A History Lesson from J-Gray

For a speech with a theme of “Looking Forward”, Jason Gray’s State of the Union went pretty far back to the past — all the way to 1946, in fact, to the University’s founding.  Of course, this isn’t a criticism; the past is our best (and maybe our only) tool for predicting the future, and Jason effectively used several anecdotes to guide our approach to the next few years, both in attitude and in deed.  They were among my favorite parts of the speech, and they put some of our current struggles into context.  I’d like to quickly examine these passages, but first I want to encourage anyone who has a story about Brandeis’s past that they find particularly revealing or just plain interesting to share it through the comments or by e-mail to czar@innermostparts.org.  I’d like to explore more of Brandeis history, and anything we receive will be researched and incorporated into a post at some point.

I’ve heard several times in relation to the financial crisis that Brandeis has gone through worse struggles before.  However, overall I think the campus discussion has been surprisingly sparse on any actual details of historical parallels.  I think it would be a great relief to many people if we could point to specific situations where Brandeis has handled difficult finances before and come out fundamentally intact.

Can we find guidance in the University’s founding?  Jason think so:

In 1946, even before Brandeis became Brandeis, a group surveyed the campus.  They found it badly run down.  Walks were eroded.  A Castle had been built, yet built without an architect.

When Abe Sachar was approached to be the first University President, he was warned by a friend that the Brandeis project would be “a great disaster” and “nothing but pain.”

But the promise of what Brandeis could be was so much greater than any of the potential challenges.

The castle was improved, cafeterias built, faculty recruited, and students matriculated.  By early 1949, the same friend who had warned Sachar against accepting the job, visited the campus.  Standing under the arch of the Castle, he said “I thought it could not be done, but…  it had been.”

In a specific sense, I don’t think they University’s founding has much to tell us about our current situation.  Yes, Brandeis’s founding was not without significant challenges, but they seem to be more infrastructural and administrative than financial (I’m basing this mostly on Jason’s speech and Wikipedia.  Any corrections would be greatly appreciated).  Regardless, the methods for funding a fledgling university in 1946 and for rescuing an established university in 2009 are quite different.  Jason’s point is more general: Brandeis has shown the ability to overcome the odds in the past, and the ideas that helped us then still exist today.  If nothing else, the passion of the entire community to come together and help the University shows that we all still believe that the promise of Brandeis remains so much greater than the challenges.  If that philosophy was enough to set Brandeis in motion, it will be our greatest ally in keeping it strong.

The other key passage is much more specific:

At our founding, our curriculum was informed by a Harvard general education report from 1946. It recommended studies in a core curriculum, humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.

Brandeis, however, was not satisfied. We added another area to our curriculum: the study of music, theater, and the fine arts.  This commitment is one from our founding, and one we must continue.

Jason’s comments on the arts deserve broader discussion and action than this post allows, so I’ll hold most of my thoughts for later.  For now, I’ll just say that this provides the perfect framing for discussing the arts at Brandeis.  Art was deliberately included as one of the building blocks of our curriculum, and it must remain there, or we will be betraying the ideas this university was founded upon.

Our history is indeed very interesting and bears much more attention than it often gets.  If you’re interested in exploring it further, I recommend the very comprehensive “Brandeis University: A People’s History” hosted off the official Brandeis homepage and Phil LaCombe’s excellent series of posts from last year: Blunders of Brandeis (here, here, and here) and The Castles of Brandeis (here, here, and here).  Again, we’d love to hear your own stories, so post and send away!