would not be immune from economic reality.

“No, ladies and gentlemen, this is not the ivory tower; this is the real world!” he said.

Brandeis, like all private universities, relies on the federal government for funding of loans, scholarships, fellowships, research grants and stipends, yet for decades it has been forced to deal with the reality of budget cuts.

“The Federal government has assisted private colleges and universities in many ways,” Schottland said in 1971. “But these and other grants are now being reduced and the private college is struggling to adjust to decreasing federal support.”

In 1968, Abram also explained the comparison of a university to a government, suggesting that politics depends on education of citizens and their responsibility to participate.

“A university is a community of scholars. It is not a church nor a political party. It does not itself vote. It should be crammed full of people who think, vote and participate in every level of life, including politics,” Abram said in 1968.

The role of government has been recognized in the honorary committees for inaugurations. In 1995, the committee included Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Senator John F. Kerry and Massachusetts Governor William Weld, among other politicians.

For Lawrence’s inauguration, both Kerry and Governor Deval Patrick are members of the honorary committee.

A Brandeis culture of diversity

From its founding, Brandeis and its presidents have embraced ideals of diversity and openness to new ideas and backgrounds in their inaugural speeches.

For Reinharz, an immigrant who arrived with his family in New York in 1961, he emphasized the university’s desire to include others in his inaugural speech in 1995.

To Reinharz, like many other Brandeis presidents, Brandeis represented the resilience of the Jewish people.

“The founding of Brandeis University in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust was a reaffirmation of the extraordinary vitality of the Jewish people who began rebuilding wherever Jews were dispersed,” Reinharz said.

“After the long darkness of the European right, what could be a more powerful symbol of freedom and light than a Jewish-sponsored university, open to all, regardless of race, creed, gender or economic means. The founding of Brandeis was a singular act of courage and faith,” he said.

Sachar said that advocating rather than hiding diversity would fulfill the Brandeis mission and create a legacy for other leaders and students.

“The precious groups that have come to these shores must not disappear into an assimilative cauldron; they must retain their uniqueness which has come out of their special heritage,” Sachar said in 1948. “They must play in harmony with all the rest, else there is a dreadful cacophony. But playing in harmony, the very diversity of instruments adds richness and profundity to the symphonic effect.”

When Coretta Scott King visited Brandeis on Oct. 4, 1968 to deliver an address in the spiritual service before the president’s inauguration, she discussed the connection of discrimination between Jews and African-Americans.

“As [African-Americans] are striking back sometimes in irrational anger, towards the white power and too often domination, they collide with the Jews as the white adversary,” King said in 1968. “If Jews and [African-Americans] cannot work this out with a maximum of understanding, it will be unfortunate because there are no two groups in our society at a point of confrontation who have greater understanding of each other than Jews and [African-Americans].”

King said she believed that Jews and African-Americans, despite tensions, shared a journey of discrimination and that the “the [African-American] struggle has been aided by the long Jewish fight for equality.”

But diversity, to the presidents of Brandeis, has also been about economics and financial well-being.

Reinharz, who arrived in America with little money and knowing no English, along with the fact that none of his immediate family had gone to college, used education as the tool to improve his quality of life. Specifically, in his inaugural address, Reinharz said it was scholarships that had transformed his life.

“Without full scholarships throughout my undergraduate and graduate years, provided both by private and government sources, combined with paid jobs during the school year and vacations, and without faith in me by my professors, I never would have made it,” Reinharz said.

When he began his fundraising campaign shortly after assuming the presidency, Reinharz said it was his desire to give back to the advantages available to him that motivated his travels.

“One of the reasons I accepted the Brandeis presidency was to ensure for others the same opportunity for a quality education with which I have been blessed. This is one of the reasons I have spent a good part of my first nine months in office traveling throughout the country and abroad, trying to raise scholarships funds for our students,” Reinharz said in 1995.

Openness to debate

For all its idealism, Brandeis’ leaders also stressed the need, even when uncertainties of reaction loomed, to allow for free and open debate.

Referring to the Vietnam War, and the student protests that filled the nation, Abram said in 1968 that the students had a right to respond to the war, even if it made others uncomfortable.

“I can give no answer about a riot. The right of students to protest seems to me to be a right and not a privilege,” Abram said. “The right of students, faculty or anyone else to disrupt the learning process is no right at all. It is a wrong. And I will do everything I can to resist it.”

Reinharz also embraced open debate, reminding his audience in 1995, that universities are founded in order to foster dialogue.

“The world has undergone enormous change since 1948, not always for the better. Universities, however, remain islands of hope in a world that all to frequently fails to appreciate calm reason, open-minded dialogue, and respectful dissent,” he said.

Evelyn Erika Handler, the only female president of Brandeis, who served from 1983-1991, said that it was the students who hold the power to enact change, and the faculty who should motivate them.

“It is the responsibility of the faculty to demand that you grow intellectually. But it is your responsibility, however, to reach, to stretch, to find opportunities and also to take risks – for without risk-taking there can be no growth.”

On Thursday, President Lawrence will deliver his inaugural speech. He will be speaking not just to the community but to the leaders and legacies of the Brandeis history.

The Brandeis mission will not be told in the halls of Symphony Hall. Instead, it will be told inside a Brandeis building. It is a building that is part of a campus, a university and a vision that Sachar dreamed to imagine in 1948.

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