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Lessons of the Rose debacle

Published: September 2, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


<i>Photo by Nafiz 'Fizz' R. Ahmed</i>

If memory serves, the announcement that Brandeis would sell the collection in the Rose Art Museum was the most significant campus news story of 2009.

Yet three-quarters of current undergraduates won’t remember that announcement – it came when our current first-year class was entering its sophomore year of high school.

Those students who were on campus and received the cryptic e-mail broadcast from then President Jehuda Reinharz no doubt let out a collective sigh of relief this summer upon learning that the lawsuit to keep the art on campus had come to a close. President Frederick Lawrence told Hoot reporters that, in his mind, the settlement of the case was “one of the accomplishments of my first six months of which I am most proud.”

The announcement was really just a formality. The museum has remained open throughout the public relations nightmare that faced the university in 2009, an embarrassment that no doubt factored into the decision of our former President to announce his exit.

But closing the book on the Rose saga would be unfair without a survey of its lasting effects. Reinharz leaving was only the start. Since 2009, the university’s senior leadership team has entirely changed, starting with the promotion of Frances Drolette to CFO and the hiring of Andrew Gully as Senior Vice President of Communications and External Affairs in 2009, then with the promotion of Mark Collins to Senior Vice President for Administration last year, and this year with the hiring of Susan Birren as Dean of Arts and Sciences, Andrew Flagel as Senior Vice President for Students and E-nrollment, Steve Goldstein as Provost and David Bunis as Chief of Staff.

One wonders how long John Hose, who has served as associate vice president for university affairs since 1983, can keep up the act.

Having served in my own position as an undergraduate student (and, by the way, Hoot editor) for a full three years, I wouldn’t venture to say that today Brandeis is an entirely different place than in 2008. But the decision however ill conceived to close the Rose has certainly set the university on a clearly defined path, one that required a reshuffling of top administrators.

In 2009, we were warned that Brandeis was in dire straights, that the endowment had fallen considerably and that the viability of the university required tough choices. But until the Rose announcement, decisions were put off to the future, many to be made behind closed doors.

Faculty and students pointed out that was not the Brandeis way. Outrage and embarrassment led to clearer goals, more community input and the eventual sense that things would work out fine. Three years later, those choices are over and many of the changes have been implemented. New programs, such as the Justice Brandeis Semester, were added. Some majors were changed or re-thought, but a study of the course bulletin reveals that the number of courses offered have not changed significantly. We now offer a business major and we now have a couple hundred more students, but Brandeis as an institution retained its high rankings from US News and World Report and has continued to gain notoriety through awards for various faculty, students and programs.

The university faces many tough choices moving forward, and this newspaper will be paying close attention. To start, Brandeis administrators and the Board of Trustees face the tough decision of diverting resources from academic programs to reinvigorating campus buildings. The new pool is just a start: many buildings could use, at the very least, a fresh coat of paint.

Dining services deserve continued review, although the addition of the village convenience store, once unthinkable in the recessionary times of 2009, is a positive addition to campus. Given the university’s positive financial outlook, cuts to financial aid and merit scholarships and plans to reduce the size of the faculty, both at issue in 2009, deserve to be reevaluated.

President Lawrence told The Hoot that “Presidents change but universities have continuity,” and he’s right. The Rose debacle was not Brandesian – it was an overt mistake, and the resulting strategic planning that has followed reflects a return to core principles.

Today, Brandeis faces new opportunities. A new administration has a chance to chart a new course for the university, and the potential for improvements is certainly promising.

The university also quite clearly learned the importance of communication and transparency, and while mistakes are inevitable, we shouldn’t be hearing of any ill-conceived decisions made without community consultation anytime soon.