Brandeis University President Fred Lawrence LAW ’80 is returning next year to his alma mater, Yale Law School, as a senior research scholar specializing in civil rights law.
In a letter to the Brandeis community on Jan. 30, Lawrence announced that he step down from his position as president at the end of the 2014-15 academic year. Faculty and students at the university expressed mixed views of Lawrence’s time as president, as well as uncertainty about the repercussions of his decision to resign. Despite Lawrence’s controversial tenure as president — marked by free speech disputes in particular — Yale Law School administrators and faculty were enthusiastic about the decision.
“We are delighted that Fred Lawrence will be joining us next year,” Law School Dean Robert Post said in an email to the News. “We expect that he will contribute greatly to the intellectual life of our school, and we hope to draw on his varied and rich experiences as a college president at Brandeis.”
In particular, Post hailed Lawrence as “one of the country’s foremost civil rights experts.” Before he took the helm of Brandeis in 2011, he was dean of the George Washington Law School. He was a faculty member at the Boston University School of Law for nearly two decades before that.
Under his presidency, Brandeis saw an all-time high in applications, and grew its endowment to a new high-water mark. In his email to Brandeis students, Lawrence said the University had moved closer to balancing its budget during his time as president. Beyond his academic and administrative credentials, Lawrence is “also an extremely decent person,” said Yale Law School professor Stephen Wizner.
In spite of his achievements, Lawrence’s presidency was marked by controversy involving freedom of speech that gained national media attention, inspiring debates about religious criticism and the role of speech and debate in academic contexts.
In November 2013, Lawrence was involved in the Brandeis administration’s decision to suspend its formal academic partnership with Al-Quds University after students at the East Jerusalem school used Nazi-style salutes in a demonstration.
In 2014, Brandeis rescinded its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist known for her anti-Islamic views and commitment to women’s rights, to speak on campus and receive an honorary degree. The university said it had not been aware of Hirsi Ali’s harsh denunciations of Islam and said it could not “overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”
That same year, Lawrence became embroiled in controversy over the speech of his own faculty. In a statement in July 2014, he condemned “abhorrent” statements written by faculty on an online email forum that criticized U.S. foreign and domestic policy, including statements about supporters of Israel. A professor of Latin American politics, Donald Hindley, claimed to have resigned in protest of Lawrence’s response, which was met with widespread concerns about free speech.
Brandeis student David Altman said he felt conflicted about Lawrence’s announcement. Although Altman did not always agree with Lawrence’s stances, or the outcomes of his policies, he said that he ultimately has admiration and respect for the outgoing president. Dor Cohen, a junior and president of the Pre-Law Society and cohead of Brandeis Conservatives, said the criticism of Lawrence is unwarranted and exaggerated.
“Despite being mired in controversy, President Lawrence did a better job than most people give him credit for,” Cohen said.
Cohen said he thought Lawrence’s departure would have negative effects on the university, and that he hoped the next president would be hired “regardless of pressure or the desire to be politically correct.”
Seyla Benhabib GRD ‘77, a political science and philosophy professor at Yale who received her B.A. from Brandeis, said that she was saddened by the continuing instability of leadership at Brandeis.
Until a new president is selected, the Brandeis Board of Trustees has appointed Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Lisa Lynch as the university’s interim president.
Although Lawrence will be not be teaching any classes next year, as a senior research scholar he will be investigating bias-motivated violence.
Lawrence said in his letter to the Brandeis community that he and his wife see this move as a “homecoming,” adding that he met his wife while he was a student at Yale Law School and she was an undergraduate at Yale College.