In 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States. A few years later, she became a founding trustee at Brandeis University, and her legacy here continues to this day. As another academic year begins, it is important for the Brandeis community to remember what Roosevelt did to shape this university and its student body.
Roosevelt’s connections with the university run extraordinarily deep in a rich history, a history that began several years before Brandeis’ first graduating class received their diplomas. As a founding trustee, she was an important figure in the earliest decisions that molded the young university. Not afraid of controversy, she remained steadfast in her decision to end the university’s football program, for example. The board of trustees voted unanimously to end the program, which remains nonexistent since its end in the late 1950s.
In addition to her status as a central decision maker for the growing university, Roosevelt became increasingly active in the school’s smaller affairs as her tenure continued.
In 1952, as Roosevelt was nearing the end of her term as the first American delegate to the United Nations, she gave the commencement address to the first-ever graduates of the institution. Even on that momentous occasion, she was unafraid to speak her mind. According to a 1984 edition of The Brandeis Review, for after the first ever valedictorian, Gustav Ranis ’52 delivered his speech, she vocally expressed her disagreement with the talk’s main ideas. Despite their disagreement, the pair went on to be good friends.
In the mid 1950s, Roosevelt became even more active in student interactions when she started to give talks as a guest to the General Education S program, designed to teach graduating seniors the tools they need to bridge their college lives with the quickly approaching professional world. In these talks, she joined an all-star roster of speakers including Alfred Knopf and Margaret Mead.
In 1959 Roosevelt finally became a faculty member as a visiting lecturer in international relations. Shortly after, she transitioned from being hosted as a guest to hosting guests on her show, “Prospects of Mankind,” a program for public television, filmed almost entirely in the Slosberg Music Center. The show was constructed as a forum where she would host important figures such as Adlai Stevenson, Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy spoke a number of times, once merely hours after announcing his bid for the Presidency in 1960.
By the time Roosevelt died, the school she had helped to nurse and grow had undergone a huge transformation. Put simply, things may have been very different had the former First Lady not set foot on the grounds.
The Roosevelt Fellows are a tribute to Roosevelt and her work she did for the Brandeis community. Founded in 2000, Roosevelt Fellows serve as peer mentors for first-year students. They are some of the brightest individuals on campus, who make themselves available to any first-year in need of academic advisement.
Many believe that the tradition of social justice that began with Louis D. Brandeis continued to be a strong presence at the school because of Roosevelt’s dedication and guidance. In 2010, Heller School Professor Susan P. Curnan wrote a piece in Brandeis Magazine about encounters in her youth with the former First Lady at her residence in New York, where she praised Roosevelt’s teachings and her mission to advance social justice. She cites an encounter with Roosevelt Fellows who also spoke highly of Roosevelt’s devotion to mentorship, interpersonal relationships and the advancement of social justice, the roots of their cause at the university.
Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962, leaving behind both a legacy for social justice and a hole in the heart of the community. A few months after she died, University President and close friend Dr. Abram Sachar eulogized her in Ford Hall Forum, where she had spoken before. He expressed profound grief for the loss of such a beloved figure, and he praised her unparalleled spirit: a spirit that lives on in our Brandeisian tradition.