IT’S a heavy card: “Frederick M. Lawrence. President. Professor of Politics. Brandeis University.”
It’s a heavy job.
And the bearer of the job evinces the intellectual, administrative and, yes, political heft to do the job.
But Brandeis’ relatively new president has many sides. Isaiah Berlin would call him a fox, not a hedgehog, however single-minded he might be about growing and advancing Brandeis University.
In a way, Lawrence’s multiplicity drives his vision of Brandeis itself: more than a university. Lawrence is quick to point out, first of all, that Brandeis is both a liberal arts institution and a research institution. That might seem to be an obvious pairing, but think about most institutions of higher learning you might hear about regularly — those in the greater Denver area, for example — and only two pursue that double mission.
Then, for Lawrence, there is Brandeis’ social justice mission, deriving, of course, from the university’s namesake; but, of greater moment, reflected in a fact that is important to him, and that he cites proudly: Last year, some 3,500 Brandeis students performed 56,000 hours of community service work in and around Waltham, Mass., where Brandeis is located.
Lawrence, a graduate of Yale Law School who practiced law for 10 years, is a legal scholar, a former dean of the George Washington Law School, a professor, a person deeply engaged in civil rights issues and in the Jewish community.
And, a person with a twinkle in eyes who says, “When I go to the the Orthodox minyan at Brandeis, they know I’m not a tourist.”
Nor, he would add, when he goes to the Reform and Conservative minyanim there, nor when he goes to Kehillath Israel in Brookline,
Least of all, when he describes how much he works — “24/6.”
“If I didn’t have Shabbat I couldn’t do it.”
As is well known, the tone set at the top permeates. Brandeis, which, of course, has no religious requirements for students, faculty or administrators, nonetheless has a president who says: “The fact that I don’t send emails on Shabbos has a salutary effect on the whole office. It actually gives everybody a breather. The fact that I’m not sending emails gives a kind of rhythm for the week.” The other side of the “6” in 24/6 begins the moment Shabbat is over.
On motza’ei Shabbat — Saturday night — Lawrence is back to the university, back to the computer.
And it’s no wonder.
LAWRENCE needs to raise funds, make sure that faculty governance is on even keel, engage the alumni, find economies of scale in cooperative arrangements with other colleges and universities (on, for example, insurance), keep up with a slew of fields way beyond his own expertise — not to mention, deal with crises.
Perhaps the worst crises at Brandeis in recent years — the decision of the previous administration to meet a funding deficit by selling stellar works at Brandeis' Rose Art Museum — is, says Lawrence, coming to a close.
“We were able to reopen the museum to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“There was some consideration during the darkest days of the financial crisis of selling some of the art work — which raised much controversy. The museum reopened in October. We are in the final stages of choosing a full-time director. It should be announced shortly.”
Lawrence speaks of Brandeis’ “global reach.” A university with a “global reach” needs a president familiar with the breadth of his institution’s most successful endeavors. He clicks them off: neuroscience, biochemistry, history, English, music, “and if they ranked Judaic studies, which they don’t, it would be there, too.”
That is to say, he is not exaggerating. Brandeis has been ranked as one of the top universities in all those fields. “We are a national and an international leader, and we’ll be building on the strength areas, and looking for the connections between those areas . . . ”
So, if you think I’m exaggerating when I say he has to keep up with a diversity of fields beyond his own (the law), he begins to describe, in some details, the research of one of Brandeis’ professors whose research area is the Jewish roots of Christianity.
“Add on to that the Heller School of Social Policy and Management, and a business School — with a particular strength in international economics and finance — and it gives you a pretty broad reach. It gives you an opportunity to look for synergies to grow.
“One of these growth areas is film. We have a very good program in film, television and interactive media. We could do much more in film and leverage our strength in theater, music, English, American studies and sociology, as well as in computer science — everything’s digital today. We can build on the strengths we already have.
“Another example: applied science. We could have more of a presence in engineering. We have strengths in physics and math. By adding in those areas we could do more in the areas of applied material science.”
SOUNDS like a man on the move. Which is exactly what he didn’t want to do.
“We loved Washington and it took a lot to make me think about leaving.”
Lawrence was comfortably ensconced as dean of the George Washington Law School in Washington, DC. He could deal with the law in both theory and practice.
He liked his shul, Kesher Israel.
“When I started going to Kesher, I didn’t find a regular spot to sit and I sat with the students. Then Joe Lieberman asked me if I’d go pick a regular seat with the grown-ups. I felt like I had just received a congressional summons.”
But the idea of Brandeis pulled at him.
“It was the opportunity to be part of an iconic institution that ties together all the different threads of our life.
“The roots of Brandeis are deeply imbedded in American Jewish community. It encompassed my life — my religious life and extracurricular life, like at the ADL — so that piece fit very well.
“The fact that Brandeis is both a research university and a liberal arts colleges — at the intersection of higher education — fit, too, since I had been at research universities but am the product of a liberal arts college — Williams College.
“To become president of Brandeis was a rare opportunity.”
SOONER or later, any discussion with any university president gets around to money, or, rather, the lack of it. Brandeis is strong, but, while Brandeis has a “very robust financial aid program” — $75 million in aid is provided to students — only 25% of this comes comes from endowment or gifts. The rest comes off of university operating budgets.
“In the long run we have to increase the amount coming off of endowment and gifts dramatically, in order to give the aid to get the students we want to get.
“In terms of program and faculty endowment, we need many more chairs to support the academic enterprise.”
In terms of buildings, Lawrence calls himself “fortunate” to come after a great deal of building. “Right now, faculty aid endowment and financial aid endowment are the core projects.
“Here’s an example of a building project that’s already been completed: the swimming pool was off line for past three years. We fully renovated it. We got a major gift to cover much of the cost.
“And on the first Saturday night of the cold spring semester, last January, we had a pool party.”
LAWRENCE has a way of putting things.
He likes to daven at Kehillath Israel in Brookline because he belonged there when he lived in Boston, before he went to Washington.
“The great thing for me of going back to KI is I can really have my own Shabbat. In any other congregation, I’m the president of Brandeis. In KI, I became the president of Brandeis.”
And what is the difference between practicing law and being a legal scholar? “The lawyer does it until it’s due. The scholar does it until it’s done.”
President Lawrence is very much the lawyer — “I triage decisions all the time” — and the timely decision, due by the end of the week, may or may not be based on all the information he wants. “That’s not necessarily the way the scholar thinks about things.” But Lawrence has that double background — “the practice of law and the privilege of the scholar.”
It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it, if the presidency of a university always offered the privilege of the scholar? “When, as Mozart put it, the next note is always surprising but always perfect?”
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News