Liebowitz focuses on priorities in discussion of Brandeis’ future

January 26, 2018

In a continuing series of open meetings about the future of Brandeis, President Ron Liebowitz outlined four major areas of improvement he hopes to focus on moving forward: increasing Brandeis’ extraversion, reinvigorating student life, retaining the institution’s unique prestige in research and appreciating the institution’s Jewish-American roots. He announced these goals to a small crowd in Sherman Function Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 24.

Liebowitz said that, to achieve these goals, short surveys will be sent out to the student population in late spring. The goals will also be sent out for review among groups like the Faculty Senate, Student Union and Graduate Student Council. Task forces for each goal will be formed and the plans will be circulated for another round of feedback. Liebowitz estimates that a loose blueprint of action will be ready by Fall 2018.

In the 18 months Liebowitz has been president, he has shared over 70 lunches and open conversations with a mix of students, faculty and staff. He has also reviewed 35 self-reflection documents submitted by faculty and staff leaders who shared their thoughts on their visions for their respective programs, student opportunities, structures constraining or supporting their goals and most importantly, priorities for the programs they oversaw.

As Liebowitz put it, prioritization is necessary considering Brandeis’ growth over the years under a “philosophy of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom.’” Many new ideas and programs were being implemented, but “no one was doing any weeding.” From the mass of feedback he collected, Liebowitz concluded on four recommendations for growth.

In his first point, Liebowitz addressed the necessity for Brandeis to more readily express itself as an “extraverted institution” with “regional, national and global connections and impact.” He noted that the first faculty of Brandeis was actually composed of many international scholars whose global understandings set the standard for academic excellence. Since then, however, Brandeis has become overwhelmingly inward looking and “overly self-critical” instead of “looking outside.”

Liebowitz asserted that “Brandeis has so much to be proud of,” such as the recent Nobel Prize wins by alumni Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey Hall, but many people are still unaware of the institution’s accomplishments. He hopes that Brandeis will make itself more widely known within the larger conversation by being a better promoter and publicist of its own achievements.

Liebowitz then called for a “redefining of the student experience” which he observed, from the conversations shared with students and faculty, as “subpar.” He noticed a particular concern among the faculty around the “imbalance” within the life of a typical academically rigorous Brandeisian with multiple majors and minors. Liebowitz wondered what kind of residential communities students were returning to after a day of classes and if they were providing “the kind of engagement that may be lacking on campus.”

In the Q&A discussion afterwards, Max Hoffman ’19 asked about increasing the presence of Greek life on campus in lieu of improving the social atmosphere. Liebowitz recognized the virtues of Hoffman’s suggestion, but ultimately said that the issues surrounding alcohol and the drinking age couldn’t be overlooked. Liebowitz noted that in his past experiences with other universities, there was not one Greek life system that hadn’t failed in some capacity. He also said that that the exclusive nature of conventional fraternities and sororities went against Brandeis values.

Along the theme of a stronger student focus, Liebowitz commented on curriculum structures and different teaching styles—considering each student’s needs in an ever-diversified classroom. He brought attention to student services such as the Hiatt Career Center and Brandeis Counseling Center, emphasizing the need to listen to student voices asking to be educated on life skills such as balancing a checkbook.

Liebowitz recognized that the current generation specifically, living within a revolution of technology, faces unprecedented pressure and anxiety because they are competing for jobs on a global level.

Moving on to preserving the research atmosphere, Liebowitz said that the simultaneous dedication to undergraduate liberal arts studies and accessibility to intensive, faculty-interactive research is what “makes us special.” The president admitted that maintaining science equipment and employing doctoral and post-doctoral students is expensive, but ultimately “crucial” to the distinctive Brandeis experience. To keep this dual experience available, Liebowitz said repairs to physical infrastructure, tailoring of faculty sabbatical leave and clearer articulation on free expression policy are necessary.

Lastly, Liebowitz pointed to the importance of remembering the institution’s history and thinking of ways to continue serving the Jewish American community. Brandeis “was founded on the basis of openness,” Liebowitz said. Important values such as these are worth revisiting, as they hold relevance even today.

Although the crowd was small, the Q&A discussion after the president’s briefing was varied. Voices advocating for their own concerns within the Brandeis community included religious chaplains, librarians and professors of different disciplines.

Professor Emeritus Jacob Cohen (AMST) commended Liebowitz for speaking more passionately on Brandeis issues than most previous presidents. Cohen also criticized Liebowitz, however, for doing “too much, too fast.” Cohen noted how quickly the president had been speaking and expressed concern over how fast-paced the timeline of action was. Liebowitz agreed and reiterated that the timeline was a loose estimation at best, and real change would require years of work.

Callahan Cox ’18, Student Union Communications Director, expressed her desire for a stronger faculty and staff presence outside of the classroom. She extended her criticism to the president’s low visibility on campus. Cox thought the student body would benefit from a president with a stronger presence—someone who could be seen walking around Brandeis and engaging with students.

The president’s layout for the future of Brandeis sparked conversation within Sherman Function Hall, but attendance was low. The first open meeting was held at noon, while many students were in class. In hopes of drawing a larger student audience, the most recent meeting was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Yet, the adults still outnumbered the students in the crowd, and the majority of student attendees were members of the Student Union.

One library staff member enjoyed the discourse but expressed disappointment at the low turnout. “There were only twenty or so people here.”

The third open meeting will be held on Wednesday Feb. 14 from 2-3:30 in Olin-Sang 101.

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