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Spotlight on Lisa Lynch

Spotlight on Lisa Lynch

By Jacob Edelman

Section: Featured, Features

April 17, 2015

Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Lisa Lynch has had a busy career in the field of economics, serving in and working for, often in a high leadership position, the Labor and Employment Relations Association, the Department of Labor, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She has served as faculty and other academic positions at Tufts University, M.I.T., The Ohio State University, the University of Bristol and Brandeis University. Now preparing to step into her next role as interim president to fill President Fred Lawrence’s vacancy this June, Lynch has had a long and winding path that led her to this step in her career.

When asked, however, about her rise to prominence in economics and academia, Lynch is quick to bring it back to her origins in Middlebury, CT. She started playing the cello at age five and anticipated until her entry to college that she was going to turn professional on the instrument. “[I] thought I was going to become a professional cellist, much to the chagrin of my parents who were worried about whether I would have a livelihood. The compromise we made was that I would go to a liberal arts school with a strong commitment to [the] creative arts,” Lynch said.

So Lynch set off to Wellesley College. After attending a Yo-Yo Ma concert at Harvard, she and a friend, realizing the high hurdles professional musicians face, made to find a plan B as a fallback to the instrument. Her plan B ended up being economics after a long path looking into various study areas. “The beauty of a liberal arts education is that you can kind of zig and zag,” she said.

In her junior year, Lynch went to the London School of Economics originally to study international relations, but soon found herself studying labor strikes in the British coal mining industry. With her hometown of Middlebury being a manufacturing setting, coal industries were a feature that were omnipresent in the area. After writing a paper on the frequency of worker strikes and successfully having it published in The British Journal of Industrial Relations, Lynch learned that she desired to invest more of herself in labor and statistical areas, so she returned to the London School to undertake a one year master’s degree in economics before staying to complete a Ph.D.

Lynch expanded on what an impassioned, in-depth educational experience can do for a student. “It’s that intensity of a learning experience that really changed the trajectory of what I wanted to do … that kind of opportunity to do a deep dive into something that’s very close to your heart, you learn a lot about yourself and what you like and don’t like.”

“It’s such a gift that I have as provost and interim president, … making sure that every student at this campus has the opportunity to have that kind of intensive learning experiences on top of what you do in classes,” she added.

Lynch’s hard work after entry into economics certainly paid off. In 1995, she was asked by the United States Labor Secretary (and future Brandeis faculty member) Robert Reich to become chief economist for the Labor Department in the Clinton administration. With a Republican controlled House and Senate, colleagues scoffed, believing that it would be a preposterous idea to go to work in Washington during such a politically contentious time. Lynch accepted the position however, and found herself in D.C. with a three-week-old newborn and very little sleep. “I never got any sleep with a newborn child, which was great because no one in the administration ever slept either!” she quipped.

She recalled that she learned a lot about organizing public campaigns on issues such as increasing the minimum wage, work, trade, worker’s rights and side agreements. Senator Ted Kennedy referred to her as “that economist with all the posters” that he would bring to the Senate floor during speeches made by her. “I was the data nerd. It was an extraordinary time, and we actually got a lot of things done,” Lynch said.

Enabling others to be successful has been a driving theme behind many of Lynch’s projects. While only holding the office of provost for several months, she’s worked to set aside money for a teaching innovation fund. The fund allows faculty to apply for small grants that would help to experiment and try new things in class, such as teaching with other colleagues or trying new technologies. More than 44 proposals were submitted for $200,000 in funding this year.

Lynch has also worked to set aside funds for research innovation awards, to grant small amounts of money that would be used to kickstart initiatives. The awards would energize projects from the “early, green, dirty, messy and confused idea stage,” to the early to full research stage. “The research awards are meant to support people who want to work across traditional boundaries on a research project, where just a small amount of money would let them have access to some resources,” Lynch said “This is meant to spark the first stage of work. The award would allow things to happen that otherwise wouldn’t have.”

As interim president, Lynch explained that something critical she wants to do during her interim presidency is to make sure that the university does not stagnate its “forward momentum” during the transition period. She listed her top priorities as “recruiting the best students … guaranteeing a terrific learning experience … attracting and retaining top faculty,” who she considers to be at the core of the university’s renown reputation. More broadly, Lynch also wants to ensure that students are and remain engaged with the presidential search committee for throughout the recruitment process.

Lynch desires the president following her return to provost to be someone who can lift the spirit of the university, as well as someone who is able to connect well with Brandeis activities and be able to give them a voice beyond campus. “I think that sometimes we’re too much of a ‘best kept secret,’” Lynch went on to say. “There’s so much learning and knowledge creation that goes on at this campus, but the external world doesn’t know enough about it. I’d love to see a president who’s able to amplify it to the outside.”

When Lynch came to Brandeis, she recalled that everyone she met, from students to faculty to staff, spoke of their commitment to social justice. She asked herself, “How could everybody here be so focused on this?” As she got to know Brandeis, however, she realized that it wasn’t as much of a gimmick as a common commitment, that in fact social justice is something that Brandeisians carry close to heart. She saw that no two people see or agree on social justice being the same thing, and yet there’s a sense of community in the pursuit of social justice as a common goal. “They do it in different ways, it could be in business, arts, science … There’s this sense of community, of shared responsibility, of engagement, a caring for each other that’s very special. Every university says that we have a caring community, but there is something [to] this commitment to make art of your life, and a commitment for caring for others.”

As Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lisa Lynch prepares to step up to the plate as interim president, she looks forward to keeping up the commitment to social justice and forward momentum that will carry our university through to the next president.

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