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Brandeis celebrates 75 years: an interview with President Ron Liebowitz

As Brandeis prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary, students, faculty, staff and alumni are all converging on campus for a weekend of events. University President Ron Liebowitz wrote about the importance of the event in July, noting that “Brandeis is a young institution compared to our peers. But we have come exceedingly far in a relatively short period of time. Since its founding in 1948 by members of the American Jewish community, who came together to establish a new kind of university that welcomed talented students and faculty from all backgrounds and belief systems, Brandeis has grown exponentially, both in its scope and its mission.”

Now, Liebowitz wrote, “Brandeis is respected as a top tier, internationally-renowned research university, with leading programs in the liberal arts. Most importantly, it is a place that, thanks to its extraordinary people, has continued to create powerful change in all corners of the globe and across many different fields.”

The university will be commemorating 75 years this weekend, from Oct. 13 to Oct. 15, with events including academic sessions, tours of the Rose Art Museum, networking events for alumni, class reunions, a reception for the 2023 Perlmutter Award, Brandeis Judges sports matches and much more.

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot and The Justice, President Liebowitz spoke about Brandeis’ legacy after three-quarters of a century, his hopes for the weekend and what makes Brandeis special.

When asked what Brandeis symbolizes in the modern world, Liebowitz said that “our founding values remain very firm and very, very clear. We’re an institution that was founded on the basis of openness, and on the basis of pursuit of truth and justice, academic rigor and repairing the world.” Liebowitz noted that “those foundational values, I think, continue through the faculty, [and are] handed down from the original faculty who were very unusual here. The history of our faculty is pretty remarkable, given that most of them were … leaders in their field, but couldn’t get jobs because they were immigrants, Jews or communist sympathizers. [Brandeis’ first president Abram] Sachar took advantage of that. That sort of culture has been passed down through the faculty, but it’s also supported very much by students.”

Liebowitz also pointed out that, during his first three years here, he and his wife hosted lunches in his office with about 1,000 people through “weekly lunches that had 12 to 15 individuals. We asked the question at every single lunch: why Brandeis? The students were almost uniform in saying two things. One, the academic excellence: the idea that they were going to be challenged, that this was a rigorous place, it wasn’t some easy place. And the second one was the commitment to justice and social justice. Those were uniformly mentioned by the overwhelming majority of students. And I think that that is part of the fabric of the institution.”

Liebowitz was also asked how he thinks current students will interact with alumni who will be coming to campus, and he said that “it’s incredibly exciting, and it’s one of the advantages of having this off-calendar type of reunion. When reunions occur on most campuses, and certainly here before, alums come back and don’t get to interact with current students. … But I think this is an incredible opportunity for students and alumni to talk to one another. I think it’s gonna be interesting because this generation is very different from the earlier generations. We see that in all of our surveys that we take from graduates from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, all the way up to the ’00s, things have changed. It’ll be very interesting for the alums to engage and learn more about today’s students and what their concerns are. I hope that the backdrop of Gen-Z and other generations taking baby boomers to task about the world we’re leaving behind might be a topic of conversation, but I’m sure in a very [Brandeisian], civil and polite way.”

Liebowitz also commented on how Brandeis’ identity has changed over 75 years, noting that Brandeis has certainly grown since 1948. “We had 107 students come at first, and now we have more than 3,600 students,” he said. “The composition and demographics of the students changed. [It was] very, very predominantly Jewish at first, [and is] now probably a third Jewish. So that’s a big change as well.”

Liebowitz added that “the diversity of the student body makes for a richer and sometimes more tense and contested type of environment on campus. But, of all the campuses I’ve seen, this place seems to be able to manage that.” He also noted that “the institution has changed over time and [been] benefited by the diversity of students. You, yourselves in the classroom, probably look around and see very different backgrounds and experiences of students, and that of course adds to the quality of education.” 

He also spoke on his hopes for the university as it approaches its 100th anniversary, saying that he hopes the university can “hold on to what is great about Brandeis: its ethos, its willingness to innovate, its willingness to be different on the one hand and on the other being very cognizant of what students of today and tomorrow really need.” He added that, as he once was a full-time teaching faculty member, he understands the “tendency to hold on to one’s expertise [and] to hold onto one’s values of thinking. But when you have students in front of you … you see the evolution and the changes of the students in terms of not only their interests, but also how they learn, how technology has affected their learning and how they engage books has changed.”

Speaking specifically on the events happening this weekend, Liebowitz said that he’s excited for all of them. He added that he’s especially looking forward to the panel on Jewish life, where rabbis and current student leaders in Jewish life will be conversing, and he thinks attendees will see “some real differences in terms of experiences and perceptions, which I think is going to be very rich and very good. One of the things about Brandeis that people don’t understand, especially from outside of campus, is the incredible diversity within the Jewish community here. A lot of schools have a lot of Jews, but I don’t think any institution has the diversity of Jews that we do.”

He added that the women in science panel (Brandeis Women Who Changed the World: A Conversation with Anita Hill and Joyce Antler ’63) will be “exceptional,” largely because of “how much women at this place have played a key role in the excellence in our sciences. It’s not usual to have that many tenure track and tenured faculty members [and] research scientists in these fields like we do at Brandeis. … It’s been a tradition and they’re pretty remarkable women. That panel should be fascinating.” Liebowitz also said that “no institution could do any better than that panel [(The Groundbreakers, Game Changers, and Education: A Conversation with Leading Brandeis Scientists about University Research panel)]. We have a Nobel Prize winner [and] we have a Kavli Prize winner. Eve Marder won the Kavli Prize, which was created in order to recognize world leaders in neuroscience. We have Michael Rosbash, we have Eve Marder, we have Jim Haber [at the] National Academy of Sciences, we have a MacArthur Genius Award winner, Gina Turrigiano, on there.” He feels proud that the university has such “remarkable people, and I don’t think people can see that type of scientific expertise [elsewhere].”

Liebowitz was also asked how he would describe Brandeis’ legacy, and he said that “Brandeis broke barriers. Brandeis was co-educational. It provided a safe and only place for Jews in 1948 when antisemitism and bigotry and the ashes of the Holocaust were right there. It was open to all students who were meritorious, which many of you, when you went on your college tours, heard at every campus and every institution. [I know] because I just did that for three straight years with our kids. It’s all the same comments, but ours were original. It was here, always. We didn’t grow into that. I think Brandeis, having been on the vanguard, left an important legacy for institutions and I think that’s what we strive to do for the future as well.”

He also spoke to what he hopes current undergraduate students will experience this weekend, noting that he hopes “that students take advantage of seeing 75 years of remarkable history encapsulated in a two day period, and they can do it by looking at the panels and seeing what interests them. But I hope they take away a better understanding and appreciation for the remarkable achievements that this institution has attained in a short period of time.” Liebowitz added some perspective, noting that “75 years might seem like a lot to you. You guys aren’t anywhere near 75. For those of us who are closer to 75 and have been in higher education for a long time, we’re a baby institution.” 

Liebowitz mentioned that when he attended the recent presidential inauguration at Harvard University, attendees “lined up by the year we were founded, and I am way at the end of the line. I’m all the way in the back. That of course carries with it some advantages, but also some major challenges that we have as a young institution. So, I’m hoping that students can get a feel for the progress that was made here and carry it away from that.”

Liebowitz shared his hopes and expectations for the weekend, mentioning that he hopes the “alums who come back … have perspective. … My classmates where I went to school will send around emails about the slightest change that occurred on campus, outraged, [asking] ‘aren’t you outraged about this?’ And I just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘things change. Things have to change.’ So I hope the alums who come back both convey the sense of the excitement that they felt as Brandeis students, but that they also embrace and recognize that times change and some changes are needed. … Again, I want to stress the essence of the institution, which is what people love, the core foundational values and so forth that I hope we don’t deviate from, because I think those are so worthwhile and so unique in many ways. But by and large, I hope that the alums come away from the weekend feeling very satisfied about their alma mater.”

Liebowitz also shared his thoughts on how the recent events in Israel might affect the 75th anniversary events this weekend. He noted that the university has had “a lot of conversations about this and I’ve had conversations with our alumni and friends in Israel and [locally].” He feels that it will inevitably be “a little more of a solemn commemoration than a celebration. But I do think that the milestones … what the institution has achieved needs to be celebrated and commemorated, because it is quite remarkable what this institution has done over 75 years. So I think we’re going to be a bit more solemn. I think we’re gonna recognize what’s going on. But I think we also have to celebrate the institution.”

Special thanks to Justice Staff Writer River Simard ’26 for his contributions to this interview.

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