Frederick M. Lawrence, the new president of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., came to Los Angeles and environs in early February for a dozen meetings with donors, alumni, prospective students and more. With about 1,800 graduate and undergraduate alums in Southern California alone, Lawrence had good reason to see this as fertile ground for fundraising and Brandeis consciousness-raising. Plus, the newly anointed president has ties to the region — his wife, historian Kathy Lawrence née Kurtzman, who happily dons the name “first lady of Brandeis” — is from Beverly Hills, having grown up at Hillcrest Country Club and in a house that once was home to Betty Grable.
The couple sat for a brief interview at Hillcrest before greeting some 300 guests who had come to meet the new president, former dean of George Washington University Law School and a civil rights attorney. An ebullient person, Fred Lawrence is expected to breathe new life into Brandeis, whose image was badly hurt by its last president’s decision a couple of years ago to sell the renowned campus art collection to help bail the school out of a cash crunch. “No art has been sold,” Lawrence was quick to reassure. That decision was made before Lawrence’s tenure began, but he’s not going to reneg. An arts enthusiast himself, he is a singer and has performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
Lawrence said he plans to pump up the school’s film program (one of his stops was for a screening for Brandeisians of Errol Morris’ new film, “Tabloid,” at Creative Artists Agency’s headquarters). “We have a good program in film now, but we want to build on that,” Lawrence said, noting that nearby Boston has no film production facility, something that Brandeis might one day house.
He also talked of strengthening engineering offerings and enhancing the Jewish piece of campus life. Indeed, Brandeis was founded in 1948 as a nonsectarian, yet Jewish, school, specifically a place where Jews shut out of the Ivy Leagues by then-prevalent quotas could get a high-end liberal arts education. The university remains largely Jewish — some 50 to 60 percent of students are Jews — but although it offers a wide variety of courses in Jewish studies and has a kosher cafeteria, it has not been the first choice of many observant Jews.
Fred and Kathy Lawrence, themselves observant, say they hope to change that equation. “The vibrancy of the Jewish life at Brandeis is extraordinary,” Fred Lawrence said, pointing to the commitment of the school to tikkun olam and to Jewish studies, along with much else. “If I can get observant Jewish kids to come for one day of classes at Brandeis, I will convince them. This is not a place where being Jewish takes place at the corner of your life.”