A Conversation With Brandeis President Fred Lawrence

  • Written by CAROL MARLIN
  • Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 06:00
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Brandeis University’s  Fred Lawrence
Brandeis University’s Fred Lawrence

Special to the Journal

WALTHAM — Frederick Lawrence sees himself as a "good fit" for the job of Brandeis University’s president. And it seems his confidence has served this institution, deeply rooted in the Jewish community, well. In three years at the helm, Lawrence has taken advantage of improved financial markets to "engage people and build coalitions," as he steers Brandeis to a more secure future. In a recent interview at his cavernous office on the Waltham campus, furnished with a conference table, walls of books and comfortable furniture, the president’s avuncular nature exuded warmth and sincerity. With lawyerly precision, he articulated his views and recounted how his past experience in private legal practice, and as a professor and dean of George Washington University Law School, have bolstered his leadership style.

Flattered to be approached for the school’s challenging position, he was not totally surprised and accepted the role that would combine his unique talents professionally as a CEO, and personally as a committed Jew. He describes the opportunity as "a chance to be part of a significant institution of higher education and the Jewish community," adding that Brandeis is deeply rooted in its Jewish values.

Lawrence is particularly pleased about the university’s reformulated Rose Art Museum; its director and new exhibitions recently extolled in a front page Boston Globe article. More than any other issue, the proposed closing of the museum and sale of its valuable holdings symbolized the contentious atmosphere of gloom that pervaded the campus before Lawrence’s tenure. Discharging the litigation was a priority, and within six months of his inauguration, the cases were settled and a grand re-opening of the "Rose" was scheduled.

Lawrence is Brandeis’ eighth president, but its first to selfdescribe as an observant Jew.

"Students seem to like the fact that I am authentic in who I am. I think everyone is drawn to that," he said, adding that at Brandeis, "it is normal to be Jewish. I talk openly, publicly, of the inextricable way Brandeis and the State of Israel are linked."

Lawrence dismissed any controversy about kosher dining as a thing of the past. He often dines at the main dining hall, where kosher is one of two options and is "terrific," but where only the dishes are kept separate. Unlike other campuses that offer kosher food, at Brandeis everyone sits together. While he views Brandeis as a key institution for Jewish continuity, he is proud that some 129 countries are represented on campus. Non-Jewish students serve as "life-long ambassadors to the Jewish world."

On campus, Lawrence — who is known as "Fred" — is routinely spotted at sporting events, concerts, dances and plays. His regular walks across campus provide opportunities to randomly engage students. On Yom Kippur, he has assumed the role of leading Kol Nidre services. Acknowledged as a skilled Hazzan, he has a voice perfect in pitch, soulful and trained, having performed in a choral group in his earlier years at Carnegie Hall.

Brandeis’ endowment, currently valued at some $800 million, has grown under Lawrence. The board has approved a 10-year strategic plan, and Lawrence hopes that within two years the budget will need less and less of endowment funding to operate. As he settles in, the challenges that Brandeis confronts are those of higher education in general: to provide quality affordable education to all who apply. Applications are at a record high.

With federal funds shrinking, this small liberal arts college with major university research facilities must seek resources and form partnerships in creative ways. Lawrence travels the world to promote Brandeis and meet with alumni. He reports having met personally with some 10,000 of the alumni that this relatively young school has produced since its founding in 1948.

Lawrence hopes that future alumni will reflect on his stewardship as important years. Of all the schools in the country for him to be president, he believes the best match, unequivocally, is Brandeis.

Last modified on Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 06:00

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Brandeis University’s  Fred Lawrence

Brandeis University’s Fred Lawrence


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