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In memoriam: Evelyn Handler, 78

Published: January 20, 2012
Section: News


Evelyn E. Handler, the first female president of Brandeis, who transformed the university’s life sciences and athletic programs, serving as a pioneer for women in higher education and a leader who sparked a debate over the Jewish identity of Brandeis, died Dec. 23 after she was struck and killed by a car in Bedford, N.H. She was 78.

Handler, who lived in Bow, N.H., was crossing the street near the Bedford Grove Shopping Center when she was struck by a car on the evening of Dec. 23. She was later pronounced dead at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester.

Handler served as the first female president of the University of New Hampshire from 1980 to 1983 before her tenure at Brandeis from 1983 to 1991. Under her leadership at Brandeis, the school joined the Association of American Universities and launched the Volen Center for Complex Systems. Brandeis also joined the University Athletic Association during her tenure.

Before assuming the presidency of Brandeis in 1983, Handler told The Boston Globe that determination would be her greatest asset as a leader.

“I don’t relent, I don’t give up,’’ she told the Globe in October 1983. “It’s more a strength than a weakness. … You don’t get done what an institution needs if you give up the fight too early.”

“She was very forceful, set her goals, worked hard to reach them and had little patience for wasting time,” her husband Eugene said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Her tenure, however, was not without controversy. In an effort to increase diversity and attract more non-Jewish students, Handler oversaw changes in the dining halls that included new options of pork and shellfish. In addition, Brandeis did not mark certain days off from class as Jewish holidays on the calendar. In June 1990, she announced her resignation to take effect one year later.

The decision to leave Brandeis led to controversy in the press over whether Handler left under pressure from the board of trustees.

Louis Perlmutter, who served as chairman of the Brandeis board of trustees at the time disputed the theory.

“Evelyn Handler, contrary to your interpretation, was not forced out by the current chairman,’’ Perlmutter wrote in a letter to The New York Times published in August 1990.

Her husband said that she enjoyed cooking, spending time with her family and solving cross- word puzzles in her free time.

“She enjoyed the challenge that they presented and she enjoyed solving them,” her husband said.

“It is with great sadness, particularly during this holiday season, that we write to let you know that former Brandeis President Evelyn E. Handler died Friday night …” university President Fred Lawrence and Chairman of the Board Malcolm Sherman wrote in a statement last month.

“On behalf of the entire Brandeis community, we extend our deepest sympathies to the Handler family.”

Handler graduated from Hunter College and earned a master’s degree and doctorate in biology from New York University. Her scientific research focused on leukemia and, before serving as president of UNH, Handler was the dean of the Division of Science and Mathematics at Hunter College.

Handler is survived by her husband Eugene, two sons, Jeff Varsa and Bradley Handler, a sister, Adrianne Gluckmann, and three grandchildren.