President Ron Liebowitz convened the first open meeting on Brandeis’ direction as an institution, including discussion of self-reflection reports produced by schools, departments and centers across Brandeis and high-level strategic priorities. The meeting began a nine-month process outlined in the document sent to the community and intends to “draw the major contours of the university’s direction over the coming years,” the document read.
“We’re at an inflection point,” Liebowitz argued. “This is the time when Brandeis should put a stake in the ground and decide that it’s going to make some pretty crucial decisions about its direction so that it can be among the elite and best institutions in the country.”
Of the issues Liebowitz discussed, financial concerns and institutional identity dominated. He also addressed the role of Judaism in Brandeis’ institutional identity, challenges presented by aging infrastructure and faculty and the need to adapt to changing demographics. Brandeis, Liebowitz argued, has a strong reputation, but some participants in the self-reflection process expressed concerns that Brandeis is “living on our coattails, that this was a reputation that was built up over decades.”
“Let’s be sure that we don’t lose that reputation,” Liebowitz said.
Despite the strength of Brandeis’ reputation as an academic institution, some raised questions about identity and values. The university’s struggle to convey just how much Judaism influences Brandeis’ identity comes off as confusing to outsiders and needs clarification. Liebowitz wrote, in the document titled “A Guide to Upcoming Open Meetings on Brandeis’ Future,” “The inability or decision not to define who we are has hurt us and created confusion for prospective students, alumni and our longtime friends who have generously supported the institution since its founding. Are we a ‘Jewish’ institution?’”
“We espouse openness, collaboration, optimism, innovation.” Liebowitz expressed concern from the reflection that these values are “a lot of talk, that in many ways the institution has not lived up to those values.”
Part of the confusion regarding institutional identity is the centrality of social justice and what that means in theory and in practice. Liebowitz argued “social justice in 1948 and social justice today may not be the very same thing,” and conveyed what he sees as student confusion or misunderstanding of social justice. He presented an anecdote from one of his lunches with students to exemplify this confusion.
The student told Liebowitz, “You could really help me. You see, everybody here has a cause, and I’m wondering if you can give me some ideas of what I can protest…. Everyone has these great causes and I don’t have one.”
In addition to questions of identity, Liebowitz discussed funding and the limitations presented by Brandeis’ already high-tuition. “Major sources of revenue are more or less at their limit,” he said. Much of Brandeis’ budget comes from tuition, but the university is already among the most expensive in the nation (#37 on CBS’ list of the 50 most expensive U.S. colleges). Tuition can’t be raised much more, Liebowitz said, and the university has been drawing more from the endowment than peer institutions to balance the budget.
Despite the financial constraints, physical infrastructure needs updating and maintenance cannot be deferred much longer, Liebowitz argued.
After speaking, Liebowitz opened the meeting to audience questions.
“What are we doing to improve the experience for non-Jewish students?” one attendee asked Liebowitz, who conveyed his respect for an “historic and natural” connection between Brandies and Judaism. “We want to signal that we are not becoming unfriendly, as many institutions are, to Jewish students; you can’t deny that anti semitism is on the rise, there’s no doubt about it.” He added, however, that the administration’s review of student life will be “focusing on all of our students.”
“There is something very special here, but it needs significant attention and care to thrive, or even simply to survive in the long term,” Liebowitz wrote.
The open meetings are set to continue until March 2018, before moving into the second stage, when Brandeis will release a new “vision statement.”