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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Reinharz years

The triumphs and troubles of a president and his university

Published: December 3, 2010
Section: News

When outgoing university President Jehuda Reinharz ascended to the presidency in 1994, the Brandeis endowment was a miniscule $194 million, with fewer than $10 million in unrestricted funds. Buildings, like the steps of The Rose Art Museum, were literally crumbling, and the board of trustees warned Reinharz that if money was not raised, there would be layoffs.

“The university was in constant panic and crisis as to how it would make it,” Reinharz remembered in his office Monday.

Reinharz had to act fast. And he did. During his 16 years at Brandeis, President Reinharz has more than tripled the endowment, and raised $1.166 billion. He has built 11 new buildings, and razed countless decrepit ones.

But Reinharz’ quick actions came at a price. Though at the beginning of his presidency his act now, ask questions later attitude was seen by most as necessary for the survival of his presidency, in later years his critics would cite this very tactic in accusations that Reinharz governed without transparency or consideration of community voices.

The early years

Reinharz began his tenure as a professor at Brandeis in 1982 and served as provost before becoming the university’s seventh president in 1994. One of his first moves as president was to hire Senior Vice President of Institutional Advancement Nancy Winship to help raise money for the university.

“Brandeis had immediate financial needs at that time. We needed financial aid, faculty support and we needed to fix up the campus,” Winship said. “Jehuda from the very beginning had to face many issues in 1994. I don’t think another president would have stayed.”

One of the difficulties Reinharz faced during that period was student and alumni pride.

“In 1994 if you asked a student or an alum why they came to Brandeis, they would say it was because they were not accepted elsewhere; they thought they were too good for our institution,” Reinharz said.

So Winship said Reinharz set out to work on what he called “one on one resuscitation,” traveling 35 to 36 weeks the first year of his presidency to visit donors and alumni who had fallen out of touch with the university.

“He has the ability to get off a plane with no jet-lag, which really helped a lot,” Winship said. “He would patiently listen to donors say things they don’t like about Brandeis, but then he would turn it around and say ‘but did you know this? did you know this?’ and tell them all the good things and then they turned around and donated.”

Building Brandeis

Reinharz was certain that in order to raise more money from alumni, students had to be proud to attend the university. Part of doing that was constructing new buildings that would foster student life and scholarship.

“There was no center to Brandeis—I don’t mean a student center—there was no center-point or center of gravity like Harvard Yard,” Reinharz said.

Reinharz called a meeting of 23 Brandeis alumni who had gone into city planning and architecture and invited them to create a plan to transform the campus. That initial outline was then transformed into a master plan that the university has followed ever since.

“The center spine through campus that stretches from Village A up to Rabb is part of that plan,” Reinharz said. “We have never built a building since 1998 unless it adheres to this plan.”

As part of this initiative, Reinharz recruited the Shapiro family to fund the Shapiro Campus Center, the first of many gifts they would give to the university during Reinharz’s tenure as president.

Throughout the Reinharz reign, university capital projects have all adhered to three main objectives: For each building built, at least one was razed; each new building would have a green area around the structure to help with campus beautification—like the great lawn—; and, for each building, the number of parking lots would be reduced, also for beautification.

Indeed, one of Reinharz’ few regrets is that he was unable to build more university buildings before he officially steps down Dec. 31.

“This is not the same campus as it was in 1994,” Winship said. “He completely transformed everything.”

Reign or regime

But while Reinharz’s transformation of the campus was welcomed by many, some thought his attitude towards the campus was stifling.

Professor Donald Hindley (POL), who has knocked heads with the president on more than one occasion, including an incident which threatened his employment, calls Reinharz’ tenure as president “the Reinharz regime.”

During Reinharz’s presidency, faculty became afraid to speak out against Reinharz because of fear of retribution, Hindley said. The result was a “privatization” of professors towards their work, and the weakening of the professorial community as a whole.

“Of course the buildings are lovely, but what is important most of all is the atmosphere. It has been very sad for those of us who give a damn about the university because we no longer have a community,” Hindley said. “If you bob your head up, you get hit.”

Indeed, throughout the years students have also criticized Reinharz for a lack of transparency in the way he runs the university.

In 2008 students formed the group InVEST, Independent Voices for Endowment Sustainability and Transparency, with the group’s founder Alex Melman ’11 telling The Hoot at the time “there’s no public oversight, no watch dog.”

One year later, students formed a different group, the Brandeis Budget Cut Coalition, to advocate for “knowledge, participation and consent” in budgetary decisions, Jon Sussman ’11 then told The Hoot.

After the announcement that the university was planning to sell art from the university’s Rose Art Museum in January 2009, the Justice wrote in an editorial calling for open decision making, “this isn’t the first time this editorial board has called for transparency in recent times.”

Reinharz said that his long tenure as president of the university may have lead to having critics, saying, “you can’t be in a position of leadership for 16 years without making some enemies.”

“If I made mistakes, they probably would have to do with impatiences and my wanting to move faster when sometimes perhaps it would have been better to take more time to reflect on a move,” Reinharz said. “But the overall success of the university, in my humble opinion, greatly outweighs mistakes I might have made.”

The scales of finance

Indeed, Reinharz’ presidency has been marked by numerous occasions where the university was forced to weigh its options and make cuts.

The decision to sell art from The Rose Art Museum was one of the most divisive moments of his presidency. At the time, the university was reeling from an international economic meltdown that had decreased the endowment by 17 percent and was looking at an $80 million budget deficit by 2014 unless cuts were made.

After cutting 76 staff positions, Reinharz said the university turned to the art.

“People may criticize that, but I would ask my critics would you give up your job, or someone else’s job, to save some art? If the answer is yes, I would like to meet that person,” he said. “I’m here until the 31st.”

The initial press release about the art sale incorrectly stated that the university was also intending to close the museum, a mistake that reeked havoc in the art world and throttled the university into the national media spotlight.

More than 200 students protested the supposed closure that week, with Brandeis attracting national attention, the ire of the arts community and, later, a Massachusetts Attorney General investigation and a lawsuit. Though the university would announce the mistake four days later, “the genie was out of the bottle,” Reinharz said.

“The press release had no match with the resolution of the board,” he said. “Everyone knows I don’t write those public announcements, but it happened on my watch, so I am held responsible for that.”

At the same time as the university was dealing with its financial crisis, 70 students informed Brandeis they would be forced to drop out if they did not receive university financial aid.

To Reinharz, someone whose own scholarship was funded by financial aid, this was unacceptable.

“When something happens, Jehuda figures out how to deal with it. He doesn’t rehash it,” Winship said. “Some people may have seen the cuts a different way, but not one of those students ended up leaving.”

Jewish roots

Another point of contention for Reinharz throughout his presidency was the relationship of the university to the Jewish community and the state of Israel.

“Brandeis has had the debate of being too Jewish or not Jewish enough since it was born,” Reinharz said of the university, which was founded largely by Jewish donors.

“We are a Jewish sponsored university, which means we have an obligation to the Jewish community, but that is a scholarly obligation, not one that needs to be solved with social work,” Reinharz explained. “We are open to all, we welcome all.”

Some, like Hindley, have criticized Reinharz for using the university’s Jewish roots as an excuse to align Brandeis with his personal Zionist politics.

Hindley cited the visit to campus by former United States President Jimmy Carter to speak about his book calling Israel an Apartheid state, which Reinharz did not attend, and the choice of Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren as graduation speaker as examples of Reinharz’ bias.

“Reinharz uses the university to help the Israel lobby. To give [Oren] that degree, are you crazy?” Hindley said. “That guy is a hog. To be a hog is OK, but why do you have to make the Brandeis name associated with it?”

Reinharz said he did not attend the Carter event because he had a previously scheduled meeting that day, and insisted that his critics on Israel and the university’s “Jewishness” were ignorant.

“People may look at me and say this guy has an accent, he was born in Israel, he must be X, Y and Z, but you have no idea what I am unless you have a conversation with me,” Reinharz said.

University for the students

Throughout his career, Reinharz has advocated diversity at the university, both academically and within the student body.

Under Reinharz, the university forged a partnership with the Palestinian Al Kuds University on the West Bank and began the university’s peace and co-existance program.

Additionally, the percentage of first-years of color at the university has doubled since 1994 from 11 to 22 percent. This increase in university diversity came during a period when Brandeis, under Reinharz’ instruction, cut its acceptance rate from 68 to 32 percent, raising the university’s standings in the U.S. News and World Report rankings from being in the 50s to the low 30s.

“Brandeis is no longer a safety school. The university is a much more vibrant and happy place now, and people really want to be here,” Reinharz said, adding that the happiest moments of his presidency come from spending time with these admitted students during his office hours.

Brandeis alumna Josh Israel ’99 said he remembers Reinharz for his dedication to the student body, recounting a time when vandals attacked the office of Triskelion in an anti-gay hate crime.

“Reinharz rose to the moment, delivering a passionate and powerful speech,” Israel wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot. “He reassured a rattled student body and pushed us all to make both the campus and the world a more accepting place.”

“Brandeis is Jehuda’s family,” Winship said. “Everything he wears on his private vacations says Brandeis; his shirt, his shorts, his hat,” she said.

“He wants people to see Brandeis and say Brandeis because he has such a pride in this university and in our students.”