- Seventeen Months in the President’s Chair: Morris Abram, Black-Jewish Relations and the Anatomy of a Failed Presidency
By virtually all accounts, Morris Berthold Abram was an inspired choice to lead Brandeis University when its founding president, Abram L. Sachar, announced his retirement in 1967. A Rhodes Scholar and civil rights lawyer, Abram served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as the first general counsel to the Peace Corps, and the United States representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. What is more, he had stature in the Jewish community as the youngest national president of the American Jewish Committee. Abram’s selection was lauded by faculty members, donors, and Jewish community leaders alike, and his inauguration, in October 1968, was celebrated with great fanfare. A mere seventeen months later, however, Abram abruptly resigned, leaving the university adrift during one of the most tumultuous periods in its history.
Abram’s tenure coincided with a season of student unrest at American universities, much of it propelled by a radicalized civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. At Brandeis, the new president had barely established himself when he was confronted by a black student takeover of a central administration and communications complex. The eleven day occupation of Ford and Sydeman Halls, which caught Abram and most of the campus by surprise, threatened to paralyze his young administration and tear the community apart. Even after the immediate crisis was resolved, student-administration relations remained tense and threatened to explode in a broad-based show of student defiance.
When Abram announced his departure, in February 1970, the conventional wisdom was that he was fleeing a damaged presidency of an unruly campus. Abram insisted that his resignation was occasioned by his decision to jump into the contest for the Democratic nomination in that year’s New York State Senate race. But even before his short-lived campaign fizzled, his explanation failed to satisfy many.
Abram was certainly looking for an escape hatch. But the impetus for his departure was more complicated than it first appeared. In fact, Abram emerged from the Ford Hall incident relatively unscathed. He managed to defuse the crisis while keeping his various constituencies [End Page 27] united. Abram’s refusal to call in the local police to forcibly remove the demonstrators distinguished him from other university presidents in similar predicaments, and was widely hailed at the time. Yet, in spite of the plaudits, the occupation left Abram feeling embittered and even betrayed. This civil rights activist who fought successfully to overturn the State of Georgia’s discriminatory electoral system was hardly a racist “cracker”1 as the protesters alleged. Nonetheless, he was incapable of finding common ground with the African American occupiers and their white sympathizers. Abram’s palpable frustration and imperious demeanor poisoned his subsequent relationship with students and faculty.
The Ford Hall crisis is worthy of attention because it sheds light on the political metamorphosis of a prominent American Jewish leader from a Southern liberal voting rights activist to a neo-conservative opponent of affirmative action. Abram’s transformation is fascinating in part because it seems to capture a more general Jewish disillusionment with the direction and tenor of the civil rights movement in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. An exploration of Abram’s failed presidency also contributes to our understanding of late-1960s campus radicalism, the deterioration of black-Jewish relations, and the early history of Brandeis University, which was only twenty years old when Abram took the reins.
“I Was Wholly at Odds with the Life Around Me.”
“Growing up” in the rural south, Morris Abram admitted, “I was wholly at odds with the life around me.” Born in Fitzgerald, Georgia, on June 19, 1918, the second of four children, Abram was raised in a family of limited financial means but an almost religious belief in the value of secular education, especially for boys. Abram fulfilled these expectations, not only by earning top grades at the University of Georgia, but also by attending Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and earning a law degree from the University of Chicago. Abram’s father, Sam, a...