On February 11 art-lovers packed a meeting room at Brandeis University to protest Brandeis’s plans to shut down its on-campus art museum and auction off the museum’s entire 6,000-piece collection. The list of holdings at Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum, most of them donated since the museum’s opening in 1961, reads like a Who’s Who of prominent twentieth-century American artists – works by Max Ernst, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, among others – and is valued at $350 million. Museum curators, especially those associated with university – owned art collections, greeted Brandeis’s decision with shocked intimations that selling the art might violate ethical obligations to donors. Elsewhere in the art world there was fear that the fire-sale prices that the Rauschenbergs and Warhols might command if dumped onto today’s anemic, recession – beset market for luxury goods could depress the value of other art collections less stellar than Brandeis’s.
One thing is certain, however: Administrators and trustees at Brandeis, a well-regarded but not overly rich liberal arts-focused research university of about 3,900 students in Waltham, Mass., saw a need to act quickly and decisively to cut costs and raise cash at a time when nearly every university in America, private and public, is being hit by the double whammy of shrunken endowments (thanks to the tanking of Wall Street) and sharp downturns in revenues from both private donors and financially strapped state governments. Brandeis, founded in 1948 and named after the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, had an endowment valued at $712 million as of last June – pocket change compared to its neighbor Harvard’s $37 billion endowment – but Brandeis’s endowment is now reportedly worth only $530 million because of the market meltdown, Furthermore, many of Brandeis’s chief donors had invested heavily with alleged Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, a guarantee of financial wipeout. Indeed, Brandeis’s very largest donor; the family foundation of the clothing manufacturer and philanthropist Carl Shapiro, who had several campus buildings named after him, reportedly lost $545 million, nearly all its assets, to Madoff’s alleged pyramid of fraud. Although Brandeis denies investing any of its endowment with Madoff, it has admitted to serious investment losses, and its chief operating officer, Peter French, told the online magazine The Daily Beast that the university faces an operating deficit of $79 million over the next six years together with “a tapped-out reserve fund,” as the Beast’s Judith Dobrzynski wrote, and seriously strapped donors. According to French, Brandeis faced three alternatives: sell the art, shut down 40 percent of its campus buildings, or choose between firing 30 percent of its administrative staff or 200 of its 360 faculty members. Since original works of art are inspirational but not exactly germane to a college education (Brandeis had no art museum for its first thirteen years of existence), the university axed its art, not its buildings or employees – “We’d rather use Rose” to cut costs, French said.
In fact Brandeis is actually lucky to have valuable hard assets on hand to liquidate for a desperately needed cash infusion, and even luckier to have had generous donors in the past whose gifts constitute those assets. The university does not have to decide – at least not right now – whether to shrink its faculty, trim its administrative staff, reduce undersubscribed academic offerings, or deal with the costly results of an overhead-hiking campus construction spree when times looked flush earlier in the decade. Mark Williams, a senior lecturer at Boston University specializing in risk-management told the Bloomberg news organization that one of Brandeis’s problems was that it “overbuilt at the peak of the market.” In fact, according to Inside Higher Education, the Brandeis faculty recently formed a committee to review the curriculum and review such revenue-boosting or cost-cutting options as adding business and engineering programs to the university’s traditional liberal-arts offerings and replacing its existing majors and minors with (apparently cheaper in terms of faculty deployment) interdisciplinary “meta-majors” whose vague parameters have alarmed some professors, not so much because they might dilute standards or jettison, say, Brandeis’s longstanding but low-attendance courses in ancient Greek, but because they might result in eliminating entire departments and professorial jobs.
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