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Lawrence leadership style offers new vision, direction for Brandeis

Published: September 2, 2011
Section: Front Page, News


Lawrence and senior administrators share a laugh Monday in Gosman. Photo by Nafiz 'Fizz' R. Ahmed

As university President Fred Lawrence welcomed his first incoming class at Brandeis this week, he talked confidently about a university that has rediscovered itself following an international controversy over The Rose Art Museum.

The Rose settlement reflects just one example of how Lawrence’s leadership style is vastly different from his predecessor, Jehuda Reinharz.

When Lawrence, Provost Steve Goldstein, Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren and Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel took the stage at the orientation “Brandeis Beginnings” on Monday to welcome new students and their parents, our community saw an entirely new leadership team that began when Lawrence took office in January.

University presidents serve as the leader of a community and their job encompasses a wide range of roles—fundraising and alumni development, student life, academics, admissions, campus infrastructure and relations with parents.

Lawrence has just completed his eighth month in office and so, while he has begun laying the groundwork for a strategic vision in each of these areas, it is his attitude and the Brandeis image he reflects that others are reacting to most.

When Lawrence commented on the strategic vision of the university, he explained, “I think The Rose was a chapter that needed to be closed.” That’s a different line of reasoning than Reinharz adopted, who attempted to spin the story, backpedal and downplay its importance.

Lawrence recognized the significance of The Rose to Brandeis when he began meeting with the litigants in the lawsuit last fall before he took office. That’s a different line of decision-making than Reinharz had, who believed that major decisions on The Rose did not need community input.

Those styles in decision-making represent the difference between confidence and arrogance. Friends of Brandeis will disagree with Lawrence’s policies in the future, but they are unlikely to call him arrogant, as one rabbi did of Reinharz while protesting the decision to select Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to deliver the 2010 commencement address.

As he welcomed the new students to campus on Monday in the Gosman Athletic Center, Lawrence told them, “Everyone of you richly belongs here and deserves to be here. And if you ever run out of confidence in yourselves, then you borrow some of mine, because I’ve got more than enough for each and every one of you with a little left over.”

In an interview on his first official day of work Thursday, Flagel reflected on the mistakes that university administrators can make and continue to repeat, explaining that he is always careful to avoid that process.

“There’s a theory called ‘garbage-can decision-making.’ And another word for it is having a solution in search of a problem,” Flagel said. “Here’s something that worked for me, so I’m just going to keep doing that. Doesn’t matter if it’s what fits.”

For now, that theory of decision-making is no longer taking place at Brandeis. And for that reason, this university has discovered a new image, receiving more positive media attention and a stronger international reputation.

Communities will always judge their leaders for what they accomplish, but communities will also judge them for how they interact with others—for how stakeholders feel about the people who represent them.

For Lawrence, approachability and openness have proven his greatest assets in building relationships with members of the Brandeis community. Faculty and administrators respect a president who listens to their ideas for academic reform. Students like a president who takes the time to talk with them—and not just student leaders, or star athletes and actors.

Interacting with students informally can be a rarity for college presidents at large universities, but for Lawrence it has become commonplace. He has regularly attended student social events, including Shabbat dinners, basketball and soccer games, and concerts.

This leadership style was on display Monday afternoon, as Lawrence took time to talk with first-year students and their parents in Sherman dining hall and not because he felt compelled to be there. He takes time to talk with the campus media for sit-down interviews and on their cell phones over the summer.

Following a campus tragedy last semester, Lawrence immediately cut short a development trip in California, returning to Brandeis on a red-eye flight and walking around campus the next evening simply to ask students how they were feeling.

These are not the characteristics that will define a university president’s greatest successes or failures. But they are the moments and the efforts that students care about the most. Jehuda Reinharz transformed Brandeis from what one senior administrator has called an “identity crisis” in the early 1990s into the global liberal arts research university it is today. For 16 years, Reinharz was the face of reform. But reform and success do not necessarily bring likability.

Parents, for example, want to hear about the “sacred trust” that Lawrence believes they have given to him and his administration as Brandeis cares for students. Those are not just words for parents but they reflect the values of a university.

And what Brandeis has discovered over the past year is that when students believe their school is moving in the right direction, parents are happier and alumni become more involved.

As a new leadership team assembles for the upcoming year, they will be guided by the comfort of knowing that they are each new here.

Administrators and even presidents do not define a school. As Lawrence said during an interview in his office last week, in between meetings to prepare for Hurricane Irene’s impact on campus, “Presidents change but universities have continuity.”

Brandeis is not a different school under Lawrence than it was under Reinharz but few would doubt that it’s moving in a different direction.