As if anticipating the challenges ahead, just before Evelyn Handler was installed as the first female president of Brandeis University in 1983, she served notice she would be standing her ground in any disputes.
“I don’t relent, I don’t give up,’’ she told the Globe in October of that year. “It’s more a strength than a weakness. . . . You don’t get done what an institution needs if you give up the fight too early.’’
Over her seven-year tenure, Dr. Handler helped shape a new identity for Brandeis as a research university and launched a successful capital campaign that raised about $200 million. She also implemented changes - some her own doing, some by the university’s trustees - that prompted strong opposition and in some cases were reversed after she left. Among them was including pork and shellfish among nonkosher offerings in school cafeterias as Brandeis tried to attract more non-Jewish students.
Dr. Handler died Friday in Bedford, N.H., when she was struck by a car. She was 78 and lived in Bow, N.H., with her husband, Eugene, whom she was en route to meet for dinner when she died.
“She was the one who really changed the self-perception, the self-definition, and, I think, the perception of the outside world of Brandeis,’’ said Steven L. Burg, who was dean of the undergraduate college during her presidency. “She led Brandeis from being a high-quality liberal arts college with a few really good graduate programs to being a small research university with a strong undergraduate college as its core.’’
Presiding in a period of the 1980s when college applications were down after the end of the baby boom, Dr. Handler tried to broaden Brandeis’s appeal. Her approach, however, led to spirited disagreements among faculty, administrators, and influential figures such as founding president Abram L. Sachar over the university’s Jewish heritage, its nonsectarian aspirations, its future academic direction.
In discussing her resignation with the Globe in June 1990, Dr. Handler seemed relieved to step away from disagreements with faculty about tenure issues and resistance from the college community over what, in some circles, came to be called the “de-Judaization’’of the campus. At one point, a college calendar listed certain days when classes would not be held, but did not note that the dates were Jewish holidays.
The atmosphere at the time of her departure was such that Louis Perlmutter, then-chairman of the Brandeis Board of Trustees, wrote to the Globe and The New York Times to dispute their coverage of Dr. Handler’s leaving. When Dr. Handler announced in June 1990 that she would step down in a year, the Globe reported that some Brandeis trustees wanted her to leave sooner.
“Evelyn Handler, contrary to your interpretation, was not forced out by the current chairman,’’ Perlmutter wrote in a letter the Times published Aug. 18, 1990.
In a letter to the Globe published two days later, he listed accomplishments during Dr. Handler’s leadership that included the creation of multiple new centers and programs, including the Gordon public policy center and the Bigel Institute for Health Policy.
In 1992, after she had left Brandeis, she said in an interview with the journal Lingua Franca that “going to Brandeis was the worst decision I have ever made in my life.’’
Prior to her appointment at Brandeis, Dr. Handler served as president of the University of New Hampshire, also that institution’s first female leader. Before becoming a college administrator, she was a biology professor whose research focused on leukemia.
“Because of her background in the sciences, she had an invaluable perspective in an area of great curricular strength at the university,’’ Malcolm L. Sherman, current chairman of the Brandeis board, said in a statement after she died. “That strength continues to be reflected at Brandeis today.’’
Evelyn Erika Sass was born in Budapest and was 7 when she left Hungary with her mother as World War II and the Holocaust unfolded.
Her family settled in New York City, where her parents took labor jobs in the garment industry. Finances became tighter after her father died when she was a teenager. At Hunter College High School and in college, “my mother was really an academic superstar,’’ said her son Jeff Varsa of Wellesley.
She graduated in 1954 from Hunter College in New York City with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and chemistry. She then received both a master’s and a doctorate in biology from New York University, and subsequently joined the faculty at Hunter College as a biology professor. She was named dean of Hunter’s division of science and mathematics in 1977.
Her first marriage, to George Varsa, ended in divorce. She later married Eugene Handler, a biology professor at Hunter.
They both left Hunter when the University of New Hampshire beckoned in 1980 and she became the first woman to be named president of a land-and-sea-grant university in the United States.
“I think she busted through glass ceilings before the term was invented,’’ her son said. “She would never describe herself as a women’s libber. She was just talented and worked hard and didn’t think she was owed anything special just because she was a woman. She believed strongly in meritocracy.’’
In a 1980 interview with the Globe before taking over as president of the University of New Hampshire, Dr. Handler said: “I am a bulldog in my determination to succeed.’’
When she left three years later for Brandeis, Hugh Gallen, who was then New Hampshire’s governor, praised her work as “an exceptional administrator and educator.’’
“I think she had inordinate success at the University of New Hampshire,’’ her son said. “When the opportunity to run Brandeis presented itself, she had mixed feelings because she liked the UNH so much, but the prestige of Brandeis was such that she couldn’t turn it down.’’
Once at the Waltham campus, she hoped to not be distracted by discussions and disagreements over the university’s Jewish identity.
“Brandeis is most comfortable being sponsored by Jews and being nonsectarian,’’ she told the Globe in October 1983. “I think the matter is to be laid to rest. There is no issue. Anybody who wishes to make it an issue is beating a dead horse. . . . There is so much waste of energy in discussing it.’’ Then she added: “I won’t have it. You watch me.’’
Indeed, during her tenure “she diversified the college,’’ said Burg, who is now the Adlai Stevenson professor of international politics at Brandeis. “She made the place an institution more diverse in its student body and more welcoming to a diverse student body.’’
After leaving Brandeis, Dr. Handler was for a time head of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. She also graduated from Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire, though her son said she never practiced law.
Throughout Dr. Handler’s life, he said, “her value system was such that she believed strongly in her ideas and was probably not an ideal diplomat. Rightly or wrongly, she called it as she saw it.’’
In addition to her husband and son, Dr. Handler leaves another son, Bradley of Pleasantville, N.Y.; a sister, Adrianne Gluckmann of New York City; and three grandchildren.
A service will be announced for Dr. Handler. Shiva will be held at her son Jeff’s house in Wellesley on Thursday.