New Brandeis Prez Urges ‘Discomfort’
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New Brandeis Prez Urges ‘Discomfort’

After 32 years at Middlebury College, the last 11 as its president, Ron Liebowitz is calling Brandeis University his new academic home.

On July 1, the 59-year-old New York native took the reins as the ninth president of Brandeis, a Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian research university in suburban Boston. Liebowitz, who was named one of the country’s 10 best U.S. college presidents in 2009 by Time magazine, was appointed to the position last December.

Liebowitz recently shared his views with JTA on diversity, free speech and anti-Semitism during a conversation in his office at the Irving Presidential Enclave. The interview is condensed and edited version.

JTA: What does being open to all students mean today?

Liebowitz: I’m a firm believer that any institution benefits in terms of the quality of education if it’s diverse, if it has people from many backgrounds, different life experiences, different perspectives talking to one another. If done properly, if there is really a mix of students brought together on campus, it’s an incredible learning environment and that’s what we aspire to.

How do you envision continuing Brandeis’ historical connection with the Jewish community?

The institution never loses its founding spirit and the Jewish values established here of academic excellence and critical analysis. I’d add to that being self-critical. The third is “tikkun olam,” healing the world. I see that in our student body.

What about specific Jewish practices on campus such as the schedule and food?

We want to continue being the place where all Jews feel comfortable on this campus. That requires us to respect some aspects of Jewish life like diet, holidays and so forth.

An online survey last year by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law [unrelated to Brandeis University] found that more than half of Jewish students in U.S. colleges reported experiencing anti-Semitism. Is that reflected at Brandeis? What role does Brandeis play in that conversation?

Anti-Semitism is unfortunately showing itself everywhere, in Europe and in the U.S., and on college campuses. There was a survey of students [at Brandeis]. One of the more heartening issues is that students who identified themselves as Jewish noted their level of comfort was extremely high. The BDS issue, which is generating a lot of these issues on other campuses, seems to be much less of a factor. There is a BDS presence, but here it’s not seen as a major issue.

What are your views on the debates over free speech on campus. Are students too fragile?

I’m a big proponent of free speech, especially in an educational environment. It comes with rules about how people interact. You can’t hurt. You can insult with your ideas. I think students need to be free to speak. Faculty need to be free to speak. But respect is needed as well as civility.

Are you going to address this issue?

Oh yes. We will have this on the agenda for sure. … We want to protect students, but we also don’t want to shield them from ideas they might not think about. They’re not here to get insulted, but they are here to hear things. Sometimes discomfort is an important element of education.

There was a 12-day sit-in last year by Brandeis students protesting a lack of racial diversity. What is the status of the agreement negotiated between the administration and the students?

Before she went back to the Provost’s office, [interim President] Lisa Lynch sent out an update on the recommendations. We’ll engage each one of those. There are real challenges when it comes to diversity. There are creative programs out there to bring more recently minted Ph.D.s into institutions like Brandeis. But keeping them is difficult because they are easily raided by wealthier and larger institutions.

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