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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alumnus depicts Brandeis beginnings

Published: September 17, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Leading social psychologist Elliot Aronson, winner of multiple awards from the American Psychological Association, attended Brandeis during its beginnings in the 1950s. In a section in his memoir “Not by Chance Alone” he illustrates how the new university deeply impacted his life and paints a picture of a very different place from the Brandeis that students know today.

Before Aronson decided to attend Brandeis University, which was, at the time, a three-year-old college, he was already connected to the school through his older brother. Jason Aronson was Brandeis’ first Student Union president and naturally encouraged his brother to attend here.

In a phone interview, Elliot Aronson described his perception of the university at the time. “I loved the idea of Brandeis. In 1950, the admissions policies—especially at elite private colleges, were very anti-semitic … the goal of Brandeis was that it would be a place that wouldn’t discriminate against anybody.”

Although Aronson was considering other colleges, in the end, he didn’t think he had a choice.

Coming from a low-income family, Brandeis’ offer of a full-year scholarship was too tempting to turn down. “It was a good school that was going to be a great school … but I didn’t know that. I was 18 and stupid … the main reason I went there was the scholarship.”

During his second year, however, Brandeis did not offer him any financial aid. Aronson describes in his book how he received the news in a darkly comic part of his memoir: “The first [letter] came in late June and congratulated me on my sterling grades during my freshman year. The second arrived a week later, informing me that, due to a shortage of funds, the university could no longer offer me financial aid.”

He spent the first semester of his sophomore year essentially homeless, sleeping in friends’ dorms and cars, moving from place-to-place and unable to eat on-campus because he didn’t have a meal contract. Yet Aronson grew to love Brandeis and so he fought to continue to stay here.

He explained during the interview, “For the first time in my life I fell in love with learning. I hated high school and didn’t think I was a good student … by the time I finished freshman year you couldn’t pry me away from Brandeis … I was a mussel clinging to a rock”

During the time Aronson attended Brandeis there had not been a senior class yet and there were only approximately 500 students. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Aronson joked that it complicated dating on campus, “People paired up pretty quickly; it was not easy to date more than one person on campus at a time. Everyone knew each other, [Brandeis] had a small-town nature.”

Another thing that complicated matters was that in the 1950s girls lived in dormitories where boys were not allowed.

While the social atmosphere of the campus was different, so was the campus’ physical geography. There were only a few buildings, one of them being a cozy cottage where the Psychology Department held classes. Contributing to the small-town feel, Brandeis also had a grape arbor and a wishing well. Since Aronson graduated from Brandeis, he has returned to the campus several times. While he understands that the campus had to grow and expand in order to accommodate the more than 3,000 undergraduates, he has not liked most of the buildings that have been added to the campus since he graduated.

Cautioning that his opinion is highly biased, Aronson said, “The only buildings that have gone up since my time at Brandeis that I liked were the chapels … Some buildings are atrocious, but I understand that the university had to grow.” The chapels were erected early on in Brandeis’ history by the architect Max Abramovitz.

Although Brandeis was a new university, it attracted professors who are now notable figures in American history. Aronson was taught psychology by Abraham Maslow, one of the creators of humanist psychology. Maslow was one of Aronson’s mentors, he stated that “[Maslow] was soft in the sense that he was more like a guru. He would sit and make pronouncements … what Maslow gave us was a positive way of thinking about human potential.”

The site of Aronson’s political, sexual and academic awakening, Brandeis has deeply impacted the direction of his life. Although the Brandeis Aronson describes, in a sense, no longer exists, it is important to realize Brandeis’ continual role in helping shape the lives of the students who attend the university.