BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY


BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY, the only secular institution of higher learning in the Diaspora that is both Jewish-sponsored and non-sectarian. Brandeis University was founded in 1948 and has continued to rank near the top of academic life in the United States. In 1985 Brandeis was elected to membership in the Association of American Universities, an elite organization of the nation's 59 research universities. Controlling for size and judged according to faculty publications and citations, Brandeis was ranked ninth in 1997 among research universities. Over 3,000 undergraduates were enrolled at the beginning of the 21st century, plus another 1,300 graduate students. As of 2004, the campus consisted of 96 buildings, located on 235 suburban acres nine miles west of Boston. Brandeis University is especially renowned for its programs in the physical and natural sciences, in history, and in Jewish studies.

Its founding president, Abram L. *Sachar, was a scholar of Jewish history; in 1968 he retired after two decades, and became chancellor and then chancellor emeritus. (He died in 1993, at the age of 94.) Sachar's successor was an attorney, Morris B. Abram, who had served as president of the American Jewish Committee. Amid considerable political turmoil on campus, he remained as president for only two years, and was briefly replaced by Charles Schottland, the former commissioner of the Social Security Administration and the founding dean of the Florence Heller Graduate School for Social Policy and Management (established at Brandeis in 1959). By 1972, when Schottland resigned in favor of Marver H. Bernstein, the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Research Center was completed, as was the Feldberg Computer Center.

Bernstein, a specialist on the politics of Israel and the former dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, served until 1983. His tenure at Brandeis was marked in particular by deepening financial problems, stemming from a loss of donor support due to Israel's immediate needs in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, and from a stagnant if not declining national economy. Co-educational from the outset, Brandeis also lost a competitive advantage when neighboring Ivy League institutions accepted female matriculates. Bernstein's successor was a Hungarian-born biologist, Evelyn Handler, the president of the University of New Hampshire. Serving at Brandeis until 1991, Handler confronted an ongoing problem of how to define the Jewish auspices of the institution. It had been formed in no small measure to counteract the academic antisemitism that had especially characterized Ivy League institutions, which had discriminated against Jewish students seeking admission and Jewish scholars seeking employment. Brandeis promised to be a haven against the discrimination inherent in the quota system. But after such antisemitism had vanished, the Jewish character of Brandeis University looked increasingly ambiguous. In an effort to expand its constituency, a more variegated campus cuisine – that would include unkosher foods like pork and shellfish – was to be introduced, intensifying controversy over the Jewish heritage of the university that bedeviled its presidency.

In 1991 Samuel O. Thier, a physician who had headed the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, became president; he served for three years. In 1992 the Goodman Center for the Study of Zionism was established; and two years later, the Volen National Center for Complex Systems, with particular focus upon the neurosciences, was dedicated. The International Business School was also created in 1994. Thier's successor was his provost, Jehuda *Reinharz. The first Brandeis alumnus (Ph.D. 1972) to serve as president (and the first to have been born in Israel), he had taught Jewish history in the Lown School of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. President Reinharz served longer than any predecessor other than Sachar. He supervised the establishment of an International Center for Justice, Ethics and Public Life, which enhanced the historic reputation of the university for promoting undergraduate interest in social activism and progressive causes. Among the activists and scholars who joined the faculty during Reinharz's presidency were former Soviet refusenik and Israeli politician Natan *Sharansky, former Texas governor Ann Richards, and the former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, Robert B. *Reich.

In 1948 the Brandeis library was a converted stable, housing a few dozen volumes (including multiple copies of Gone with the Wind). By 1997 a million books had been shelved at the Goldfarb-Farber Library. (The millionth copy was a rare first edition of The Law of God, Isaac Leeser's 1845 Hebrew-English edition of the Pentateuch.) The chief source of funding for the libraries has been the Brandeis University National Women's Committee. With about 50,000 members organized in over a hundred chapters, it is the largest voluntary organization of supporters of any academic library in the United States. Jewish women themselves became objects of research in 1997, when the world's only university-based institute for the study of Jewish women, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, was created; its founder and co-director has been sociologist Shulamit Reinharz (Ph.D. 1977).

At the dawn of the 21st century, the university's endowment was about $400 million; and over 300 full-time professors and instructors served on the faculty, providing an official student-faculty ratio of 9:1. The teaching staff belonged to 24 autonomous departments and 22 interdisciplinary programs, offering three dozen majors. Degrees in nearly two dozen disciplines were also offered in the graduate programs. Probably the most famous faculty member was Morris Schwartz, the subject of a memoir by his former student, Mitch Albom, 1979, entitled Tuesdays with Morrie (1997), which ranked first on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list for four straight years. MacArthur Foundation Fellowships (or "genius" grants) were bestowed on three faculty members: Bernadette Brooten of the Lown School of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, a specialist in the social history of early Christianity; historian Jacqueline Jones, whose expertise combines the history of American women, labor, and African-Americans; and biologist Gina Turrigiano, who works on activity-dependent regulation of neuronal properties. Washington's Crossing (2004), by David Hackett Fischer of the Department of History, was also a finalist for the National Book Award. The faculty in the early decades of the university had been heavily stocked with Jewish refugees, some of whom had academically unconventional careers or even limited formal education. The origins of the faculty in later decades were far more likely to resemble the pattern of other elite institutions. The shift to native-born scholars was evident in Jewish studies. Brandeis was the first secular university in North America to create such a department; and its faculty has been especially distinguished, including Bible scholars Nahum *Sarna and Michael *Fishbane, sociologist Marshall *Sklare, historians Ben *Halpern and Jonathan D. *Sarna, and such scholars of Judaic thought as Nahum *Glatzer, Alexander *Altmann, Marvin *Fox, and Arthur *Green.

Because the university is neither a religious seminary nor a sectarian institution, the Jewishness of its origins and character has instigated a considerable effort to negotiate and define; and press accounts timed to honor both the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the founding of the institution referred to an "identity crisis" from which Brandeis University was reportedly suffering. That dilemma has persisted. Beginning in the 1970s and gathering momentum in succeeding decades, Brandeis has been sensitive to the celebration of diversity as a desideratum in public life and especially on the nation's campuses. About 16% of the student body is classified as "minority"; 101 foreign countries are also represented among the undergraduates and graduate students. The effort to ensure that both the student body and the personnel of the faculty and administration would reflect the ethos of multiculturalism was bound to generate some friction with a yearning to keep intact the heritage of Jewish distinctiveness, with the continuing effort of both undergraduates and institutional leaders to articulate the meaning of the Jewish legacy of Brandeis University, and with imperatives of its Jewish communal sponsorship and auspices.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

M.B. Abram, The Day is Short: An Autobiography (1982); R.M. Freeland, Academia's Golden Age: Universities in Massachusetts, 1945–1970. (1992); S. Pasternack (ed.), From the Beginning: A Picture History of the First Four Decades of Brandeis University (1988); A.L. Sachar, A Host at Last (1976).

[Stephen J. Whitfield (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.