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Brandeis president in spat with trustees

Brandeis University president Ron Liebowitz accused the institution’s trustees of trying to force him out of the presidency over misguided disapproval of his fund-raising record, according to a heated letter he sent to the board Monday evening.

Liebowitz, who in mid-2016 took the helm of the Waltham liberal arts university, which is sponsored by the Jewish community, said he has spent the past four years working to rebuild the university’s reputation and finances, which include a $35 million structural deficit. Prior to his tenure, the institution faced declining fund-raising and was the subject of negative publicity for several incidents including the proposed sale of Rose Art Museum holdings.

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Yet despite progress, trustees are unsatisfied with his fund-raising performance, according to the letter that Liebowitz sent trustees on Monday, which was obtained by the Globe.

The board had set a deadline of Monday evening for Liebowitz to decide on their offer of a one-year contract extension, he wrote. But all the progress he has made on a variety of fronts will erode if he is given such little time, he said. Liebowitz instead called for a “conversation about my contract.”

“It is feasible to… position Brandeis for a great future, but not in a single year,” he wrote.

Board chairman Meyer Koplow said contract negotiations have lasted longer than the board hoped.

“We initially offered Ron 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 fund-raising 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,” Koplow wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

Liebowitz has a five-year contract that expires June 30, according to Judy Rakowsky, a public relations spokeswoman representing Liebowitz in the spat. He was paid $956,000 in 2018, according to the most recent publicly available tax returns.

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Trustees have said the president must achieve fund-raising “success” during the next nine months in order to qualify for a longer-term contract, according to his letter. That is not enough time, he said. He also said he was not given “objective metrics” to measure success.

“The biggest question is how I am supposed to close major gifts when I cannot assure those I am soliciting — and there are several sizable gifts under discussion — that I will be here to oversee those donors’ intentions,” he wrote, adding he has received that question recently from five donors contemplating major gifts.

In the five-page letter, Liebowitz accused the board leadership of stalling on his contract negotiations, then mislabeling them as “contentious.”

He was in the midst of finalizing a multimillion-dollar gift to the university last month, he said, when someone called to tell the donor that the board was pushing him out of the presidency.

Liebowitz came to Brandeis from Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was known as a top-notch fund-raiser who oversaw a $535 million campaign and increased the rate of alumni giving. At the time, Brandeis faced declining fund-raising that Liebowitz pledged to improve.

The letter lays out what Liebowitz maintains is a solid fund-raising record, despite the pandemic. He said he arrived to a fund-raising division in “disarray,” but he replaced the leadership and hired new staff.

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Liebowitz acknowledged that the university fell short of an “ambitious goal” of raising $47 million from the trustees as part of a plan that would then position them to raise even more, but he said they were still able to rehire 19 of 30 fund-raising employees to jump-start fund-raising efforts.

Liebowitz said the new staff members were hired just months before the pandemic yet there was still an upswing in giving over the past year. For example, he wrote, pledges for the first two-thirds of this fiscal year doubled the full-year dollar totals for each of the past two years.

Liebowitz met with the faculty senate on Monday to discuss the situation. Joel Christensen, chairman of the department of classical studies and chairman of the faculty senate, said professors hope to work with the board and the president to find a solution to the disagreement.

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

Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, served as chairman of a committee that reaccredited Brandeis in 2019 and said the committee was impressed all around.

“We were impressed by Brandeis and impressed with Ron,” Salovey said on Monday in an interview with the Globe.

Salovey said this year in general has been a very difficult time to fund-raise, because of the pandemic.

“There is nothing like the personal touch of a face-to-face meeting, and this was a year in which it was very challenging to do that,” he said.

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Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.