After 16 years, Brandeis president steps down

Jehuda Reinharz, responsible for much of the university's success, resigns his leadership role to begin working for the Mandel Foundation.

Jehuda Reinharz (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jehuda Reinharz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jehuda Reinharz, born in Haifa and educated in Israel, Germany and the US, stepped down from the presidency of Brandeis University as of January 1.
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Reinharz was Brandeis’ leader more than 16 years, transforming the secular Jewish-founded institution into one of the United States’ premiere small research universities.
One of his most important accomplishments was to expand the quality and influence of the university’s programs on Jewish life and the Middle East.
Reinharz, 66, is not only an academic administrator, but a key scholar of 20th-century Zionism. His two-volume magisterial biography of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, greatly influences attitudes towards Zionism and the founding of the state.
Reinharz’s work on Weizmann is also a study in how leaders evolve. In his assessment of Weizmann, Reinharz navigates a path between other historians who, in explaining events, either emphasize the personal characteristics of the leader or the social conditions of the day. Reinharz illustrates how Weizmann’s unique intelligence and personal skills allowed him to gain influence in post-World War I Britain, and how his success was equally influenced by the social and political environment of the times.
Reinharz’s own leadership of Brandeis reflects a similar interplay between personality and social context. One of Reinharz's favorite quips is that Brandeis was born with a deficit and has long struggled to balance its ambitious mission with available resources. The school’s mission not only embraces academic excellence, but also the social justice ideal engendered by Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish US Supreme Court justice. Moreover, the mission mandates that the university be a secular institution of higher education but also one connected to its history and Jewish values.
In 1994 Reinharz took the helm over a university with a unique heritage and mission, but one that had also weathered a period of financial and leadership turmoil.
Undoubtedly, Reinharz’s success as the university’s leader was enabled by the extraordinary growth of the US economy during the 1990s. It made it possible for him to secure donations that created new academic and research programs, added student scholarship funding, and physically transformed the campus. During his tenure as president, the university raised more than $1.2 billion — an extraordinary feat for a “young” university of fewer than 5,000 students.
But the increase in America’s wealth alone does not alone explain Reinharz’s success. His strength lied in articulating a compelling narrative about Brandeis that incorporated its founding values. It was a vision that allowed him to raise funds for the arts, humanities, and natural and social sciences while also expanding the depth and quality of programs concerned with the Jewish community, Israel and the Middle East.
In the last two years of his presidency, Reinharz’s leadership was entwined with external events. In late 2008, he recognized that the US economy was in free fall. A proactive leader, he moved quickly — for some, too quickly — to gain authorization to sell valuable artwork from the university museum. It embroiled him in controversy over the role of art in a modern university and, indeed, the role of the president.
In retrospect, it is clear that he mishandled the issue. He took responsibility for the error, however, and in doing so displayed a key leadership trait.
It is too early to assess the long-term impact of Reinharz’s tenure. But it is clear that Brandeis University is a far stronger institution today — in terms of its student body, faculty, financial stability and physical facilities — than when he took over in 1994.
Brandeis in 2011 is fiercely secular and influential in the arts and sciences, and plays a key role in the worldwide Jewish community, preserving and enhancing Jewish education.
One of Reinharz’s last achievements as president was the inauguration of Brandeis’ newest building, the Mandel Center for Humanities. A beautiful structure, it was built at the highest point on the campus just outside Boston. It is home for a broad swath of interdisciplinary faculties and includes the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. The building is a testament to Reinharz’s capacity to articulate an ambitious vision and to match it with the necessary resources.
Jehuda Reinharz left Brandeis to become head of the Mandel Foundation, one of the most important Jewish philanthropies operating in Israel and the Diaspora. Given the challenges facing both Israel and the Diaspora, Reinharz's unique leadership skills turns Brandeis’ loss into the Jewish people’s gain.
The writer is Professor of Jewish Community Research and Social Policy at Brandeis University and Director of the Cohen Center.