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Handler presidency reflected identity shift

Published: January 20, 2012
Section: Front Page


It was the symbolism of Evelyn Handler’s decisions to introduce pork and shellfish in the dining halls and to remove the listing of Jewish holidays from the academic calendar that angered Brandeis supporters during her time as president in the 1980s.

Her desire to diversify the student body at the cost of angering the Jewish community defined her legacy. But it is also the legacy of a leader who transformed the infrastructure and name recognition of Brandeis at a time when universities across the country saw a significant drop in the number of college applications.

“The challenge that she faced which any president would have faced is how to reconcile the support of and … sponsorship of the American Jewish community with the ethos of multiculturalism and diversity,” Professor Stephen Whitfield (AMST) said in an interview. “What she tried to do was reconcile them as best she could which was inevitably interpreted as a kind of repudiation to the connection of the Jewish heritage.”

As Whitfield explained, it was not simply the effort to attract a more diverse and international student body that angered Jewish supporters. It was the manner in which Handler attempted to do so—by offending Jewish culture and its dietary laws.

The foundation of Brandeis is unique from other institutions—a nonsectarian university founded with deep roots in and sponsorship from the Jewish community. In contrast to Jesuit schools such as Boston College or Georgetown University, Brandeis receives the indirect rather than direct support and sponsorship of a religious community.

When former President Jehuda Reinharz took office, like Handler, he was less observant than others to lead the school, but his Israeli heritage created an instant connection level of trust with the Jewish community.

“Israel matters more” to Brandeis supporters than observance “and it tends to be a kind of support of Israel that protects Israel against criticism,” Whitfield said.

President Fred Lawrence, himself an observant and practicing Jew, said Brandeis can be a school that both recognizes its support from the Jewish community but also promotes diversity.

“The school that I inherit has got a strong set of traditions but also an extraordinary diversity,” Lawrence said during an interview in his office on Wednesday.

Whitfield agreed, explaining that all students can be drawn to Brandeis because of its academic reputation and quality of education. Lawrence added that his own background models the university identity he seeks to promote as president.

“In terms of my own background this is sort of the world in which I live,” Lawrence said. “I am, I think, as everybody around here knows, a practicing Jew and that is an important part of my life. At the same time, my career comes out of the legal world and the legal academic world.”

But Lawrence also acknowledged that serving as president of Brandeis in 2012 is a different challenge than was leading the university in 1983.

For whatever controversy and identity changes Handler provoked, she also guided a school by running a successful capital campaign to improve campus buildings, strengthening the life sciences and bringing Brandeis into the University Athletic Association. Those achievements, along with the decision to serve pork and shellfish in Usdan have lasted through the years.

Those closest to Handler described her as a woman with a passionate desire for achievement and massive change

“She was very forceful, set her goals, worked hard to reach them and had little patience for wasting time,” Eugene Handler said.

As the community mourns Evelyn Handler’s death and reflects on her legacy, it remembers a leader who cared most about implementing change and worried little about how others would react.