Jehuda Reinharz's sudden announcement he is resigning as Brandeis president sparked as much speculation about his reasons for doing so as his earlier recommendation to close the university's art museum and sell part of its $350 million collection generated criticism.
But Reinharz, 65, is adamant the controversy surrounding the future of the Rose Art Museum earlier this year did not factor into his decision.
"There's a natural inclination to link the two, because the issue was not too long ago. I understand people will make the link, but if I were to leave every time we had a major controversy, I would have been gone a long time ago," said Reinharz.
Reinharz is not so much in a rush to leave as he is to open the door for a new president, he said.It is his vision of the future of higher education that most compelled him to hand over the reins. "I think it's important for someone to come in at the very start," Reinharz said.
Remembering his first years as Brandeis president, Reinharz said he wants to help his successor.
"I wish I had had mentorship. This is a good time for the university, and it's a good time for me to leave," he said.
He said he also wants to "have another shot at doing something new," he said.
"I could wait until I'm 70, but I think my options would be limited," Reinharz said.
Two "very large" foundations have asked him to serve as president, he said.
He refused to negotiate while he is leading Brandeis, he said, and the foundations agreed to wait until June 2011.
"Even then, I'm not totally leaving the university, I'll stay on as president emeritus" at the request of the university's board of trustees, he said.
Reinharz said the foundations also agreed he can stay in Boston so he will be on hand to help Brandeis.
What does he hope for in a new president, and for the future of Brandeis?
"When the new president comes in, people always ask, 'What's your vision?' as if you have to come up with a new vision. That's silly," said Reinharz.
"I don't see that the educational mission and aspirations of the university are going to change," he said.
He would like to see Brandeis on better financial footing.
Which is not to say it's in danger the university had one of its best fundraising years ever, he said. The endowment went down 17 percent, but the school only depends on endowments for 12 percent of its budget, he said.
A polarizing figure?
Responding to criticism he was out of touch with students and polarized the community, he said, "I don't believe that for a moment."
"But there's no point in arguing this. ... It's the nature of an academic institution; there's a lot of debate. Universities are all about ideas, and that's what we do," he said.
He said he has a " very good connection" with students, including current and past student presidents, meets with the student government "all the time," and holds open office hours every two weeks to see students.
The Reinharz Years
As provost of the university in 1991, Reinharz had "no aspirations whatsoever to this job," he said. When his predecessor resigned earlier than expected, trustees asked Reinharz to take the post, but he didn't want it.
"I took a long time to accept the job, because I knew the condition the university was in, and I knew it was going to be a very difficult, back-breaking job," Reinharz said.
"It was my wife who convinced me - and I always listen to my wife," said Reinharz.
What did she say, exactly, to persuade him?
"She knows how to push my buttons. I was critical of the administration at the time, and she said it was time for me to make the changes (I) believed were needed," he said.
In his years as Brandeis president, beginning in 1994, Reinharz nearly tripled the university's endowment from $194 million to $559 million, changed its entire physical infrastructure, improved its ranking, attracted "an excellent faculty and outstanding student body, as good as anyone in the country," he said.
Brandeis continues to be ranked in the top 30 universities in the country, which Reinharz called "amazing for a school of our size."
But he is perhaps most proud of the school's commitment to accepting students on a need-blind basis, and providing financial aid to those who need it.
"Given the fact that Brandeis is still committed to social justice, I'm very proud of the fact that we accept students on their abilities, but not their ability to pay. We are blind to their financial resources," Reinharz said.
Brandeis awards about $40 million in grants and scholarships to undergraduates. Seventy-two percent of its students receive some form of financial aid (including loans), and 62 percent of current students receive Brandeis-funded grant aid. The average student receives $25,000 in financial aid annually, Reinharz said.
Under his leadership, applications have nearly doubled, while admission has become highly competitive, said Dennis Nealon, executive director of media and public affairs at Brandeis.
"Jehuda Reinharz has brought an extraordinary vision to this university. Under his leadership, Brandeis has become a stronger institution, with a national and international reputation for academic excellence," said Mal Sherman, chairman of the Brandeis board of trustees.
"Jehuda Reinharz has made significant and impressive contributions during his 15 years as president of Brandeis University, not just as a university president, but also as a world-class fundraiser," said Jack Connors, vice chairman of the Brandeis board of trustees.
When Reinharz first took the reins as president, the acceptance rate for freshmen was 68 percent - it's now 32 percent.
In 1994, the average combined SAT score was 1190, now it's 1360; today, 82 percent of incoming freshman are in the top 10 percent of their high school class, compared to 48 percent in 1994, Nealon said.
Reinharz also increased diversity in the student body, as measured ethnically, racially, religiously, geographically and in interests, Nealon said. He doubled the percentage of incoming "freshmen of color" from 11 percent to 22 percent, Nealon said.
Under Reinharz's leadership, Brandeis created the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, and the Mandel Center for Jewish Education.
During his tenure as president, Brandeis University hired two MacArthur fellows, three Pulitzer Prize winners, two members of the National Institute of Medicine, 10 members of the National Academy of Sciences, four Howard Hughes medical investigators, 22 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Nealon said.
"The truth is, you never achieve the world there's always the next hill to climb. I feel very good about what we did, and I want to say, I had a lot of help from people, the administration and board of trustees. I think Louis Brandeis would be very proud to have his name associated with the university," Reinharz said of the Supreme Court Justice and champion of social justice.
At a recent dedication, Brandeis' three grandchildren - Walter Raushenbush, Alice Brandeis Popkin, and Frank Gilbert - said the same.
"I started coming here in 1948, so I knew it when it was much smaller, and it has risen to become an excellent university, and I know my grandfather would be very proud of it," Popkin said.
Joyce Kelly can be reached at 781-398-8005 or email@example.com.