Religion and the Presidency

In The Hoot’s recent article about the selection of Frederick Lawrence as the new University President, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Malcolm Sherman was asked about the impact of Lawrence’s religion on his confirmation:

Malcolm Sherman, Chairman of the Brandeis Board of Trustees said Lawrence’s Judaism was “a consideration” at a school that self-identifies as a sectarian university with Jewish roots but “it was not an absolute necessity.

“Certainly [Lawrence’s religion] made him attractive to the Committee and we are happy that he is Jewish, but that was not the only factor,” Sherman said.

These statements make me a bit skeptical.  Regardless of the fact that we’re a completely non-sectarian school, we are also one in which the majority population is Jewish, as were the first seven Presidents.  It makes sense that the eighth should be as well.  I understand some of the political reasons for why the board felt the need to make this statement – political correctness, desire to diversify/not scare non-Jews away from Brandeis, keep donors who might pull their money if a non-Jew became the President – but at the same time, the idea that religion is “not a necessity” could seem synonymous with “not necessary” or “irrelevant.”  It comes off like a non-denial denial, a sub-conscious shielding of the truth.  Lawrence is extremely qualified to take this position, and his religion certainly could not have been the only factor, but it was most likely a contributing factor nonetheless.

I’ve been wondering why there seems to be a need to shove this fact under the table, because I see it less in terms of religion and more in terms of the school’s culture.  Brandeis is both a secular school and a school with a large Jewish population, and both are usually primary reasons why students come to school here.  As someone who straddles the line between agnosticism and Reform Judaism, I don’t see these two facts as conflicting with one another, but as complementary aspects of our identity.  I don’t care about how the President’s faith, or how he worships, as much as how the cultural lessons and values derived from his religious beliefs, likely similar to those of a University started by Jews, might factor positively into his decisions.  I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that we can’t have any President except a Jewish one, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone who holds similar values gained from an upbringing in a cultural community, and in this case, a religious community.

As a parallel example, my parents encourage me to marry someone who is Jewish, and I’m sure that I’m not the only person within or outside of the Jewish community whose family wants them to marry someone similar to them.  For my parents, it has very little to do with religion, however, and has much more to do with having a few more things in common with your spouse, such as a cultural history and a similar set of values, life experiences, and ideals.

The beginning of a new Presidential term at Brandeis is like a marriage as well, and the Board of Trustees spent close to a year trying to find the perfect “suitor” to take the University forward.  If faced with a pool of equally matched candidates, wouldn’t a similar set of values, experiences, and beliefs be a selling point even if they come from within a religious community? It’s just one more reason that the pairing should work, and one more way in which Lawrence is uniquely suited for the task at hand.  It should not be the foundation of the hiring, the “absolute necessity,” but it’s an extra bonus to have someone whose background will help in making decisions which are in line with the Brandeis community’s ideals.  It might stem from a taboo subject like Religion, but that doesn’t mean that the reality of the situation should be shielded in order for the University to save face.


10 thoughts on “Religion and the Presidency”

  1. It’s a poor way of assessing it because if you self-identify as Jewish, you aren’t counted as such. It’s pretty simple: You check a box that says “Jewish” and Brandeis puts you down as “Not Jewish” if you say something else. So we don’t know if this person is non-believing or not. I don’t think it’s unavoidable per say, because I’m pretty sure it is avoidable simply through counting these people. The only purpose is to make the school look less Jewish.

    But I’m not even sure that they do that, and I’m sure if they did no one would tell us.

  2. How is that a poor way of assessing that? Sounds fine. Non-believing but ‘born’ [what a nebulous concept] Jews such as myself are forced to choose how we represent our heritage, so it’s flawed in that way, but it is perhaps unavoidable.

  3. And I’ve heard they get that statistic by counting everyone who claims Jewish and something else as not Jewish. I’m just saying, I’m unconvinced.

  4. last i heard brandeis was somewhere between 40-45% jewish, where is the source that claims we are mostly jewish?

  5. I would love to see a pretty strong divorce from Brandeis and this overarching mentality that institutionalizes Judaism left and right. I don’t see it as pursuant to Brandeis’ mission, despite our self-avowed affiliation with the religion’s VALUES.

    For those that are guessing, I am aware I don’t embody the universities ethics to that end-I couldn’t care less to.

  6. I have to disagree with Louis, because Jake’s post raises a question I’m still having trouble with myself: should a non-sectarian, Jewish-sponsored university necessarily have a Jewish president? I always tend to answer yes to that question, just because I suspect a lot of our big donors would view a non-Jewish president as an abandonment of what attracts them to Brandeis in the first place. But in an ideal world, one without fundraising concerns, would my answer be the same?

    Ultimately, Jake’s answer might be different from mine, but I think it’s an interesting discussion to have, and one that helps define the long-standing question of what “non-sectarian, Jewish-sponsored” actually means for us.

  7. I appreciate this post and it bring some truths to light. However, to me, “it comes off like a non-denial denial.” Yes, he is Jewish. What is your point? Is this news, or is it controversial? Neither, in my opinion.

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