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New Brandeis president becomes familiar face

Lawrence tasked with energizing campus, boosting endowment

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By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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WALTHAM — Since becoming the eighth president of Brandeis University three months ago, Frederick Lawrence has spent one-third of his time on the road — appearing by his estimation before more than 2,000 alumni, trustees, donors, faculty members, and prospective students during multiple trips to New York, Florida, and California.

The heavy travel schedule was carefully planned to take advantage of a new era for the nation’s only secular, Jewish-sponsored university, and to introduce him to “members of the Brandeis family,’’ said Lawrence, who will be formally inaugurated March 31.

The new president of Brandeis is in many ways like the patriarch of large and rambunctious family whose relationships have been strained in recent years.

Lawrence is tasked with unifying and energizing the Brandeis community battered by a number of crises in the past two years, including a reces sion-driven endowment decline of $154 million between 2008 and 2009 and a failed proposal to liquidate treasures from its Rose Art Museum.

Malcolm Sherman, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, said Lawrence has a warmth and down-to-earth approach that will help him move the school community past residual hard feelings.

“He’s the kind of guy that even when he says no, people love him,’’ Sherman said. “He is highly professional and highly skilled, but he’s still highly comfortable in his own skin, and has a kind of softness and compassion that university presidents don’t always have.’’

The university’s financial situation has stabilized since its low point. The endowment — which reached a high of $712 million in June 2008 and fell to $558 million a year later — now stands at around $690 million, school officials said last week. The school is on track to achieve a balanced annual budget by 2014, officials said.

As for the Rose, which the university has determined would remain open and intact, the museum should be better integrated into university curriculum in years to come, the new president said in a recent interview in his office. The Rose is currently undergoing renovations that will be completed in time for the 50th anniversary celebration of its founding this fall.

Lawrence described himself as idealistic about the future of liberal arts education, but very pragmatic about how best to prepare Brandeis students for the future.

“The teaching mission of this university, among other things, is to train students for a world that we literally cannot even imagine,’’ he said. “I think we have a pretty good idea of what skills they’ll need. They will need the ability to analyze, the ability to turn information into knowledge, the ability to communicate, and the ability to solve problems.’’

To that end, he said, he would like to explore expansion in academic areas where Brandeis can be a national or international leader, and deep-pocketed benefactors can be found. Film studies, neuroscience, American history, and engineering are some possible examples, he said.

With the university’s finances in better shape, Lawrence said, his immediate priority is how to support the school’s need-blind admissions policy, which for the first time this fall will attempt to meet the full financial need of as many students as possible.

“Is the era of building on campus over? No, it will never be over,’’ said Lawrence. “But there is going to be an emphasis on financial aid, the people infrastructure versus the buildings.’’

Daniel Acheampong Jr., student union president, said Lawrence’s outgoing personality has, so far, gone over well among the student body.

He attends Shabbat dinners hosted by students in their dorm rooms. Almost everyone on campus seems comfortable calling the new university president — who has a law degree from Yale Law School, but not a PhD typically held by a university president — by his first name.

“Students are really excited about Fred,’’ said Acheampong. “He’s been to every department to meet people. He loves being around students. You send Fred an e-mail, you get a response immediately. That personal relationship is really special.’’

Student groups hope Lawrence will focus on replacing the campus swimming pool which was closed in 2008 for maintenance issues, ensuring the Rose stays open permanently as a campus resource, and advancing the school’s academic reputation, said Acheampong, a senior economics major.

A Long Island native, Lawrence, 55, began his career as a US attorney for southern New York working for Rudolph Giuliani, who named him chief of the office’s civil rights division in 1986. He served as an associate dean at Boston University before joining George Washington University School of Law as dean in 2005. He is an expert in civil and human rights law, and the author of “Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law’’ published in 2002 by Harvard University Press.

Brandeis spokesman Andrew Gully declined to disclose the new president’s compensation package.

Lawrence said his ambitions for Brandeis include an international growth agenda. He led the effort at George Washington University to expand to India. At Brandeis, he sees both Israel and India as fertile ground for international expansion, as well as South America and Asia.

Lawrence’s style is notably different than predecessor Jehuda Reinharz, a fiery intellectual with a reputation for being formal and, at times, autocratic.

Reinharz, who came to Brandeis in 1968 for his doctoral work and served as a professor and provost before his appointment as president in 1994, is credited with leading the school in raising a total of $1.2 billion during his tenure. He oversaw the building or renovation of dozens of buildings, saw diversity rates skyrocket along with admissions standards, and created 17 new academic centers.

When the Rose proposal backfired, and the university reversed its decision to close the galleries, Reinharz took personal responsibility for the debacle.

“Jehuda did a lot of hard things, and took a lot of heat for making some tough decisions,’’ said Sherman. “He was a great president and revolutionized the campus. No one should lose sight of this.’’

Jack Connors, a Brandeis trustee, likened the tough moments of the past few years to growing pains. The school, just 63 years old, can be like “a precocious child.’’

“It’s not supposed to be this successful at this age,’’ said Connors. “Most of its competitors and peer universities are 250 or 350 years old.’’

He called Lawrence a “breath of fresh air.’’

Reinharz, now president of the philanthropic Mandel Foundation, concurred that he and Lawrence are very different kinds of leaders.

“Fred’s biggest challenge is to try to get the resources to make possible everything he wants to make possible,’’ said Reinharz. “I hope for him that he continues to [have success] raising money, and he keeps his sense of humor. . . . I think he’ll do very well.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.