The year was 1948. Hitler's Third Reich was gone. Israel had been born. And because nothing seemed impossible anymore, a small group of American Jews set out to build a new research university named Brandeis, near Boston.
Though the Holocaust had ended, racial bias clung to many American institutions of higher education. Harvard and other Ivy League schools still employed quotas on Jewish admissions.
So Brandeis - named after US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis - was to be better, fairer. It was to be Jewish sponsored, but open to Jew and non-Jew alike. Its academic standards were to be modeled after the best American and European universities. And it was to shine as a tribute to the nation that had done so much for a long-denied minority.
It was a tall order.
Brandeis opened with just 13 faculty members, 107 students, three buildings, and 100 volumes in a converted stable that served as a library. Situated on a former farm and medical college set high on a hill overlooking Boston, it had highly talented faculty members and backers. But it had no alumni, no endowment.
"It was really an act of insanity," says Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis. "There were already 60 or more colleges and universities in the Boston area. Yet look where we are today. Something remarkable has happened."
Today, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Brandeis University stands as one of the most surprising success stories in American higher education. It educates approximately 3,000 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students. It is the youngest private US research university. It also:
* Ranks first among 11 "nationally rising" US private research universities; tied for ninth among the top 26 private campuses in research productivity, according to "The Rise of American Research Universities" (Johns Hopkins).
* Ranks sixth in biological sciences, according to The Institute for Scientific Information, and sixth in physics, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.
* Has a student body whose average SAT score today is 1,320.
"No university in this century has come as far in 50 years as Brandeis has," says James Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, who led an accrediting team to Brandeis in 1996.
Nancy Diamond, co-author of "The Rise of American Research Universities," says Brandeis's rise in US higher education is "truly amazing."
"They have telescoped into a half century accomplishments that other places with long histories have taken centuries to accomplish," she says.
Early on, Brandeis became a school where social justice and student activism ran side by side with academic performance. In the late 1960s, the schools was a hotbed of student radicalism. It counts radicals Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis as alumni.
Brandeis has also wrestled with its own identity. It was always intended to be a school sponsored by Jews - but with a wide mix of students and faculty. Abram Sachar, the school's first president, saw it as "no more or less Jewish than Princeton is Presbyterian."
But in the late 1980s, Brandeis faced financial struggles and drooping enrollment. It admitted more students, yet widening the applicant pool diluted the academic quality of students and demoralized faculty.
Then came a disastrous attempt to appeal more strongly to non-Jews.
Gustav Ranis, a member of Brandeis's first class in 1952 and now a professor of economics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., led a "dejudification" committee in the late 1980s.
"One of our 19 recommendations was an 'international cuisine,' " he says. "It was implemented awkwardly and caused an uproar."
The school violated Jewish dietary laws by serving pork and shellfish in the cafeteria - and in the process alienated longtime supporters and produced a spate of bad press.
"Friction arose over the pork issue, but that was misleading," says Dr. Ranis. He and others credit President Reinharz and his predecessor with making a transition back to a balanced approach - including an end to the nonkosher menu - that has served Brandeis well.
Lawrence Fuchs, a professor at Brandeis since 1952, says Brandeis has unabashed links to Jewish support today.
But, he adds, non-Jews understand and are drawn to the campus by its reverence for the life of the mind. According to university estimates, about one-third of current students are not Jewish.
"The university makes a unique contribution to Jewish culture with its top-rated Jewish studies department - it's not bashful about it," Dr. Fuchs says. "But it is our ethos and culture of respect for intellectual achievement" that draws professors - Jews and non-Jews - to work for less money than they might get elsewhere.
David Fischer, a professor of American history at Brandeis, likes the fact the university has no football team or fraternities. "We're really centered on learning," he says. "I think for most of us, Brandeis is a special, unique place."
Students echo that sentiment, and seem most impressed by the interest in social justice at the school and visits by the likes of the Dalai Lama and visiting professors like Anita Hill.
"I'm Catholic," says Teresa Job, a senior majoring in economics and computer science. "It's definitely been a new perspective getting exposed to the Jewish faith.... But the big thing Brandeis has done for me is open my eyes to social injustice. That's what I'm going to cherish."
CHANGING TIMES AT BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY
No endowment $308 million
50 course offerings 500 course offerings
13 faculty members 350 full-time faculty members
Three buildings 101 buildings
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