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President Lawrence to step down, leaves mixed legacy

President Frederick M. Lawrence will step down as the president of Brandeis effective June 30, at which point Provost Lisa Lynch will become interim president. Lawrence, the eighth president of Brandeis, made this announcement on Jan. 30.

A message was sent out to Brandeis alumni the following day from President of the Brandeis Alumni Association Adam J. Rifkin ’97. “In his time on campus, President Lawrence helped Brandeis build a strong foundation for the future,” wrote Rifkin. “The University is on solid financial footing and our endowment recently reached an all-time high … [Lawrence] installed a proven and highly experienced senior leadership team,” Rifkin added.

Lawrence will return to Yale Law School in the capacity of a senior research scholar following his resignation. Before coming to Brandeis in 2011, Lawrence also served as dean and Robert Kramer Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. He is also the author of numerous books and publications surrounding the topic of civil rights crimes, including the book “Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law.”

In a recent press release, Brandeis Board of Trustees Chairman Perry M. Traquina stated that Lawrence “has worked tirelessly to move our university forward and has the results to show for it—including making significant progress in balancing the university’s budget, a record endowment, the fundraising of $225 million in gifts and a 35-percent increase in applications under his stewardship.”

In his office’s email to the Brandeis community, Lawrence said that teaching and educating Brandeis students made his presidency special. “Living near campus allowed us to spend meaningful time with so many members of the Brandeis family,” Lawrence said.

Many students who personally interacted with Lawrence recall the time they spent with him fondly. Naomi DePina ’16, believes Lawrence made it a priority to interact with students. “He is an individual that truly cares about people,” DePina told The Brandeis Hoot. “I have had nothing but positive interactions with him.” She recalled many conversations with Lawrence about the state of the Student Union and cordial Shabbat dinners at Lawrence’s own home.

However, DePina admitted that overall campus attitudes about Lawrence may not be as positive as her own. “I feel that the student body has mixed feelings about his legacy,” she said. “Many people may say that he did not do enough on issues they were concerned about. In contrast, some students believe he was very invested in his work and he finished strong. What I hear primarily from my constituents is that they wish he worked on issues like sexual assault rather than the Rose Art Museum.”

These concerns have been echoed by activists in recent weeks. “Campus safety is not being prioritized as much as it should be,” Sam Daniels ’16 said at the time, in an interview with The Hoot on Sept. 11. DePina admitted in her interview with The Hoot this week, “The only thing I wished he worked more on is how to combat sexual assault on campus.”

Lawrence’s presidency has been plagued with multiple media scandals, including Brandeis’ controversial decisions to cut ties with the Palestinian university Al-Quds in November 2013 and rescind an offer to receive an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali in May 2014.

Multiple alumni point to what they view as Lawrence’s failure to uphold Brandeis’ social justice values in regards to the lay-offs of long-time employees in June of 2014. During this past summer, the Brandeis mailroom transitioned in ownership from Canon to Xerox, and in the process, many beloved employees were let go. When combined, the years of service these particular employees had contributed totaled longer than Brandeis itself has been in existence. “No one [should] get fired when they’ve served for decades,” said Andrew Slack ’02. “Our quest for social justice will no longer be used as a prop. It must stand authentically as a pillar of a community and an institution that has transformed my life [and] the lives of countless people before and after me.” Slack also called for more transparency between students, the university president and the board of trustees. “We need serious changes at Brandeis,” he said.

Yet others on campus acknowledge that Lawrence’s job is in no way simple or easy. “I feel that he has had to make some very hard decisions,” said DePina. “One thing I will say is that he made many decisions based on students concerns and interests.”

Lynch will soon take over this difficult role on campus. “[I] was drawn to Brandeis by its core values, its pursuit of academic excellence and its history as a Jewish-founded nonsectarian university open to all,” she said. A former dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Lynch said that her current main role is to “promote excellence in the university’s educational activities and research initiatives,” and this is something she plans to continue on a much larger scale in her upcoming role as interim president.

And while Lawrence is departing, he will not soon forget Brandeis and its students. “This is a special place and one that has left an indelible mark on Kathy and me,” Lawrence stated in his recent email. “My door remains open to you, and always will be.”

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