Backtracking Brandeis President: 'I Screwed Up'

February 6, 2009

President Obama has given college presidents a management strategy for controversy: admit it when you screw up.

Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, sent out an e-mail message to his campus Thursday that partially pulled back from the university's plans to sell its art collection and shut down its art museum. "I take full responsibility for causing pain and embarrassment in both of these matters. To quote President Obama, 'I screwed up,' " Reinharz's e-mail message said.

In his e-mail, Reinharz stressed that while the university's board had authorized a sale of the art, there was no requirement that the entire collection be sold, and that "other options will also be considered." As for the museum itself, the president's e-mail said that it "will remain open, but in accordance with the board’s vote, it will be more fully integrated into the university’s central educational mission. We will meet with all affected university constituencies to explore together how this can best be done."

At the same time, however, he said Brandeis wanted to move away from the "public museum" focus, and exactly how much of the museum's current operations might still be maintained remains unclear. Brandeis officials have been stressing in recent days the extent to which drops in the university's endowment and fund raising have limited the institution's options. While drawing attention to the university's financial problems, the university has also shifted the way it is handling questions about the museum -- with inquiries now referred not to university employees but to Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, which boasts of its ability to help companies and others deal with "crisis" communications.

Reinharz appeared in his statement to be trying to say that poor communication on his behalf was responsible for the uproar, writing that "I wish I had handled the initial statements I made in a far more direct way." He added that those statements "did not accurately reflect" the university's complete plans. The original news release on January 26 was actually quite direct, saying that the Rose Art Museum would close by the end of the summer and that its 6,000-piece collection would be sold at auction.

That announcement sparked considerable anger at Brandeis and in the art world generally. Groups have been lining up to condemn the university. In the art museum world, it is considered unethical to sell donated works of art for any reason other than purchasing new art.

In the case of Brandeis, anger over the sale was intense because its collection -- potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- is so well regarded. The Rose Art Museum is known for its collections of American Modernism, American Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, and Surrealism. Holdings include works by Marsden Hartley, Thomas Hart Benton, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Jim Dine, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and many other leading figures of art in the last century.

While there have been periodic controversies over colleges that sell or attempt to sell pieces of art, there has been nothing on the scale of the planned Brandeis art sale -- and criticism has been growing since the announcement.

Brandeis officials declined to comment on the details of what the Reinharz e-mail means, and when more information will be available. The e-mail went out on the day after Reinharz received a letter from dozens of faculty members -- a letter that his e-mail called "thoughtful" and that took him to task for his handling of the situation.

The Boston Globe reported that the faculty letter said in part: "When transparent and accountable governance is circumvented -- anywhere in the university, we all suffer. When that breach of process results in adverse publicity for the university as a whole, as well as serious damage to the intellectual work undertaken by our colleagues in fine arts and their students, we all feel threatened. The university's deserved reputation as a beacon for both social justice and intellectual integrity is at stake here."

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