On lunch with Ron

On lunch with Ron

I had lunch with Ron Liebowitz. That is, I had lunch with Ron Liebowitz if you consider a catered three course meal complete with butlers and lap napkins “lunch.” The word decadence comes to mind. Tactless comes to mind also, given the tense climate surrounding the university’s allocation of funds. But what is a college student to do in the face of such well-dressed authority? And such free bread rolls! Alas, I could not bring myself to make the joke that must have been on every lunch-goer’s mind: “Man, I wish we had this kind of stuff at Sherman!” I am not so barbaric, and that’s probably for the best. I did learn some cool things that the student body might be pleased to hear.

Students and faculty that had participated in a studio arts course last semester were invited over email to join one of three lunch sessions in the president’s office with Liebowitz and his wife, Jessica. I opted to attend the session on the first of March despite not being an arts major myself, and I was not the only one. A range of different majors from theater to computer science were present, all there to discuss the impact of the studio arts on campus life. Joseph Wardwell, the undergrad advising head for the studio arts, was present, and Wardwell and Liebowitz immediately engaged in some joke about not discussing the art budget, complete with wry smiles and business chuckles. Thankfully, none of the youth present vomited at this exchange. A Brandeis student’s capacity to tolerate bureaucratic formality should never be underestimated.

As one might expect from a collision between students and campus administration, the lunch talk could not contain itself to just the arts on campus. Housing and the meal plan were inevitably discussed, among other things. But first, the arts. One of fabulous things about attending a university like Brandeis is academic mobility, and this lunch was certainly a testament to that. Unanimous pleasure in exploring the arts was expressed by all present (even, seemingly, by those forced into the studio by graduation requirements). As the salads were being served, a round table introduction began. Students were asked to share their experience with art at Brandeis. Many students shared their personal history with art that they strived to continue alongside their primary area of study; others appreciated the recreational qualities of the studio compared to the rigors of more objective courses. One student loved the experience so much that it became his major. Liebowitz was pleased to share that Brandeis University was one of the earliest to require it students to participate in the arts. It’s an academic tradition that Liebowitz seems intent on preserving.

The squash ravioli was being consumed when Liebowitz announced that it was time for the complaints. According to Jessica, this is his favorite part. Fully expecting the lunch to dissolve into a lecture about contracts and limited resources, I ventured to ask about the dining situation. Preparing for a political deflection, I was shocked to receive smiles and laughter. I’m not talking about a condescending business laugh here, either. He said something along the lines of “We’re all in on it!” alluding to Sodexo’s all too familiar evil corporation vibe. According to Liebowitz, the administration is also vexed by the inadequate service. It was a relief to receive such a candid response from the head of campus PR. The Sodexo-Brandeis relationship may be more strained than the greater student body is commonly allowed to know.

While he did not divulge any contractual particulars or concrete actions to be taken by the administration, Ron did indicate a specific distaste for the inaccessibility of self prepared food, specifically citing that it was absurd that students were paying for kitchens that weren’t even equipped with basic cooking implements. Charles River rejoice! Many students brought up the disregard for diverse vegetarian and vegan options in the dining halls, as well as the fact that staff routinely confuse the two. The improper labeling of allergens—and what is often an utter lack of ingredients to be found anywhere at all—was also brought to the president’s attention, and he admitted that recent allergy concerns were proving a particularly pressing issue. The possibility of opting out of the meal plan altogether was met with understanding, but, again, no confirmations either way.

Liebowitz also sympathized with students forced to live in the oldest quads, Massell and the like, but these buildings are apparently structurally difficult to improve. While Brandeis aims to continue to modernize its housing options in the long run, it seemed pretty clear that significant quality of life changes shouldn’t be expected from these buildings in the short term. Issues of department funding and career support in the humanities were also mentioned. For those concerned, divestment went unmentioned and continues to be a silent topic since the Board of Trustees refused to divest last fall.

Liebowitz did share a piece of information that adds teeth to student concerns. Apparently, despite a loaded attendance, well over 100 campus beds have remained empty this year. This represents a significant loss of revenue to the university. The administration is eager to pin down why students are opting for off campus housing and what it can do to encourage students to remain on campus. Even Brandeis, the school for the modern progressive, speaks loudest through its wallet. I don’t think I’m qualified to be organizing any boycotts, but I suspect a lot more would get done around here if students could somehow make an organized effort to deprive income from the systems that are letting us down.

The first draft of this article included a joke here about boycotting the washing machines, but it looks like that won’t be necessary anymore. This thing is paying off already!

There is an inclination among the more radically minded to think of the administration as a conglomerate of anthropomorphic reptiles that feed on weakness and laundry quarters, and while that may be true for stockholders, the administrative staff on a personal basis tends to be pretty reasonable. That’s the trouble with any large system of organization, really. There’s tons of well-intentioned people trying their best to make the most out of their cramped positions in a bureaucratic tree of isolated committees, boards and departments. The keyword is isolation. This lunch has allowed me to make a human connection with somebody that previously seemed above me. I felt heard for once, and had a tasty lunch to boot. I admire that Liebowitz is taking his Framework for our Future into his own hands, and I hope that he will continue to make an effort to connect with students directly throughout his career. The rest of the staff should be encouraged to do so as well, and perhaps we can expose a few of the bad apples that are surely lurking beneath all this administrative bloat along the way. If the faculty works to continuously familiarize itself with the living, breathing student body and dispense with the meaningless waves of online forms and surveys, it will be easier to tackle the really tough issues like campus sustainability, diversity and accessibility. With enough practice, we won’t have to suffer through any more awkward and ill-planned accessibility forums.

For the final course, we were served glasses of fruit with chocolate dipped finger cookies. One of the butlers had accidentally taken my utensils, so I was forced to scoop out the good stuff with my fingers like an animal. I’ll be working on my etiquette. In the meantime, get out there and start engaging with your staff. Liebowitz is a sincere guy, and he implied more than anything that this school is desperate for ideas. Write some emails, send some letters, knock on some doors, force the man to buy you lunch. Go and meet the people that make this crazy machine run—it’s the only way to keep them from turning into reptiles.

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