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Lawrence outlines vision of ‘selective excellence’

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


When President Fred Lawrence took the office of president Jan. 1, his top priorities were already out of his hands: He had to hire half an administration to run from scratch. But the resignations of the second-in-command provost and the dean of arts and sciences also presented him with an opportunity to personally reshape Brandeis academics, the university’s most important asset and objective, with an entirely new vision.

The vision may be one of “selective excellence,” a phrase of Lawrence’s that his new provost Steve Goldstein chose to interpret by saying, “Nothing we do at Brandeis is worth doing unless we’re doing it with excellence.”

When asked independently if this included specific departmental cuts or other priority shifts of one discipline over another, both men were noncommittal.

With his appointments of University of Chicago professor and hospital administrator Goldstein as provost and Professor Susan Birren as dean, Lawrence picked one outsider, one longtime Brandeisian; one far-off administrator, one homegrown faculty member; one scientist and one more scientist.

Lawrence in an interview with The Hoot acknowledged the similarity of Goldstein and Birren’s credentials, but lauded their overall fit for the university’s successful administration. “They both have expertise in the field and they have a broad understanding,” the president said. “I received a range of opinions from the faculty, and Susan [especially, since she has known faculty here for years] was broadly supported.” Lawrence said the same went for Goldstein when he was introduced to the school.

Lawrence said that both, though they are from the sciences, appreciate the liberal arts and will fight for Brandeis on all fronts that they can. They both for instance “know that Oedipus is just as true and relevant today as it was then,” and Lawrence defended against the assumption that the liberal arts could somehow be shortchanged by the two scientists’ appointments.

He summed up his team’s goals by saying that “Brandeis is not going to be a niche school.” This is what the president says is all he meant by “selective excellence.”

“What the university is doing well stays the same,” Lawrence said, while some things will need to be changed.

Goldstein, in a separate and later interview, said that the selective phrase “makes people nervous,” but that “a central component of our organization is to bring it to excellence.”

Goldstein further said that he did not accept the dichotomy between arts and sciences or between theoretical and applied learning because the difference does not exist. “I don’t believe that there is such a thing as education for education’s sake,” Goldstein said.

“Education is what emboldens and empowers us to move out into the world as the people we want to be,” he said. Brandeis’ education should have a specific goal: making the world a better place through its social justice mission, he explained.

“The liberal arts and humanists are essential to the definition of the human condition, to preserving it,” and Brandeis will remain committed to them, Goldstein said, adding, “We do that by having our faculty focused on individual success, whatever that may be for each student.”

Goldstein and Birren both said that they appreciated more than anyone the liberal arts focus of the university. Birren acknowledged that she respected her fellow faculty members and Goldstein said that if anything, he could see that his fellow scientists were in most need of reassuring: “The real danger is someone in leadership thinking they know what those faculty are saying precisely because I’m from the same field as they are,” he said.

Lawrence said the reason Brandeis was what it is was because of its “commitment to our program in liberal arts, and we’re going to keep it that way.”