Andrew Flagel, Brandeis University

Andrew Flagel, Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment at Brandeis University, joins us this month to answer our questions about the private liberal arts university located in Waltham, Massachusetts.

About 3,500 undergraduates live and study on the 235-acre Brandeis campus, which is close enough to Boston to enjoy a view of that city’s skyline. Founded in 1948, the university is named for Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Its origin story continues to inform the school’s mission and milieu — but we will let Mr. Flagel tell you more about that.

In the meantime, some fun facts:

  • Brandeis earned Phi Beta Kappa recognition just 13 years after its founding — faster than any institution of higher education in the country.
  • Smart Balance buttery spread was invented by Brandeis nutrition scientists.
  • Among the better-known graduates are journalist Thomas Friedman, physicist Edward Witten, novelist Ha Jin, Mia Bauer ’91, co-founder and owner of Crumbs Bake Shops, political activists Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis, actress Debra Messing, author Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.
  • The Brandeis athletic teams are the Judges.
  • Brandeis Academic Debate and Speech Society (BADASS) consistently ranks as one of the top 10 debate teams in the United States.

Join Andrew Flagel here to learn more about this research university with a reputation for progressive thought:

What kind of student does well at Brandeis? How would you describe the student body?  What would you most want an applicant to the school to know?

 

Like all of the most competitive universities, Brandeis students tend to have exceptional academic records and a litany of past achievements.  That being said, I have observed some traits that I believe stand out from those found at most institutions.

It’s helpful in understanding those differences to have some context.  In 1948, at a time when exclusionary practices dominated higher education, members of the American Jewish community founded Brandeis as a pluralistic university that would embody a commitment to education with the highest ethical, intellectual and cultural values independent from any doctrine. This distinctive history leads to an incredible campus atmosphere.

As a campus of deep Jewish roots, Brandeisians embrace religious diversity, and the university is sensitive to students’ individual observances.  Spiritual life is symbolized around the three campus chapels, each for a different faith, designed so that none can ever cast a shadow on any other.  Jewish and non-Jewish students alike find a unique atmosphere of acceptance and trust in which to explore questions of faith and practice, and expand mutual understanding.

That exploration results in a campus climate of incredible acceptance and support.  One of my favorite Brandeis phrases came from a current student leader, who explained, “At Brandeis we tend to compete with ourselves more than with each other.”  It is absolutely the case that Brandeis students are phenomenally successful in their academic pursuits, but it’s also a shockingly collaborative atmosphere.  Part of that likely stems from a strongly held commitment to social justice and community service, which you can find woven into nearly every endeavor our busy students undertake.

Actually, busy is something of a staggering understatement.  A majority of our undergraduates have more than one major, and they average nearly three internships before graduation.  With only 3,500 undergraduates there are more than 260 active student clubs and organizations – and it should be no surprise that the largest is the umbrella group for community service.  Most of our graduates have resumes that rival students three to five years out of their alma maters.

Overall, I am confident that successful Brandeis students are an incredible mix of academic talent and the drive and discipline to use that talent to make a difference in the world.

How do you read and evaluate applications at Brandeis?

 

As I’ve often written, there are two great myths about the application evaluation process: that it is very complicated, and that it is easy to predict.

The process, to the contrary, is surprisingly simple.  Our admissions counselors first and foremost look at academic records.  Far from a simple scan of numbers, this is a holistic review of coursework and grades in the context of each school and the trends that those records reveal.  This is compared with recommendations and test scores to get the best possible estimate of academic achievements.  Although Brandeis is among the most competitive schools in the nation, it is stunning to see how many of our applicants are at a similar level of the highest academic performance.  Unlike schools that built their admission pools in past years by encouraging a large number of applications from students with lower academic profiles, the vast majority of applicants are consistently the top performers in their respective high schools.

This leads to the next level of review, and here is where the process becomes far less predictable.  It is impossible for anyone outside the institution to know what subtle issues may be influencing the admissions process to try and build a particular class in any given year.  It may be that certain academic programs have more capacity, or that there is a sudden geographic gap from some region of the country.  Schools are often looking for some set of talents: a skilled player of a double-reeded instrument to round out an orchestra, or the goalie so badly needed by the soccer team.  At Brandeis, this is often balanced against seeking students who tend towards strong leadership and commitment to service.  Of course, to some extent all of those factors will differ to some extent by the application reviewer and the members of the Admissions Committee (which may change throughout a cycle).

In short, the most important factor remains the academic record, but the depth of reviewing applicants at this level of competition makes it improbable to find any particular set of criteria beyond academic performance that would hold true in all cases at all times.

With more than 2,600 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, how do colleges make themselves distinctive?  For students looking at colleges, where are those distinctions important or true and where are they irrelevant to a successful college experience?

 

Colleges and universities agonize over ways to appear different.  The reality is that most accredited, residential institutions provide at least somewhat similar experiences when it comes to liberal arts courses, opportunities for work experience, and majors.  In that environment, it becomes exceptionally challenging for prospective students to discern what is a real distinction and what is just marketing content.

Two of my favorite examples are the terms “innovation” and “entrepreneurism”.  I hear consistently about schools that are “leaders” in those fields.  I am unsure as to what it means, in institutions that are all meant to be teaching students to be innovative and enterprising, to be distinguished in these areas.  Does it mean in the classroom, in research, in student life, in the management of the institution?  If in research or management, how much does that impact undergraduate students?

When I was at George Mason University, the students were among the most diverse in the nation.  This was especially distinctive as the students came from over 100 countries, from every state, and were of a very wide spread of ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic background.  I found it frustrating that so many institutions would make claims about diversity when their students all seemed so very much alike.  As a result, it was a challenge to raise diversity as a decision point for prospective students, even though the school was and is distinctive.

I find a similar situation at Brandeis.  This institution has the distinction of having a small residential college atmosphere, AND it is one of the nation’s premiere research universities.  This is so unusual as to be almost unique.  It offers students direct access to faculty doing cutting edge research – yet I hear similar statements from institutions across the spectrum.  I speak daily with Brandeis students publishing papers on gene therapies they are developing in the lab with our neuroscience professors, or presenting a paper at the national conference of environmental science researchers on toxicity levels of the air in nail salons, or offering a paper to the United Nations on micro-economic development in Guatemala…and those experiences appear to be routine throughout our student experiences.  This seems qualitatively different to me than institutions where, out of thousands (or even tens of thousands) of undergraduate students, a small handful will work in lab or two, most cleaning test tubes while graduate students conduct experiments.  Is it possible to explain to prospective students and parents the distinction of doing discovery science as an undergraduate when nearly every institution claims that their students get to do “real” research?

Ultimately it is up to families to ask challenging questions.  When a school claims it is distinct or unique, ask for more details.  Don’t be drawn in by phrases or tag lines – schools pick those to be appealing, not necessarily for their veracity.

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, can you address what colleges mean by diversity and why students might care about a diverse campus? And was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

 

As I noted above, diversity has a great range of meanings, and can often be greatly manipulated in college marketing materials. As an undergraduate, I was profoundly impacted by my interactions with students from across the country and around the world.  My career has largely focused on ways to maintain access to higher education, and the environment that should result.

For most students, it is really a question of the kind of environment which you will most enjoy and from which you will learn the most.  The reality is, for most of higher education, the phrase, “Birds of a feather flock together,” holds true.  Right after you hear the admissions representative tell you how diverse the campus is, you can wander around and find that most students speak similarly, are from similar backgrounds, and drive similar cars.  It is actually challenging to find places that are diverse in every possible meaning of the word.  Students that value different perspectives will need to dig deeper into campus culture and how (and whether) the institution supports various aspects of diversity in meaningful ways.

What is your favorite thing about Brandeis?

 

In the first weeks of the Fall semester the students hold a “24-hour musical.”  The event begins on Saturday afternoon, around 3 p.m., when auditions are held.  At this point none of those auditioning know which musical will be produced.  All those who audition are assigned roles, and at 8 p.m. that evening the show and roles are announced.  The students, costumers, set designers, and many others then work together throughout the night and all the next day, and at 8 p.m. on Sunday, they put on the show.

When I first heard about the idea I was delighted by the concept, although I will admit somewhat skeptical of the outcome.  Arriving on campus around 5 p.m. on Friday I was surprised to see a massive number of students on the Great Lawn outside our theater in the Shapiro Student Center.  I thought perhaps I’d missed an event, as the scene had all the elements of a great tailgate – tons of food, music, and a great collegial, celebratory atmosphere.  When I asked what event they were holding, I was told they were in line to get seats for the 24-hour musical!

Having worked at a number of institutions, I assumed that most were there to laugh at the errors that were bound to be produced by a musical executed with only one day of preparation.  What I found, however, both delighted me and gave me a true sense of the Brandeis community.  With every seat packed (and the aisles, and the rafters) the cheering was deafening.  The audience called out to new and returning friends, including members of the stage crew.  While the production itself was very entertaining, it was the incredible spirit of the whole audience that left no doubt that this group of talented, committed, brilliant students is one of the strongest and most supportive communities in higher education.

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