For all the controversies Brandeis University President Frederick Lawrence endured over the past few months, the failures that ultimately doomed his tenure were more fundamental, insiders say: His fundraising just wasn’t good enough and his administrative track record was wanting.
Last Friday, Lawrence announced that this would be his last semester at the Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university in Waltham, Mass., outside of Boston.
“After careful consideration, and in close consultation with the Board of Trustees, I have decided to step down as President at the end of this, my fifth academic year,” Lawrence wrote in his announcement. “For the time being, I am looking forward to returning to full-time scholarship and teaching as a senior research scholar at Yale Law School.”
Although Lawrence was popular with many students and helped stabilize Brandeis’ finances in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the austerity measures he imposed (even as his own compensation rose) made him unpopular among faculty members. All the while, his fundraising failed to measure up to his longtime predecessor, Jehuda Reinharz; he was seen as having made several administrative missteps and he stumbled through numerous controversies over the past year.
Brandeis named Lisa Lynch, a Brandeis provost and the former dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, interim president as the university embarks on a search for its next leader.
A law professor originally from New York’s suburban Long Island, Lawrence left his job as dean at the George Washington University Law School to become Brandeis’ eighth president in January 2011.
He arrived at a challenging time for the small liberal arts university founded, by Jews in 1948 as an alternative to Ivy League universities with Jewish quotas. Brandeis was still trying to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, with the Madoff scheme having hurt some of its large donors, and the university’s endowment was still down from its pre-crisis peak of about $712 million.
When Lawrence came in, he started by limiting faculty raises and enforcing cutbacks in an effort to put the school on better financial footing. And he is credited with helping earn Brandeis an A1 rating from Moody’s Investors Service in July 2013.
“The A1 rating reflects Brandeis’ stable market position as a liberal arts and research university, with healthy student demand and fundraising, large endowment, steady growth of net tuition per student, and all fixed-rate debt structure,” the Moody’s report said. “Credit challenges include a long history of moderate-sized operating deficits supported by elevated endowment spending, thin relative liquidity with a large portion of net assets permanently restricted, and a competitive student market.”
Lawrence generally was well liked by students, frequently showing up at student events and programs. He often would attend Brandeis’ large Shabbat dinners, sometimes delivering the dvar Torah, and he even led Kol Nidre services on Yom Kippur. An estimated 50-60 percent of Brandeis’ 3,600 undergraduates are Jewish.
“There has never been a president of Brandeis so well liked by the students as Fred Lawrence,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history who has been at Brandeis for 25 years.
“He saw the role of the college president in a more traditional, even old-fashioned way: as a role model for students, who speaks to them regularly, who comes to their programs,” Sarna said. “It’s sad in some ways that the modern university president is not judged on that standard but rather on the basis of very different standards.”
Namely, fundraising. Lawrence brought in an average of about $37 million in donations annually, according to audited financial statements by KPMG — significantly less than his immediate predecessor. Reinharz brought in roughly twice that amount, according to The Boston Globe.
Lawrence appointed a provost, Steven Goldstein, who didn’t work out, lasting less than three years, and a chief operating officer whom some faculty decried as ruthless. And while faculty were subject to caps on salary increases, Lawrence’s compensation rose from about $589,000 in 2010 to $878,572 in 2013, the last year for which data is publicly available.
Then there were the controversies — several of them over the past year.
Last spring, the university announced that it would award an honorary degree to the Somali-born feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but backtracked when critics noted her stridently anti-Muslim statements. Some faulted Lawrence twice: first for offering the honorary degree, then for quickly caving to critics.
Last fall, the university came under investigation for violating a student’s civil rights in a sexual assault case.
Then six weeks ago, Brandeis again made national news when a student at the school, Daniel Mael, came under fire for publicizing another student’s tweets that seemingly condoned the Dec. 20 shooting deaths of New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.
“i have no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today,” Brandeis junior Khadijah Lynch wrote on Twitter. In a follow-up message, she wrote: “i hate this racist fucking country.”
After Mael wrote about the tweets on the right-wing website Truth Revolt, Lynch’s supporters at Brandeis called on Lawrence to punish Mael, saying his publicizing of the tweets made Lynch a target for white supremacists.
Lawrence responded by saying he condemned “any lack of sympathy with the murdered officers” but would “defend the free expression rights of all students.” Critics derided the response as too tepid.
Several members of the board of trustees contacted by JTA either declined to comment or did not return phone calls. Lawrence declined to be interviewed for this story, and a spokesman for the university did not respond by deadline to several emailed questions.
“I am tremendously proud of the ways Brandeis has grown and thrived during my time as president,” Lawrence said in his resignation announcement.
“Applications have surged to an all-time high, our endowment has grown to its highest point ever, and we have made significant progress in balancing the University’s budget,” he wrote. “Every day our community exemplifies Brandeis’ legacy of social justice and repairing the world.”