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Perspective

School of hard knocks

The new president of Brandeis is confident he can fix the university's problems. But is he about to learn a lesson?

By Jon Marcus
January 2, 2011

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There’s an adage in higher education that campus politics are so fierce because the stakes are so low. At Brandeis University, where a new president just took office, the stakes are very, very high.

Like almost all universities, Brandeis has money problems. But Brandeis is different. For one thing, founded only in 1948, it hasn’t had the time to accumulate the kind of huge endowment that buffers its centuries-old counterparts from hard times. For another, it’s a place that holds symbolic meaning for its status as America’s only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university.

Brandeis always seems to be struggling with one crisis or another. One former provost liked to say the university runs at two speeds: passion and outrage. In the past few years alone, the campus erupted into protests over the arrival of a political scientist with purported ties to the Palestinian Islamic jihad, and then by a visit from the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Right now, though, Brandeis is just starting to emerge from a particularly rough patch that has less to do with politics and principles than with dollars and cents. Its ham-handed decision in 2009 to plug a budget gap by selling off the collection of its Rose Art Museum only began to expose the depth of the problems. Brandeis also stopped contributing to its employee retirement fund, eliminated jobs, and froze salaries. The pension payments and small raises have resumed, but an $11.1 million operating deficit is still projected for this year.

Other cost-cutting measures have included decreasing the number of doctoral candidates, who have to be paid stipends, while increasing the number of tuition-paying master’s degree students, and trimming everything from the e-mail system (some of the university now uses Gmail) to entire academic programs (such as a master’s track in anthropology).

This is risky stuff for a school with one of the nation’s highest price tags – $50,368 this year for undergraduate tuition, room, and board – and one that has long attracted students and faculty with the quality of its graduate and research programs. In fact, Brandeis has slipped in the US News & World Report rankings.

During his tenure as president, Jehuda Reinharz became a lightning rod for criticism from faculty and others despite his earlier success at raising money for a building boom that has transformed the campus. He’s not the only one who’s stepping down. The chief operating officer, provost, and senior vice president for students and enrollment all have left or have announced that they’re leaving.

Nor has the Rose debacle ended. An investigation by the attorney general drags on, important museum donors are pushing ahead with a lawsuit they filed, and three artists who were scheduled to be part of an exhibit at the Rose refused to let their work be shown there.

Underlying all this is the perpetual divide at Brandeis between its advocates who see it as a secular institution and those who want it to maintain its Jewish identity – who believe it to be a university devoted to liberalism and human rights or who want it to be about supporting Israel and Jewish civilization.

The new president, Frederick Lawrence, bridges that divide. Former dean of the George Washington University Law School, he is a legal scholar who had a secular career but also describes himself as a devoted Zionist.

Lawrence has his work cut out for him, yet he sounds like a man who isn’t worried. Things are “very much on an even keel,” he says. A recovery plan already in place calls for the budget to be back in balance in three years. And prospective students and faculty, he’s confident, won’t shy away because of the school’s highly publicized troubles. Yes, he says, more tough decisions lie ahead, but “you can’t do everything at the same level. There are certain things you will do little of, if any. Then you seek a number of areas where you seek to be of national or international caliber.”

Times have changed, says Lawrence.

Brandeis, he says, “can’t be everything to everybody.”

Jon Marcus is the US correspondent for the Times (UK) Higher Education magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story erred in describing the Cultural Production graduate program, which is being phased out. It is an interdisciplinary program in anthropology, literature, art, and more.

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