Brandeis University: "Harvard of the Jews"?
Quality and Identity
For months Brandeis University has been placing prominent advertisements in the New York Times Magazine – where I see them in print versions – with headlines intended to explain the distinctiveness of the institution as it reaches the seventy-fifth anniversary of its founding.
Here are three of them:
“University quotas were a polite way of telling Jews where to go.”
“Brandeis was founded by Jews. But it is anything but orthodox.”
“In a perfect world there wouldn’t have been a need for Brandeis.”
These themes were doubtless chosen after extensive consultations with experts in brand marketing defining the meaning of, in this case, a higher educational establishment. The New York advertising agency DeVito/Verdi is credited with the campaign, “spearheaded by agency president Ellis Verdi,” according to a description in the Summer 2023 issue of the Brandeis Magazine.
I was encouraged to apply to Brandeis by my esteemed relative Marie Syrkin, a professor of humanities, when women at her level at the university were very few. She believed, correctly, that the faculty, students, and culture there would engage me – to be candid – as school up to that point had not. I graduated in 1964. After attending Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, I embarked on a career which now includes reflections such as these.
Brandeis University, named after Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court, was founded in 1948, in Waltham, Massachusetts, outside Boston. By calling itself nonsectarian, Brandeis -- although closely aligned with Judaism then and again now in the branding campaign -- was setting itself apart from institutions like Jesuit Georgetown University and Boston College, which have clerics as their leaders.
To make the point of its inclusiveness, there are three chapels facing one another, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, like an open prayer book.
The year 1948 was also the year the state of Israel was founded, only three years after the decimation of European Jews in what was to be known as the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed – because they were Jewish. It was also a time of reckoning after the World War II alliance with the Soviet Union was replaced in the United States by a resurgence of anti-communist fervor. By the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) succeeded in portraying any link to leftist causes and groups as grounds for harassment and even imprisonment.
This combination of circumstances gave Brandeis the opportunity to attract a faculty of great quality. There were refugees from the best European universities, American liberals, and progressives in the major social movements of that era who, for one reason or another, were not at more established institutions.
The pioneering students were attracted by the exciting origin story and the innovative spirit of the ambition. For Jewish students, there was a belief that quotas on enrollment of Jews set in the past by Ivy League colleges were still in place. Martin Peretz, an early illustrious graduate who went on to teach at Harvard and for decades owned The New Republic, writes in his new memoir, The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left, Right and Center, that Brandeis was especially appealing to bright, left-wing students who Peretz writes, “might be accepted at the University of Chicago but not to the Ivies”
In their biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird write that when Oppenheimer enrolled at Harvard in the early 1920s, the Jewish student population was over 20 percent. A quota was imposed, and the Harvard Crimson reported that a former university president, Charles W. Eliot, had said it was “unfortunate” that growing numbers of the “Jewish race” were intermarrying with Christians. Harvard admissions are once again in the news because of lawsuits challenging entrance standards. Inside Higher Education reports that Jews now make up 9.9 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate enrollment.
After its founding, Brandeis in record time achieved status as one of America’s best research universities and was granted a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the national society recognizing academic excellence.
Among its illustrious professors was Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher who is to this day considered the most influential scholar in what became the radical anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s. One of his students (I sat next to her in physical science) was Angela Davis, an icon of civil rights activism who is still famous and always described as a former member of the U.S. Communist Party.
There was much more than politics at Brandeis, in history, science, the arts, and was known as NEJS (Near Eastern and Judaica Studies). Most of the buildings had identifiably Jewish names -- Kutz, Goldfarb, Gryzmish -- recognizing who had donated the money for them. Football was dropped in 1959, and there were no fraternities or sororities. Rah-rah school spirit was not considered fashionable.
Boston was then, as it certainly is now, the location of many colleges and universities. Aside from Harvard and MIT, there are such major institutions as Tufts, Northeastern, Boston University, and Boston College.
So, what has happened to Brandeis’s reputation since those early years? This brings us to the advertising campaign. The first two-page magazine ad in the New York Times last spring paraphrased the traditional opening prayer for Passover as “Why is this University Different from All Other Universities?”
Brandeis Magazine, quoting President Ron Liebowitz, explained the advertising this way:
“We have a great need to clarify – and when necessary to tout -- the Brandeis brand. We need to remind alumni, thought leaders and others across the country that Brandeis possesses one of the most distinctive histories in all of academia and clearly communicate to everyone how and why we were founded, what we have accomplished in 75 short years and why our story is especially relevant today.
Ellis Verdi, the alumnus who devised the campaign, said: “The aim of this campaign is to bring back what makes Brandeis special and highlight its importance in higher education.”
Over the years, in the ways university attractiveness to prospective students are measured these days, Brandeis has fallen behind its neighboring peers. Tufts University ranks #32 in the US News & World Report ratings. Brandeis is #44. In the Wall Street Journal ratings, Tufts is #30, Brandeis #111. As for acceptance rates, Tufts is 11.4 percent and Brandeis is 39 percent.
(To save someone the trouble, Brandeis on its Google site reports 31% in 2020)
What do these statistics – subject, inevitably, to interpretation -- mean about the actual quality of education? Almost certainly, not much.
What they are measuring is what by today’s standards is considered “cool” or “hot” -- a sense of the elite elan that Harvard et al. are meant to provide and that Brandeis seems intent to reclaim. (“Harvard of the Jews” is no longer the insiders’ joke.)
The framing of these ads is to associate Brandeis with its Jewish background and make that a plus to potential enrollees. In 2016, Brandeis released a study called “All Together Separate: Race, Ethnicity and Gender at Brandeis.” On the related question of religion, 40 percent of the students said they were “atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.” Thirty-one percent said they were Jewish. Another 3 to 10 percent said that being Jewish was not about religious observance.
Brandeis attracts a substantial number of East Asian and South Asian students, which in numbers almost matches students identifying in one form or another as Jewish. (My personal view is that all these numbers are more muddled than accurate, considering the range and rate of interfaith marriage and the overly broad nature of describing people as Asian or Hispanic.)
In any case, the branding drive, according to Brandeis Magazine, “using a mix of humor and seriousness, and emphasizing Brandeis’s Jewish heritage…aims to reinforce the four pillars on which Brandeis was built: Jewish values, a reverence for learning, academic excellence and the continuous fight against hatred and discrimination.”
Will this work in improving those metrics of status against other universities? As a grateful alumnus, I hope so. But I don’t know….
Substack is a phenomenal asset to writers. It is also a business which is why free subscribers receive solicitations from Substack to upgrade to paid. Think of them like those cards in print publications for ordering subscriptions.