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Brandeis president to quit, but says it's not over the art museum

The Globe reports.

Joel Brown disputes:

... Right. Although his resignation is dated Aug. 31, its announcement now via email last night to "the Brandeis community" is NOT a coincidence. Reinharz's disastrous handling of the university's plan to close the Rose and sell its collection to solve Brandeis' financial problems has been a worldwide embarrassment and has alienated many in the university community, including some donors. ...

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If Joel Brown had been trying to provide a caricature of the myopic, self-centered arts community, he couldn't have done a better job.

Let's start with a little bit of context. Reinharz has been president since 1994, and he's now 65. That's fifteen years, and counting. The average tenure of a university president in this country, as of 2006, was 8.5 years - a significant increase during the decade. The average age had likewise increased over the past twenty years, from 52 to 60.

In other words, when times are good, university presidents tend to stick around in office. And why not? It's a great job. The money's rolling in. You get to decide what new initiatives and projects you want to launch, which faculty members you want to lure, where to target your next fundraising campaign. And the boards of trustees, watching the endowments swell and the universities prosper, tend to over-attribute this success to the chief executive, and to confirm his tenure in office. Everyone's happy; everyone's a genius.

Bad times expose underlying problems. But they're also not much fun, even if the problems are more external than internal. Instead of deciding which areas to bolster, you have to decide where to cut. And the cuts at Brandeis have been extensive, damaging, and painful. There will be more in the coming years, too. Everyone's unhappy. Just as presidents absorb too much credit during good years, they tend to take too much blame for hard times. So Reinharz, who's already been in office almost twice as long as the national average, who's just reached the standard retirement age, has decided to move along to greener pastures. He's going to assume the helm of a wealthy charity, at which he'll again be in a position to hand out large sums, instead of taking them back. Frankly, I don't blame him one wit. And he won't be the only one - when the next survey is released, it's going to turn out that the average tenure of university leaders has dropped precipitously, just like it did during the last downturn.

Which brings us to the incorrigible Mr. Brown, for whom all things revolve around the art world. I'm sure that the hysteria surrounding the Rose decision played some part in Reinharz's move -it certainly made the job less pleasant. But what Brown has never understood, has never tried to understand, is that the Rose is peripheral. Not in Brown's world, but at Brandeis. That's the whole point. That's what sparked the controversy in the first place. Let me spell this out - if the trustees were willing to vote to sell off the most valuable pieces in the collection and refocus the institution as a teaching collection, do you really think those same trustees would force out an incredibly successful university president over this issue? Sure, Reinharz botched the announcement. The whole thing was badly mishandled. But the task force report and the resignation announcement were released right now for the same reasons. They both had to wait until the academic year resumed. They didn't want to overshadow the start of the semester. How do we know this? Well, the chairman of the board of trustees says that the discussions with Reinharz began three and a half weeks ago, long before the Rose report. The letter, which apparently sparked those discussions and was released yesterday, was dated August 31. So Brown's conspiratorial conjectures notwithstanding, there isn't a shred of evidence that the resignation is directly tied to the Rose.

And, just to beat this dead horse a little bit further, what Reinharz got wrong with the Rose was a matter of public relations, not policy. It's absurd and immoral for an institution chartered for the purpose of providing higher education to be sitting on a collection of artwork worth as much as its entire endowment, at the same time it's laying off staff and faculty, increasing class sizes, charging outrageous tuition, and generally making cuts both large and small that harm its core educational mission. If Brandeis were given $300 million tomorrow in discretionary funds, and spent it all on the world's most beautiful works of art, it would be a clear betrayal of its basic mission and social responsibility. From a moral perspective, there's no difference between sitting on its current collection, and spending the gift. Assets are fungible; Brandeis' are improperly allocated. The only conceivable objection is thwarting donor intent. But the core of the collection - and the overwhelming majority of its value - came from a $50k gift designed to give the university a cutting-edge teaching collection. Selling $300 million worth of paintings, and investing a hundred times as much of the proceeds (say, $5 million) back into building that teaching collection, hosting cutting-edge exhibitions, and securing the financial future of the fine arts program, would in every way be a better use of those fungible assets. No one's talking about defacing these works of art. They've already been documented, studied and exhibited. And there's no guarantee they'd revert to private collections.

The world doesn't revolve around art, Mr. Brown, and neither should universities. It's an important component of their mission, but when things get this badly out of balance, they need to be corrected. And I can assure you that Reinharz wasn't fired for trying to correct that balance.

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He's president for 15 years, announces his resignation 48 hours after the report comes out, and you believe there's no connection? I think you need a new handle to hide behind, Cynic.

I'm sure you're right that the trustees wouldn't push him out over the basic plan, which was theirs or supported by them. But when he split the university community, pissed off a bunch of donors and subjected the place to widespread ridicule and vitriol...yeah I think that had something to do with his departure. The only factor? Probably not. But a non-factor? I've got a bridge to sell you, cynic.

As you said, "Bad times expose underlying problems. But they're also not much fun, even if the problems are more external than internal."

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