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Univ. president speaks on returning to founding roots

University president Ron Liebowitz spoke with The Brandeis Hoot and The Justice on plans to return the university to its Jewish identity. The president has been in many conversations with community members on how best to return to the university’s founding principles and Jewish values, Liebowitz said during the interview. 

Liebowitz said that with the students he has had conversations with regarding Jewish identity, many expressed interest in knowing more about the university’s founding and history. Students, according to Liebowitz, were not aware of the university’s founding and noted that it should be a point of pride. 

In the interview, Liebowitz noted that the university is different from other universities in that it was not founded in the 1700s or intended for men, members of the clergy or the wealthy elite. The university was founded in 1948, according to the Our Story page on the university’s website, and, “welcomed talented faculty and students of all backgrounds and beliefs. From the outset, Brandeis focused on undergraduate education, while building a pioneering research enterprise.” 

According to Liebowitz, the university’s first president Abram L. Sachar welcomed faculty members of all different backgrounds who were being turned away from other established universities on the basis of gender, race and political opinion. According to the university’s website, ethnic and racial minorities, as well as women—who were discriminated against in higher education—were allowed to enroll at Brandeis. From readings provided by Liebowitz before the interview, the university, “must reaffirm the major principles underlying its trailblazing founding: to be open and welcoming to all academically qualified students regardless of their backgrounds, religions and beliefs, and to be committed to the American Jewish community, which established the university in 1948.”

Liebowitz explained during the meeting that he wants to incorporate the university’s past in its future. By projecting the past into the future, the university can return to its founding principles. There are four main pillars to Liebowitz’s idea: academic rigor, critical thinking, repairing the world and being an open environment. 

The university is known for its academic rigor, Liebowitz noted during the meeting, and when he first became president he didn’t try to fight the fact that students were double and triple majoring. Liebowitz said that the university is trying to maintain the balance of academic rigor while also preserving student mental health. The Wellness Day held earlier this semester for students would have been “laughed out of the office” if proposed five years ago according to Liebowitz, but it was able to happen this semester because the university is prioritizing student wellbeing. 

For critical thinking, Liebowitz wants to take this pillar and also turn it inward to criticize the university to see where it needs to improve. Under the social justice pillar, going into the future, the university wants to expand and become less insular to do good for the world and the greater community. The social justice commitment is meant to repair the world, Liebowitz explained. This commitment to return to our social justice principles comes after the closure of the Social Justice and Social Policy Program (SJSP) and Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies (PAX) minors—both founded in social justice principles. When asked about their closure, Liebowitz said that the programs had, “great ideas on a scale too small to thrive.” 

Finally, to be an open environment, Liebowitz explained that we must, “never forget what it is like to be a stranger.” By making the university an open space it allows for everyone to feel welcomed even if they are new. By remembering what it is like to be a stranger it serves as a reminder for how we should treat those around us, Liebowitz explained. 

In reviewing how to propel the past into the future, Liebowitz said that the university’s history should be a source of pride of alumni and movements that have happened on campus including Ford Hall in 1969 and alumnus Abbie Hoffman, Liebowitz cited as examples. 

From the readings, “Too few members of the community are aware of Brandeis’s history and the unique position it holds within higher education. The university needs to orient new students, faculty, and staff more deliberately about its history. And, in light of the dramatic rise in antisemitism and the targeting of Jews on many campuses, the university must be more deliberate in its support for Jewish life on campus as we pursue plans to provide greater support to Black, Muslim, LatinX, Asian, Asian-American, Native American, international, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities and other groups of students.” 

Liebowitz noted that Jewish values are more than just a religion, it is also a culture. In the Framework for the Future, Liebowitz said that the Jewish values weren’t about religion but rather culture since the values are “practical and universal.” Liebowitz also noted that many other universities are trying to adopt these values, and Brandeis differs since it was founded on these values. A big takeaway is that Jewish values shouldn’t be seen as distinct or separate, Liebowitz explained, since they are a part of everything the university does. 

The most obtainable goal Liebowitz said was to find a balance between being respectful of our history by not abandoning its values and contemporizing those values for the future. Liebowitz noted there will likely not be agreement amongst all stakeholders and there will be those in favor of minimizing the past and those who want to enhance it. With those opinions, they must come to a middle ground, Liebowitz explained. 

Another obtainable goal is bringing attention to Judaic Studies at the university. Liebowitz noted that the university’s Judaic Studies program helped create the field and was a pioneer. In the meeting, Liebowitz noted the “talented faculty” of the department have contributed towards “rich” academic programs and research. He wants the department to turn its gaze outward to be more integrated with academia instead of keeping its gaze inward. In order to retain rich jewish life on campus this initiative—according to Liebowitz—will create a welcoming and thriving environment for those who identify as Jewish.

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