President Ron Liebowitz sat down with the Hoot to help the student body get to know him better. In a half-hour dialogue with The Brandeis Hoot, President Liebowitz gave some insights into himself, Brandeis, and his job.
Well for me personally, I had no interest in a second presidency. The first one was 11 years and that was enough. And I was on a very interesting research project with my wife during my leave. And even when … the presidential search committee called I wasn’t interested at all. But some friends got a hold of me and said “It’s a fascinating place”, “It’s a different type of place”, “It’s worth looking”. So I agreed to have a meeting with the search committee, but before that I went across the street to Boston College’s library, we live right across the street from Boston College, and read the only three books that were written about Brandeis in the stacks. One by the founding president, one by Rabbi Goldstein who started the whole idea back in the thirties in New York City, and one by Steve Woodfield, a professor of American studies who wrote a book on Brandeis. And after you read those books, you would be inspired to be at Brandeis because the history, the founding, the reasons for its founding, how it was founded, how President Sachar managed to do what he did is just incredible. So that brought me in.
What do you want Brandeis to be? More like a “Little Ivy” or a liberal-arts school?
Neither. I want Brandeis to be Brandeis. Brandeis is … unique, it’s an interesting place in higher education. I like to say … it is, this combination, both of a research [tier] one and of a small, I call it student focused undergraduate liberal arts education, and no other school is like it. I mean, you can look up and down and try to find other schools like it. Maybe Rice, not really. Maybe Dartmouth, not really. So it’s a unique space and I think it’s an amazing place to be. It gives undergraduates like yourself great opportunities that students at Middlebury don’t have. It’s expensive and it’s difficult, and it’s hard to find faculty who want to do both missions. We call it a dual mission, but I think it’s very worthwhile and it’s really unique in higher education.
What are your hopes for the engineering program?
Well, great hopes! I think it’s an amazing proposal. Faculty have been working on it for 10 years. and they stuck with it, which is really challenging, especially in this environment both coming out of the recession and then also with COVID. But the faculty passed it and the board approved it, and it’s an important part of the curriculum going forward, mostly because if you look at the schools to which we lose, most of our students who are accepted here, I think the first seven schools all have engineering. And it’s become a very important area of the curriculum for students. Your generation seems to like engineering. But it’s also engineering Brandeis style. So it’s not going to be a standalone department or standalone school. It’s going to be superimposed over multiple departments here. And it also pledges to have relationships across the whole university with the humanities, with the arts, with the business school, and with the Heller school. So it looks to be a very Brandeisan type of engineering program, not sacrificing any of the science or engineering either by the way. So I think it’s gonna hold a lot of promise, it’s going to take a while to get up and running, because we have to fundraise for new positions. It’s a very exciting addition to the curriculum. This one is unique in the field of engineering. In other words, it’s not atypical to find interdisciplinary programs in higher education, but to find an engineering program just like this would be very difficult. So it does have that “Brandeis stamp” to it.
What’s a typical day like in your life?
So in my new calendar I’ve devoted now Mondays and Fridays to be here [on campus]. Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays to be open for travel, fundraising mostly. Normally that would involve going all over the place, including usually annual trips to Israel and at least biannual trips to China. With COVID I’ve been limited to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, New York, and Chicago. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I’ll go on development calls, I’ll visit old friends who have supported the university, trying to create new friends for the university, visiting parents and so forth. Monday and Friday, I pack in my staff meetings. So we have my two executive vice presidents who are the Provost and the EVP for Finance and Administration, I meet with them on Friday. Usually faculty meetings are once a month on Friday. So I reserve that for that and then all my other meetings that have to be scheduled. You get requests for meetings all the time, you try to pack them in on Monday and Friday. So that’s basically it. Weekends if there’s something going on here on campus from family weekend to homecoming, whatever sporting events, as many as I can get to, I try to go to. And that’s about it at least for my week. It’s become more routine this year than has been in the past where it was just up and down, it was more random meetings with people all the time. And prior to COVID, my wife and I hosted a weekly lunch here in this office every single week for three years so we got to see more than a thousand people come through for lunch. And that’s how we got to know Brandeis through the eyes of faculty, students, and staff at these lunches. We haven’t done that since COVID. We hope to get back to something like that, and those will be on Monday or Friday.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Being a university president these days is probably challenging because you’ve got COVID to deal with. It’s a whole new thing, no one’s ever dealt with it. You got the financial issues that most universities have to deal with even before COVID, but this on top is an issue. But I think the most challenging thing is understanding and trying to work with nine different constituencies. So a university president typically works with students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, parents, townspeople, regulators, and prospective students. Those are the nine constituencies. And so, the joke is if you can keep on the good side of five at any one time, you’re in good shape because none of them ever agree with each other. So I think trying to balance all those things and taking the institutional perspective. So when I’m sitting in a staff meeting like this morning, and you have vice presidents who feel very strongly about an issue they’re usually seeing it through the eyes of one or two constituencies. And I have to step back and say, “Okay, let’s think about this from a university perspective”. So I think that’s the most challenging thing, and getting used to that and understanding all those constituencies is probably one of the biggest things. In the end you’ve got to do what’s best for the university, even if it’s unpopular.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Two things. Probably students. Meeting students because I think that’s been, I don’t wanna say it’s been the biggest surprise, I would sound like I had low expectations for Brandeis students, but I find them incredible. They’re a lot more interesting than I thought. And again, … students at Middlebury by the way, are phenomenal students. But the Brandeis students are different. There’s a different pool of students. They’re very dedicated to their academics and deeply involved in social issues. Always looking for a protest or asking for what they can protest. And also they have multiple interests. So for example, these double and triple majors, which I usually don’t like, I don’t think it’s a great idea, but now I’m more or less neutral on it because students here combine them in the most interesting ways. For example … it’s not typical to see economics amd business, but you might see studio art and physics, or you might see chemistry and economics. I mean, you could see the breadth of interest that students here have. So I really appreciated that. And I also think you know, there’s something gritty about Brandeis, it’s an edgier, grittier institution than many of the schools in our peer group. So I find that interesting. So that’s one thing and the other thing, believe it or not, is being on the road and fundraising at the presidential level. You typically only see the highest end donors. You see the ones who have made it to the point where the president can go ask for support. That usually means they’re very successful. In other words, for some reason, they’ve gotten to the zenith of their careers. So you learn something every time you have this engagement with people who have been successful or who support Brandeis. It turns out to be a learning opportunity and that’s been a lot of fun too.
What do you want to see in Brandeis’ student culture post-Covid?
I think they’re starting to return to pre COVID. In other words, I see the energy in the student body. I was in Sherman and you know, you would never know that there was COVID when you look at the density and how people were interacting energetically over lunch. So I hope they can return to that, and I also know that mental health has been a real issue on campus. It’s been on every campus, that’s been the topic of conversation. Every other week at our presidents’ meeting, we have 55 presidents on a phone as a zoom every other week, and mental health has taken up a lot of our time because of the impact it’s had. So I wish for a return to better mental health sooner than later for students as well. Really just happiness, to be happy again.
What do you wish the students knew about you?
Doing this job is really to try to find ways to make the educational experience here the best it could be. So whether it’s in the classroom or whether it’s in the residence halls or whether it’s in opportunities with internships, I’m in it for really improving Brandeis. Brandeis to me as an institution is a really important institution, it’s not just any institution. As I said, the reason that drew me here is because I think it’s an inspiring institution in its founding and so forth. So I think it’s important that we succeed and be as good as we can be.
What do you wish the students knew about Brandeis?
I wish they knew its history. I wish they really had a feel for how different it is. I just came back from college tours because we have a senior [in high school]. So it’s interesting how everything about Brandeis’ founding has become universal. But it wasn’t always that way. Schools talking about inclusion, and students talking about openness, and schools talking about social justice. All these things were part of Brandeis’ DNA. It’s the reason for its founding: to provide access to individuals who had been denied access for a long time. That is now the clarion call for almost all universities, and it wasn’t always that way. So I wish students understood that those are our roots and that it really comes from millennial-old Jewish tradition, these things go way back in the Jewish texts. And so I think both understanding our values from the beginning and understanding our Jewish founding, I wish we did better. And I think we will do better. I think we’re going to focus more when students come in to sort of just orient them to the history of this place, because I think it is that important.
Do you want your kids to come to Brandeis?
Jessica and I just had lunch with some foundation heads and they asked that question. … I would love it. I think it would be great for them. I mean, it’s their choice. It’s not our choice. Of course I think Brandeis would be terrific for them. As I said before, they’d have really interesting classmates. I think the faculty here are incredibly dedicated to students and I think the education one gets here is superb.
What do you work towards in your free time?
Sleep? No, I don’t sleep much. So family, you know, we have three kids who are in high school, all in high school, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. Just by being in 10th, 11, 12th grade, there’s a lot going on in their lives. So my wife and I, Jessica and I, try to be as involved as possible and we try to carve out time to make sure that we’re involved and engaged with all of them. They’re all three with different interests. So it’s great. You know, in some ways it’s great. In some ways you don’t get two for one like, they’re both not going to a soccer game together. One has to go to music lessons, one has to go to a cross country meet or whatever. So kids are important and then there’s downtime where you just want to read or you want to just chill [and] relax.
*Laugh* You’re dating me! I have a few and they probably predate you. So I would say I like Radiohead, I like The Pretenders … they’d be a second group. I was just listening to my new playlist, our youngest put together a Spotify playlist for me of 135 songs. I like REM, I’m dating myself! Contemporary, I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t like contemporary that much. There was a show on Netflix that my wife and I saw that wasn’t well advertised here. They had an incredible soundtrack. And so I went out on Spotify and it was on Spotify. It was The A Word, incredible show. The show was about a young kid with autism. It was an amazing show. But anyway, this kid, the way he managed was with music. And so he always had his headphones on, and they were all post new wave … all British rock. It’s an incredible soundtrack. And so I downloaded the soundtrack from The A Word. You gotta check it out, it’s incredible. I never heard of these groups, but I listen to it all the time. So … I’m more of seventies, eighties, nineties, than I am with the contemporary. I’m only recently getting into jazz. I fought off jazz because my brother was a big jazz fanatic, and so I had to oppose him. But now that we’re older and we get along really well I’ve started listening to jazz.
Favorite TV shows?
We never watched TV, except when the COVID came and now we’re always watching. So you’re gonna laugh, but the current one we’re enjoying a lot is Call My Agent. … It’s hilarious. So it’s about a talent agency overseeing movie stars in France. It’s in French, so you have to read the subtitles. You gotta see it. … That’s one, and another one that we loved on Netflix was … Schitt’s Creek. We’re in season two and we understand by the end, you really embrace them [the characters]. They’re very unlikable at first, but then you really embrace them. So we haven’t seen beyond season two, but that was another good one. Schitt’s Creek was good.
Can you compare Middlebury to Brandeis?
Brandeis is a [tier-one] research one university that has the highest level of research, which is what Middlebury is not. Middlebury is a liberal arts college. Middlebury had many parts to it, which made it a complex institution. It had 12 intensive language schools, it had 36 sites abroad. It has a graduate school out in California, the Monterey Institute, now the Middlebury Institute. So it is a complicated and complex place, but it’s not comprehensive like this. So it differs, it’s been a fascinating and also rewarding challenge to get used to this environment.
How has your PhD in geography helped you throughout your career?
I don’t necessarily think it helped me in my day to day as president of Brandeis, except I don’t get lost when I go on development calls cause I’m a geographer. But in all seriousness, I guess I combine qualitative and quantitative geography and to that extent, I think having a facility and also an experience with numbers and data in my analysis … is important for the work I do here. And also I think an appreciation for cultures because I’m a human geographer and a political geographer. I studied nationalities and ethnicity in the Soviet Union and Russia, so somehow that appreciation for the multiethnic makeup of the Soviet Union and how they interact in policies plays a role in how I view the world. But geography in itself is a discipline that forces you to think about the world beyond your locale.
Can you explain the university’s divestment plan in more detail?
So this might require a little bit of explaining about how the endowment works. So we have a 1.3 billion dollar endowment. Let’s just say for simplicity’s sake, that endowment is divided into … we make investments. We don’t purchase equity. We don’t purchase individual stocks. Even though we have an investment office, we enter into private partnerships. And we also then hire fund managers who manage our funds. So I would say about 65% of our investments are with fund managers and they manage in by and large what’s called “commingled funds”. Those are funds that are a basket of items. They have a whole bunch of stocks in them, and we don’t know what those fund managers put in those, what they buy. When you have a large share of a fund manager’s portfolio you can sort of influence, dictate, ask for and so forth. But by and large, Brandeis being a 1.3 billion dollar endowment as opposed to a Yale with a $40 billion dollar endowment, it’s not gonna have as much influence, but that’s all incidental. So you have this, this part of combining funds, and then you have private partnerships. What the board decided in 2018, to go back, was to stop entering into any private partnerships having to do with coal at that point. And that was 2018. That is the only part of the endowment that we control directly more or less. So we vowed to freeze our activities with private partnerships. Now these are long term. You don’t enter them for a year, they take a long time to run their course. So we made that commitment and we said “in three years, we’ll come back and revisit it” because it was controversial within the board. People in the investment world don’t like to put any constraints on investments. That’s one of the big constraints that all of us face when it comes to moving investment policy. So in 2021, we started discussing again, “where are we and what do we want to do?”, and the board decided after a lot of discussion to expand that 2018 decision, not just to coal but also to natural gas and oil. So we continued it and we made that decision. We also said by 2025-2027 these will run out, we’ll have 0% [of fossil fuels]. We’re letting the ones that we had signed prior to 2018 in coal and prior to 2021 in oil and gas to run out by 2025 and 2027. The commingle funds we don’t have any control over. However, we have committed several things. We’ve committed to engaging our managers; letting them know what our preferences are, screening our new managers to see what their portfolios are and how much they’re investing in fossil fuel, letting them know that we want less. And we also decided to create a tool which will measure the totality of carbon in our 1.3 billion dollar endowment. Not only financial transparency, but it will allow us to then shape our policy in the future for decarbonizing our endowment. That is a leadership position, no one is really willing to step out and do that because the implications are pretty big. Let’s just say we have a lot of stock in American Airlines, it’s gonna show in scope one and scope two investments that they utilize a lot of fossil fuels. So it’s gonna influence us to sort of pull back in that area. So it’s unknown what it’s all gonna lead to, but we are gonna take a lead in there, but as important as all this is, we are not claiming divestment. Even though whatever other school is claiming as divestment is what I just described. In other words, those schools also have a large portion of their endowment wrapped up in a combination of funds and they have no control over those. So to claim their divesting is a little bit dishonest in our view, we can say the same thing because they’re claiming, we’re doing [with] the private partnerships what they’re doing, although we’re even putting a date on it, I think sometimes sooner than the other schools in our area. But what they’re claiming as divestment is not divestment in our mind because they’re not touching the commingled funds. All we can do on that front is to try to influence the fund managers not to purchase anymore in their commingled funds that have to do with fossil fuels. But that’s the bigger picture here, and it’s something that the divestment activists have not really embraced. … [What] is far more important to me and also to the university is what can we do to reduce our own carbon footprint? You know, even if we can sell our commingled funds or even if our managers do, when we get out of private partnerships, those go right to someone else usually at a lower price also. So it’s symbolic to say, we don’t invest in fossil fuels, but the reality is we’re still using fossil fuels, we’re still polluting, we’re still creating climate change. So the question for us is what is it we can do? And how much of an advancement have we made in this area to reduce our own carbon footprint? So when we have our faculty meeting this week on Friday … we’re gonna have an hour and fifteen minutes of this very same presentation, except it’s gonna be done by me and by the investment office and by Mary Fisher, who is the [university’s] environmental sustainability coordinator. She will give a whole presentation on the progress we’ve made in the past five years on sustainability and how we’ve reduced the university’s carbon footprint, and what’s planned for the future. That to me is a million times more important than talking about divestment. We have 1.3 billion dollars, I think it’s about 5.7% of our endowment is invested in fossil fuels, that’s all. So we’re talking about between 70 and 80 million total. It’s a lot of money, but it’s not 1.3 billion [dollars]. Of course, it’s much more important to focus on what we are doing to address climate change. We’re addressing climate change much more by the things we’re doing on campus than we are by managing our endowment as we are. So of course, but that, that gets lost. They [student activists] don’t know the details of it, and they don’t realize how much of an impact they can make by us invest investing in green, which that’s another thing that the investment office over the last three years, since we made that declaration in 2018, they’ve hired six students to be interns to research only green investments. So we’re spending 25% of our research time and money on looking for green investments. And by the way, there aren’t that many good ones in terms of returns. Not yet, but there will be. So we are making those commitments and people need to understand the big picture, not just the issue about what are you doing with the 5.7%. The 5.7% will shrink down by 2025 and 2027. And the amount left in our endowment will be minimal, but people don’t want to hear that. We’re doing a lot. We’re doing as much as any of those schools that are claiming divestment. That’s the weirdest thing, we could do the same but we chose not to. We’re trying to focus on what contributes to climate change first and foremost.