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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Commemorating 50 years of knowledge advancing social justice

Published: October 23, 2009
Section: Features

Basking in the Glory: Former Heller dean Jack Shonkoff coined the Heller school’s motto and raised money for the new building.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Robbie Hammer/The Hoot</i>

Basking in the Glory: Former Heller dean Jack Shonkoff coined the Heller school’s motto and raised money for the new building.
PHOTO BY Robbie Hammer/The Hoot

Last weekend marked The Heller School for Social Policy and Management’s 50th anniversary. The weekend was not only a time of nostalgia for the school as it sponsored speeches, discussions and events focusing on the past, but it was also a chance for alumni and faculty to consider their hopes for Heller’s future.

Named for Florence G. Heller, the first female president of the National Jewish Welfare Board, the Heller school, Brandeis’ first professional school, has come a long way since its humble beginning in 1959.

In 1994, Heller made U.S. News and World Report’s Top Ten List of Social Policy Schools; in 2004 it made top three on the same list.

Members of the Heller community have always been among the most respected in their fields. Over the last 50 years, faculty members have participated in presidential committees and served as expert witnesses in monumental cases.

One such professor is Gunnar Dybwad, who served as the lead expert in a 1974 Pennsylvania class action suit that earned students with disabilities the right to education. Then there’s former Heller Dean Stuart Altman, who was selected as chair of the United States Prospective Payment Assessment Commission to oversee the Medicare payment policy to hospitals in 1983.

Today, Heller community members often make media appearances to discuss topics ranging from the job market to Medicare. This year alone, members of the community have made over 30 media appearances.

One of the major events highlighting the weekend’s mission was Provost Marty Krauss’ Past and Present Dean’s Breakfast. Over breakfast Saturday morning, the last two Heller deans, along with the current Dean Lisa Lynch shared their thoughts on Heller’s history, its future and its place both domestically and internationally.

Krauss introduced former dean Stuart Altman by explaining the situation Heller faced when he became dean.

“When Stuart became dean in 1977, none, I repeat, none of the nationally known centers and institutes that give such a sterling reputation to the Heller school existed,” Krauss said. “Stuart was a builder, a visionary of how to propel the research enterprise of the Heller School in a totally different way that had existed for its first quarter century.”

Krauss described how Altman’s vision for the school relied on expanding the kinds of professionals who would build their careers at Heller, and how under his management, the Heller school launched its first master’s programs.

Altman began his remarks with a bit of humor, naming himself “the ghost of Hanukkah past,” and going on to offer his own perspective on the situation Heller was in during his time as dean.

“I was brought into Heller being told, ‘You don’t have to do anything but bring in the first-rate faculty,’” he said.

“Everyone was living in the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson in the 60s,” he continued. “People with money came to [Heller] and begged us to take their money, for research, for teaching, for everything. Life was wonderful.”

Altman went on to explain his personal guilt over “almost killing the Heller school” in the 70s. When the Nixon administration came in, he explained, they took all the grants away, leaving Altman feeling lost.

“I felt like I had become dean and someone took my lunch away,” he said. “Five senior faculty members got up and left [and] I was responsible for replacing them.”

In spite of the challenges he faced during his time as dean, Altman still looks back fondly on this period of his life.

“Being dean was a labor of love. All of its history, its insights…I remember the institute forming, the good people, the good teachers, the people of the world.”

After Altman’s speech, Krauss introduced fellow former Dean Jack Shonkoff, who was dean from 1994 to 2005.

Krauss highlighted his desire to better coordinate the spheres of activity and the “drastically expansive research enterprise” that Altman’s leadership ushered in.

“He labored long and hard on strategic planning—not always a welcome exercise at a school that was so entrepreneurial and far reaching—but he did it,” Krauss said.

It was Shonkoff who created the Heller school’s motto, “knowledge advancing social justice.” He explained the meaning behind the lasting words.

“The key to ‘knowledge advancing social justice’ is more teaching, less preaching,” he said.

Shonkoff added that the most important issue facing students today is a need for “new ideas, new theories of change driven not just by values…but by knowledge.” “Tweaking what people knew 50 years ago — it’s not sufficient,” he said.

Shonkoff was also behind the creation of the renovated Heller building that was completed in 2007 after The Irving Schneider and Family Building was opened in 2006.

In her remarks to the crowd, Krauss stressed gratitude to Shonkoff for creating the new building.

“[Shonkoff] made this happen. He raised the funds. He set the priorities,” she said. “[The building] is a true gift to us all…who will reap the benefits of your dogged persistence that the work of the Heller school would be enhanced by being in a building complex that inspired collaboration and visionary thinking.”

In 2005 Shonkoff stepped down as dean. In the interim, Altman became dean once again, and the search for someone who could continue Heller’s mission began. In 2008 Lisa Lynch became dean of Heller.

In her remarks, Krauss praised Lynch’s subsequent work: “She walks on water, she has a passionate commitment to the betterment of society through Heller.”

Lynch discussed her hopes for what the Heller school will accomplish in the future and simultaneously addressed issues facing the current economy.

“Almost one in five workers are out of work, underworked or significantly struggling…36 percent of workers unemployed have been unemployed for more than six months,” she said.

“It’s important for the Heller School to make sure it’s prepared to respond to both immediate causes of issues and the long-term problems they create…We have to be designing policies that will make a significant difference, especially to the most needy members of our society,” Lynch added.

A question and answer session followed the remarks from Krauss, Altman, Shonkoff and Lynch. The session focused on unemployment. During the session, a Heller alumni explained to Lynch how she had been out of work for more than a year, despite the fact that she had two master’s degrees.

Lynch responded with great emotion saying, “It pains me to hear of a Heller graduate, with all the school embodies, out of work.”

Lynch also recommended that alumni in such situations see the career center and alumni network because “we’ll help you and make sure you succeed.”

Reaction to the panel was mixed among alumni present.

“The panel was very interesting. I feel like the panel couldn’t quite make its mind up between highlighting accomplishments or focusing on issues relevant to the respective eras—it’s hard,” said Jim Gorman, M.A ’73, Ph.D. ’78.

“I thought that particularly the comments of [Schankoff] and Lynch gave us important things to think about. They focused on different mindsets than we would have normally,” Elizabeth Pressien M.A.’81 said.

Some alumni were thankful for the historical aspect of the speeches.

“It was all very stimulating; the different histories and approaches, the changes as well as the different leaders and advances the school has had gave me a great insight into how much Heller has changed since I knew it,” said Nancy Stone, wife of Lenny Bloksberg Ph.D. ’66.

Marc Cohen Ph.D. ’87 summed up the weekend’s atmosphere and the hope for the future: “Great new dean, incredible thoughts, a real go-getter. I feel like the future is very bright for Heller.”

Nathan Koskella contributed to this report.