Evelyn Handler Dies at 78; Led Two Universities

January 3, 2012


December 30, 2011

Evelyn Handler, a cell biologist who, as the first woman to serve as president of Brandeis University, set off an acrimonious debate over the university’s Jewish identity when she secularized some campus traditions in hopes of attracting more non-Jewish students, died Dec. 23 in a pedestrian accident in Bedford, N.H. She was 78.

The police said Dr. Handler was crossing a street on the way to dinner with her husband when she was struck by a car. The driver was not immediately charged, but the police said the investigation was continuing.

Dr. Handler, who was a biology researcher, professor and dean of math and sciences at Hunter College in New York during the first half of her career, took her first post as a college president in 1980, as the first woman to head the University of New Hampshire.

She was named president of Brandeis, in Waltham, Mass., three years later.

Her appointment at Brandeis made her one of the first women in the United States to be president of a top-tier coeducational university.

Founded in 1948 by Jewish philanthropists as a nonsectarian alternative for Jews excluded by quotas from many private American universities, Brandeis had become a highly ranked institution by the time Dr. Handler arrived. But it was struggling with budget deficits and declining applications, partly because Jews were no longer restricted in their choice of colleges.

Dr. Handler set about raising money, renovating dorms, invigorating the sports program and diversifying the student body, which was about 70 percent Jewish, with recruiting efforts and more subtle initiatives to underscore Brandeis’s nonsectarian foundational principles.

She struck a nerve, however, when she instructed the university food service in 1987 to “internationalize” the student cafeteria by adding pork and shellfish to the menu.

Although dining halls at Brandeis were mainly nonkosher, pork and shellfish are considered among the most “trefah,” or nonkosher, foods forbidden under Jewish dietary law, avoided even by many nonobservant Jews. But both foods are also staples in the diet of Asian-Americans — a demographic she sought to attract.

In the ensuing uproar, known on campus as the “trefah war,” religious students accused Dr. Handler of trying to “de-Judaize” Brandeis. Some trustees protested. A major donor withdrew financial support.

The conflict reflected age-old tensions among both secular and religious Jews in general about preserving Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world. But Dr. Handler, who was by all accounts hired because of her reputation as a formidable and strong-willed executive, held her ground — designating only one dining area as trefah-free.

“I think there are a number of students who would like to see Brandeis become a sectarian institution,” she said in a 1989 interview with The New York Times. In the same interview, she attributed the dispute to a rise in Jewish religious fundamentalism.

The enmity stirred by the controversy was considered a major factor in her decision two years later to resign. She later told friends and family she had concluded that the old guard was not prepared to make the changes it had hired her to make.

Evelyn Erika Sass was born on May 5, 1933, in Budapest, one of four daughters of Donald and Ilona Sass, Orthodox Jews who moved their family to New York in 1940.

Evelyn was one of their two biological children. Her parents had adopted the two others to secure the pair’s escape from the Nazis. (Her mother kept a kosher household, though in her adulthood Dr. Handler did not.)

She graduated from Hunter College, and received a Ph.D. in cellular biology from New York University in 1963. Her leukemia research received five major grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

At Brandeis, she was widely credited with laying the groundwork for a business school, a center for human and artificial intelligence research and the first sports and recreation center on campus, and for the diversification of both students and donors. After leaving, she headed the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum and research center in San Francisco.

She and her husband, Eugene, returned to New Hampshire after their retirement in 1998.

Besides her husband, she is survived by their son Brad; another son from a previous marriage, Jeffrey Varsa; a sister, Adrianne Gluckmann; and three grandchildren.

When she turned 70, Dr. Handler went to law school. She was 73 when she graduated in 2006 from the Franklin Pierce Law Center, now known as the University of New Hampshire Law School. “She mainly did it for the intellectual stimulation,” said her son Brad, who described her as unrelentingly disciplined and driven “to achieve great things.”

In a 1983 interview with The Boston Globe, Dr. Handler displayed that resolve with trademark forthrightness. “I don’t relent, I don’t give up,” she said. “You don’t get done what an institution needs if you give up the fight too early.”

Originally published by The New York Times