Brandeis President Publicly Pans ‘Dead-End’ Contract Offer

University president Ron Liebowitz publicly takes Brandeis board's offer to task as negotiations hit a standstill, saying it would undercut his standing with donors.

March 17, 2021
Scott Eisen/Stringer/Getty Images
Ron Liebowitz, president of Brandeis University, is taking contract negotiations public after receiving a one-year extension offer that he says wouldn't allow him to fundraise adequately.

In an unusual public statement, Brandeis University president Ron Liebowitz panned a one-year contract extension offered to him by the university's Board of Trustees.

“The dead-end contract, offered only six months before my term ends, would not allow me to complete the ongoing donor solicitations, particularly those greater than $1 million, that the board has claimed are so critical to the university’s future,” Liebowitz wrote Tuesday in widely distributed statement issued through a public relations firm that is independent of the university.

His statement follows an article published in The Boston Globe Monday, detailing a five-page letter from Liebowitz to the board in which he accused trustees of trying to push him out over what he calls unwarranted disapproval of his fundraising record.

The leaked letter, Liebowitz’s follow-up statement and additional comments from Meyer Koplow, chair of the board, bring a stalemate over the sitting president’s contract into the public arena. The two parties disagree over exactly what has caused the impasse. Liebowitz insists the board’s short contract offer is based on an unfair evaluation of his fundraising performance. Koplow says that Liebowitz made additional financial demands to which the board could not agree.

Negotiations are still ongoing, and Koplow has asked Liebowitz to meet with the full board. It’s unclear whether the president and the board will agree on a contract before Liebowitz’s five-year term expires in June.

In his statement, Liebowitz said he had fundraising success at Brandeis and that a one-year contract would extinguish his progress and harm the university’s fundraising pipeline.

“Our fundraising performance has turned the corner. Last year saw the best ‘cash in’ year at Brandeis since 2010, excluding the unusual year of 2017 when Brandeis received a $50 million bequest,” Liebowitz wrote. “More importantly, through February 2021, new pledges in the first eight months of the fiscal year have nearly doubled what they were for each of the past two full fiscal years -- despite the pandemic.”

He also described leading a $500 million campaign at Middlebury College, where he was president before taking up the helm at Brandeis.

Prior to Liebowitz’s arrival, Brandeis -- a private research university in Waltham, Mass., established as a nonsectarian institution by the American Jewish community -- was struggling to fundraise. Former president Frederick Lawrence stepped down in 2015 after fundraising revenues declined under his leadership, falling from an average of $90 million per year to $37 million. When Liebowitz became president in 2016, the university had a $35 million structural deficit.

Fundraising is particularly important to Brandeis, said Larry Ladd, a senior consultant at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. He has worked with the university in the past. Since the university was founded in 1948, fundraising revenue has made up a larger portion of its operating budget than many higher education institutions.

“The president has to be on the road fundraising more than most college or university presidents, so that is a higher value to the Brandeis board than it would be to most other college and university boards,” Ladd said.

On Tuesday, Koplow, the board chair, reiterated the same comments about the contract negotiations that he provided to the Globe. Negotiations initially stalled over Liebowitz’s additional financial demands, he said. He did not specify what the demands were.

“While it would be inappropriate to speak in detail about our contract negotiations, they have lasted longer than we had hoped,” Koplow wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “We initially offered President Leibowitz essentially the same compensation he receives now, but he made additional financial demands we could not agree to. As time went on, it became more clear that he was not meeting fundraising expectations and the Board decided to offer a one-year extension to see if he could succeed in his efforts. We all wished for his success.”

Liebowitz said he did not ask for a salary increase in his new contract and that he took a 20 percent salary reduction this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He did request a retiree health benefit that he said past administrators had received.

“As the statement from President Liebowitz indicates, there were no additional financial demands,” Judy Rakowsky, a spokesperson for Liebowitz, wrote in an email. “A request was made for retirement health benefits, but he requested a lowering of the compensation goals the board itself set for him three years ago.”

Liebowitz earned $618,014 during fiscal year 2021, which reflects a 20 percent reduction from his base salary of $772,518, Rakowsky said.

Liebowitz also hinted at larger tensions between him and the board. He suggested that the decades-long tenures of some board members are preventing the university from changing for the better.

“I appreciate the board’s authority to dismiss a president at will. But I also recognize that, when greater than 20 percent of a governing board has served an average of 29 years, it is difficult for that board to shift gears and allow the president to address challenges that have emerged under their time on the board, and to allow the president to manage the process without undue interference,” he wrote.

The now-public nature of the debate doesn’t help efforts to resolve tensions between the board and Liebowitz, experts say.

Sherry Culves, a partner at the law firm Nelson Mullins who has negotiated numerous college presidents' contracts, said she advises her clients to start negotiating contract renewals well before the end of the existing contract and to keep negotiations private.

“It’s not in the best interest of either the university or the president for these negotiations to be happening this late in the game or publicly,” Culves said.

To move forward, boards and presidents involved in stalled negotiations need to remind themselves what they’re really looking for in a position or in a president, she said.

“If the parties are interested in finding a mutually agreeable way to extend the contract, then their best course of action for doing that is to take a moment, take a breather and maybe come back to what is the most important thing that the university is looking for,” Culver said.

Liebowitz was denied a meeting with the full board and therefore made the negotiations public in an attempt to speak to trustees and the Brandeis community about the contract offer, said his spokesperson, Rakowsky.

“President Liebowitz tried to persuade the subcommittee of the board leadership handling contract negotiations to allow him to speak to the full board, believing that everyone had not been informed of the implications for the university of the dead-end contract extension offer,” she wrote. “That request was denied. Staring down a deadline on the one-year offer, he felt he had no choice but to alert the Brandeis community -- including alumni and friends -- of the situation.”

Joel Christensen, chair of the Brandeis Faculty Senate and chair of the university’s classical studies department, told the Globe Monday that professors hope to work with Liebowitz and the board to find a solution to the disagreement.

“President Liebowitz has been an excellent president; we would like to see him continue,” Christensen said.

On Tuesday, Christensen declined to comment to Inside Higher Ed, adding that “the faculty remains committed to our work on campus and being part of Brandeis' future.”


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