Growing up in Port Washington, L.I., Frederick Lawrence thought he'd have a career in politics or teaching.
But in high school, animated by the civil rights and anti-war movements and inspired by the role attorneys were playing as agents "of social change," he decided to become a lawyer.
Some four decades later, after working as a civil rights lawyer and law school dean, Lawrence is taking a position at the highest rung of academia.
Lawrence, 55, was last week named the next president of Brandeis University, the non-sectarian school under Jewish auspices in Waltham, Mass. On Jan. 1, 2011 he will succeed Jehuda Reinharz, who will become head of the Mandel Foundation, an international philanthropy.
Since 2005 Lawrence has served as dean of the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.
He comes to Brandeis at a time when the school is under fire from several directions. In recent years Brandeis has drawn criticism for the controversy over last spring's invitation to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to serve as commencement speaker; for its announced plans to sell its extensive modern art collection and close its Rose Art Museum because of a growing deficit; for its "team-taught" Middle East studies class that features Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian instructors.
Bad time to become Brandeis president?
"Absolutely not," Lawrence said. "A school's president is always going to have challenges."
The controversy over Oren's appearance at the school — he delivered his speech and received an honorary degree to warm applause, according to news reports — was exaggerated in the media, largely fueled by agitators who were not part of the Brandeis community, Lawrence told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview.
The campus debate over the propriety of honoring a representative of a country that some critics consider a repressive, occupying power encouraged an open discussion of free speech values — which Lawrence, who specialized in free speech cases while working as an attorney, views as crucial in an university atmosphere.
"If free speech should flourish anywhere, it is within the halls of a university," he wrote last year in his online blog after a student group at GWU posted flyers containing a profanity.
Lawrence titled his blog "Putting the F in Freedom of Speech."
"Free speech issues are always hard"; one person's open expression of opinions is likely to upset another person, he said.
Lawrence declined to say how he would have handled the Oren controversy were he at Brandeis earlier this year, but said he generally favors unfettered speech unless one party is in physical danger.
The issue of the Brandeis art collection was resolved with a compromise. The Boston Herald reported this week that the school has signed a contract with Sotheby's auction house to lease, rather than sell, the art works valued at $350 million.
Brandeis, whose endowment has dropped from a 2008 peak of $712.4 million to the current $620 million, a drop of 13 percent, instituted a campus-wide budgetary self-examination this year, considering several cost-cutting moves that are still under consideration, Lawrence says. The school, he says, "is in quite good shape financially."
At GWU, he helped the law school triple its available scholarship money.
Lawrence declined to comment on the controversy over the team-taught "Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East" course or specify, before he takes office and embarks on a "listening tour" on campus, what cost-cutting or fund-raising measures he may consider. But he says one of his first priorities will be to increase the amount of financial aid available to undergraduates.
The Brandeis faculty, both those with an interest in the school's Jewish mission and those involved with its outreach to the wider community, are pleased with Lawrence's appointment, said Jonathan Sarna, longtime professor of American Jewish history at the school.
"All the people I've spoken to are thrilled. He 'gets' Brandeis," Sarna said. "The Jewish studies people look at his strong Jewish credentials, his interest in Jewish life, his record of service to Jewish organizations."
People at Brandeis with a primary interest in human rights activities say, "This is a man who wrote the book on human rights, this is a man who really reflects the interest in social justice that Brandeis University is committed to," Sarna said.
Andy Hogan, a Brandeis student who served on the Presidential Search Committee, was quoted by the Brandeis Justice, a campus newspaper, as calling Lawrence's background a good sign for ties between students and the administration.
"He really likes to get to know the students, and he knows that we have insights that will help him in his job," Hogan told the publication, "and I think it's going to be a good relationship."
Brandeis, which was established in 1948, when Ivy League universities and other leading American colleges had Jewish quotas, formerly had a majority-Jewish student body. Today, an estimated half of the 3,100 undergraduates are Jewish.
Brandeis, which drew criticism for the diminishing Jewish character of the school — an optional kosher meal plan, for example, is available — a generation ago, took steps under Reinharz to reverse that trend, strengthening its Jewish studies department and enhancing the school's overall reputation as a top research center, Lawrence says.
In its early days, Brandeis attracted students both for "positive" (its academic standards and Jewish milieu) and "negative" (quotas that kept top Jewish students out of other school) reasons, he says.
Quotas are long gone. "Now, there's just a positive aspect" — Jewish students apply to Brandeis, he says, because they want to, not because they have to.
"The scholarship of the school will [be decisive] … in the kids of students we are trying to attract," he told JTA. "It will be a place [where] Jewish students will have a particular kind of home."
Lawrence, a Yale Law School graduate, says he was approached by the Brandeis Board of Trustees shortly after Reinharz announced his plans to step down. "The more questions I asked, the more interested I became."
He points to the school's Four Pillars "ethos," which include Jewish sponsorship, an openness to all faiths and a commitment to social justice.
"I look at the Four Pillars and I see my life," Lawrence says. "I am inspired by Brandeis' history as an institution that embodies what makes America great. The opportunity to lead Brandies is not merely a professional appointment. It is a calling."
Before going to George Washington University, Lawrence taught at the Boston University School of Law, serving three years as associate dean of students; he earlier worked as clerk to Judge Amalya Kearse of the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and as assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York under Rudolph Giuliani.
An expert on hate crimes, he was a member of the Massachusetts attorney general's Hate Crimes Task Force, and chairman of the Anti-Defamation League's national legal affairs committee. He is the author of "Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law" (Harvard University Press, 1999) and last year edited one of five volumes of the treatise "Responding to Hate Crime."
In 2004 Lawrence was a member of the U.S. delegation to the meeting of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, and in 2008 delivered the keynote address on hate crime law enforcement at the OSCE meeting.
His family belonged to a Reform congregation, but Lawrence, who calls himself traditionally oriented "Conservadox," was a member of Kesher Israel, a prominent Orthodox synagogue, while he was living in Washington.
During his previous tenure in Boston, he regularly attended a Talmud class, he says; a trained singer, he frequently leads congregational prayers in shul and delivers a dvar Torah on Shabbat.
At Brandies, Lawrence says he hopes to return to the classroom, maybe teaching a course each semester.
He's not looking beyond the Brandeis presidency. "This is a challenge," he says. "I can see running with this for a long period of time."