A Preview of the Lawrence Presidency

I’m really impressed with the all the buzz surrounding future Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence, both from his strong biography and academic record and from the glowing words of praise that everyone seems to have for him.  However, all the accolades in the world can’t predict what we’ll actually get once Lawrence takes office on January 1, 2011 (sidenote: I bet he’ll have an awesome New Year’s party.  Start angling for your invite now!).  While Lawrence seems to be as qualified as possible for the position, heading a top-tier university is a pretty singular job, and I don’t think we can be sure how he’ll fit in with the culture of the school until he actually gets here.

An article on Lawrence in the Jewish Week sheds light on what policies he’ll pursue when he finally takes the reigns before the spring semester starts.  Unfortunately, the story chooses to use the now-predictable “struggling Brandeis” framing (please, that’s SO 2009), but it gives us a chance to see how he’ll react to the most discussed (or at least most media-friendly) issues at the school.

Lawrence mentions that he’s planning a “listening tour” of the campus to introduce himself, a necessity to ensure a smooth transition.  He says that he’ll withhold announcing any cost-cutting or fund-raising measures until after the listening tour, which hopefully indicates a move away from the unilateral decision-making process that led to debacle after debacle after debacle in the past few years.  He adds that “one of his first priorities will be to increase the amount of financial aid available to undergraduates,” a great goal for offering a Brandeis education to as many as possible in tough financial times.

I also really like his commitment to the Four Pillars of Brandeis, of which he says “I look at the Four Pillars and I see my life”.  He indicates that he expects to be at Brandeis for a long time, and it’s cool that he intends to teach a class every semester.

His statements on the Oren controversy leave me a little disappointed.  Though he avoids tackling the question of how he would have handled the situation, he makes several comments framing it as a free speech issue, a position I think is disrespectful to those whose primary reason for protest was Oren’s presence at commencement rather than with Oren in general.  Has Lawrence actually looked into what students were saying?  Does he care?  Does this foreshadow more of the same administration-student disconnect that characterized the Reinharz years?

I definitely tend to give him the benefit of the doubt on these questions, and I realize that this is just one incident that, for better or worse, is now firmly behind us.  In fact, I’m excited at how strongly he comes out in favor of free speech in all instances, and I’m hopeful that he’ll pursue an open campus dialogue on all matters.  Realistically speaking, I can’t imagine anyone being selected by the Board of Trustees whom I’d rather see leading Brandeis, and I look forward to meeting Frederick Lawrence and welcoming him to our community.