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D.C. law school dean to take helm at Brandeis

Frederick M. Lawrence, at Brandeis University yesterday, will assume the post in January. Frederick M. Lawrence, at Brandeis University yesterday, will assume the post in January. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / July 9, 2010

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Civil rights scholar Frederick M. Lawrence was named the eighth president of Brandeis University yesterday, inheriting a school at a crossroads as it tries to raise its profile as a world-class institution amid financial turmoil.

Lawrence, the dean of George Washington University Law School who once headed the national legal affairs committee of the Anti-Defamation League, will succeed longtime president Jehuda Reinharz in January when he steps down after 16 years to lead a Jewish foundation focused on leadership education.

The 54-year-old newly named president said he is eager to help the Waltham school with Jewish roots and a strong liberal arts focus position itself for the future.

“This is a compelling opportunity for me to be a part of furthering and building a research college, a liberal arts college that is an anchor for a great university,’’ Lawrence said in a phone interview. “As a nonsectarian school with deep roots in the Jewish community, Brandeis pulls together various strands of my life in a way that is unique in higher education.’’

After Lawrence’s appointment was approved yesterday afternoon by the Board of Trustees, he and his family attended a reception with a small group of friends, faculty, and students.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Lawrence, who taught law at Boston University Law School for 17 years before moving to Washington in 2005.

A Williams College graduate, Lawrence had also served five years as assistant US attorney for his native state of New York and headed the office’s civil rights division under Rudy Giuliani, then the US attorney.

Faculty, trustees, and a student on the search committee praised Lawrence’s accomplishments at George Washington, citing his knack for raising money and attracting top-notch faculty. Under his leadership, the law school posted five of its six most successful years of fund-raising, bringing in $13 million in 2007-08, the highest ever, and $11.8 million in 2009-10.

Search committee members also commended Lawrence’s inclusive leadership style, commitment to social justice, and international expansion of the law school, qualities they say make him a perfect fit for Brandeis at this time.

At George Washington, he forged connections with three Indian universities, including cofounding a law school in Kharagpur with the India Institute of Technology.

Brandeis recently increased partnerships and scholarship exchanges with Indian institutions in an attempt to boost its international reputation.

Brandeis, which was established in 1948 and is the nation’s youngest major research university, made great gains during Reinharz’s tenure, admitting higher-caliber students, tripling the college’s endowment, and establishing new academic programs.

But the school faced major financial pressures after the economy — and the university’s once $712 million endowment — plummeted and donations slowed to a trickle.

“Brandeis is in its adolescence in a way; it’s got some choices to make as it becomes a real grown-up, world-class university,’’ said Jack Connors Jr., vice chairman of the trustees. “I think Fred will help guide the university to some wise decisions. There’s only so much resources to go around, and I think he’s thoughtful enough not to see them as an ox to be gored, but as a cow to be milked.’’

Unlike most colleges, Brandeis relies heavily on donors to fund a significant portion of operating costs. In a bind to raise money last year, Reinharz thrust the school into the spotlight by abruptly announcing that it would close its Rose Art Museum and auction off the precious works. The university has since put that plan on hold, in favor of loaning out the art instead.

Lawrence called the move to keep the collection a “better direction,’’ adding that he “remains hopeful we can find an opportunity to bring everyone together on this and find a solution.’’ He said he would like to strengthen Brandeis’s financial footing by broadening its donor base beyond the Jewish community and tapping more alumni.

In February, the university, which enrolls 3,200 undergraduates, also developed a plan to create a balanced operating budget by 2014 that involved cutting two dozen faculty positions and eliminating a range of academic offerings, including the Hebrew undergraduate major. The difficult decisions, on top of the museum debacle, divided the campus.

Lawrence, in his current role, has handled controversy and criticism with aplomb, say those who know him.

“He is not only a scholar of distinction who knows what it is like to run a place, but the most important thing is he knows that everything that happens in a university or a law school is also a teaching moment,’’ said Guido Calabresi, a US Circuit Court of Appeals judge who, as former dean of Yale Law School, taught Lawrence in the late 1970s and remains a friend and mentor.

In March, when a student ACLU chapter at George Washington Law used an obscenity in fliers advertising a visit by an Ohio State law professor to discuss his book on word taboos and the protection of First Amendment rights, Lawrence did not order the posters removed, to the surprise of many faculty and students.

The flier was not threatening, he said, and thus should be protected expression.

Instead, he wrote about the incident in his weekly blog, a form of communicating with the university community that he intends to continue at Brandeis.

“If free expression should flourish anywhere, it is within the halls of a university,’’ Lawrence wrote in an entry titled “Putting the ‘F’ in free speech.’’

Other colleagues say that Lawrence’s personality helps to bridge differences of opinion.

“He’s got a gift for balance. As passionate as he is about dealing with issues of hatred, he’s also a passionate protector of free speech,’’ said Martha Minow, Harvard Law School dean, who was Lawrence’s law school classmate at Yale. “I think he will bring a kind of broad cosmopolitan vision to Brandeis while also reaffirming its distinctive identity.’’

Reinharz came under fire from some faculty who accused him of clamping down on free speech, especially on matters involving Israel to placate the school’s Jewish donor base.

He was criticized, for example, for pulling Brandeis ads from local public radio stations to protest NPR’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and shutting down an art exhibit by Palestinian refugees.

Asked whether speakers or artwork critical of Israel should be allowed on campus, Lawrence said: “There should always be a full airing of lots of different views. People should be allowed to disagree in a reasoned debate.’’

Andy Hogan, former president of the Brandeis student union, said the university’s various constituents have felt isolated from key decisions, but he has confidence that Lawrence’s “mediative style’’ will unite the university community.

He and faculty on the committee said a key charge for the new president is to translate Brandeis’s unique tradition in a way that entices more high school students to apply.

“This place has absolutely outstanding faculty, superb students, and people don’t know that as well as they should,’’ said Gregory Petsko, biochemistry professor. “If he could do nothing else, it would make me enormously happy to raise the public profile of this institution, locally, nationally, and internationally.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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