Congratulations Tom Tisch!
Bill Long 9/16/08
And Jerome Vascellaro, Too
A few nights ago, after receiving my monthly mailing from Brown University about latest goings-on in Providence RI at my alma mater (B.A. '74; Ph. D '82), I decided to probe further and then I, figuratively, was stopped in my tracks. I realized that Tom Tisch ('76), the 20th Chancellor in the University's history, as well as the new Vice Chancellor, Jerome Vascellaro ('74) were men with whom I had a very positive connection 35 or more years ago when I was an undergraduate at Brown. In this essay I want to tell a little about them, from my perspective, and why I think that their presence at the helm of Brown presages good things for this most special school in Providence.
Meeting Tom Tisch
I first met Tom Tisch in an exceptional class at Brown University in 1972-73, taught by master teacher, University Professor and prolific author Jacob Neusner. Entitled "Judaism in Late Antiquity," this year-long class covered, in detail, Judaism from about 200 BCE until the codification of the Mishnah about 400 years later. It gave us an opportunity to get into the mind of Jacob Neusner when he was revolutionizing the study of Judaism in that era. We read his From Politics to Piety in 1972, though it had a 1973 copyright date. We read version four (of five) of The Idea of Purity; we already were privy to his thoughts about how he would rewrite George Foot Moore's classic on the Mishnah. He shared the genesis, methodological problems and ultimate success of his five volume History of the Jews in Babylonia. All in all, he brought us into scholarship as it was happening. It was exciting and energizing.
Tom was one of the only freshmen, if not the only one, in the class. For Tom to major in religious studies was pretty unexpected. It wasn't as if he didn't take his religion seriously; indeed, he did. But the focus in his family's history was on subjects of more immediate relevance to managing the substantial family assets and businesses in New York City. Tom, however, was not only friendly, kind, and down-to-earth, but had an intellectual curiosity that made him tremendously open to Neusner's disciplined, aggressive and insightful method of studying religion and, in fact, opening intellectual questions in general. Neusner wanted to understand Judaism as a topic in the humanities, as a religious "system" (or series of systems) which had a "world view" and "way of life." He wanted to subject each text in that tradition to a searching inquiry not only for whatever historical "kernels" it might have (which was the focus of his Politics and Piety book), but also for what it told us about the way that people conceptualized their understanding of life.
By the end of the year, Tom was well on his way to using what you might call the "Neusner-method" for understanding religion as well as human intellectual inquiry in general. No doubt that trait still obtains in him as he deals in the much more immediate world of financial management in NYC. This skill that Tom brings to Brown the "second time around" means that Brown will still be benefitting from the insights of Jack Neusner, now through the energy and insight of Tom Tisch.
My connection with Jerome/Jerry Vascellaro '74 comes in a different way. It isn't that he now lives in the small town in which I grew up but rather that he and I lived across the hall in the unique dormitory set-up at Brown in 1970-71 named Middle Caswell. Caswell Hall is a "vertical" rather than a "horizontal" dorm, and "Middle" Caswell is, predictably, the vertical part of it between "North" and "South." That is, each floor only had four rooms and, with four floors in the whole, the entire Middle Caswell only had 16 rooms. We 32 guys were as close and as distant perhaps as any other 32 guys at Brown that year, but as I was reflecting on that year together, I found myself able to name a bunch of the guys without any considerable mental effort. Mike and Pete were next to me and Wong; Jerry roomed with David across the hall, and Jeff and Johnny were also on the floor. Above me on the second floor were Barry ("Buff") and Steve, two of the more bulky football players. There was Bill and Kevin, Ernie and Chuck, Ty and who? Don't recall. Then there was Reid, who hung around in Buff's and Steve's room all day, a sort of honorary member of the club.
Jerry, as he was known then, and I had several great talks through our year. He always was a person of calm and friendliness, which contrasted quite significantly with many of us, who were wrestling not only with our sense of identity but frequently with each other, in the halls, bathrooms and other places in the dorm. Jerry was smart, optimistic, ambitious, and approachable.
Brown has faced significant challenges in the past decade as it seeks to maintain its reputation as a world-class university that continues to have an intimate "feel" to it. Undergraduates work with and learn from accomplished senior scholars; graduate students have enough resources to begin to push back the boundaries of knowledge in their fields as well as to teach eager and able undergraduates. Though curricular reform was in the air at Brown for much of the 1970s - 1990s, there is a great interest now in strengthening the historic departments that catapulted Brown to its international stature. With Tom and Jerry (not Ben and Jerry!) consulting with President Ruth Simmons, and working with their colleagues on the Board of the University, bright days are forecast in Providence. It is enough to make an alumnus proud.