Lesley was a different place when Deborah Schwartz Raizes arrived in 1965. There were approximately 500 undergraduates – women only – clustered on Doble Campus.
Lesley College, as it was named then, was a quiet, traditional campus with a midnight curfew, and if students wanted to spend a weekend away, they needed signed, parental consent. Some students were activists, but “the disruption” on other college campuses hadn’t touched Lesley yet, says Raizes, though she would later face social and cultural battles of her own.
For Raizes, a model student who always made it back to campus before curfew, the environment was a perfect place to thrive, and that’s part of the reason she’s been an active member of the Lesley community for almost 50 years.
“I certainly felt empowered,” Raizes says of her years at Lesley. “I came in as a very shy person, and I think Lesley really helped me come into my own and grow. I felt at Lesley that I could challenge myself and succeed.”
At the end of June, she stepped down after eight years as chair of our Board of Trustees, although she will remain on the board and continue to be an integral member of the Lesley community.
College life, from bridge games to Brigham’s
Raizes, née Schwartz, came to Lesley from a suburb of New York City and quickly felt comfortable on campus. An education major, she loved the small classes and the opportunities to try new things.
Raizes joined the drama club, starring in “Suddenly, Last Summer,” and served on student government, where she often worked with the Board of Trustees, never expecting she would one day be in their place.
Of course, much of Raizes’ memories center on college life. In the dorms – Raizes lived in Crocket, White Hall and Oxford – she grew close to her peers, often playing bridge and going out for ice cream at Brigham’s ice cream parlor.
Dorm life was tranquil, but students got a taste of a different sort of college life at parties on nearby campuses. While Raizes was out with a friend one night in her sophomore year, she met Gary Raizes, a Harvard student who would become her husband.
Life lessons in North Carolina
She graduated from Lesley with honors in 1969, married Gary Raizes and moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he began medical school while she took her first teaching job.
Lesley had been a catalyst in her personal and professional development, both of which were put to the test as she began teaching. Raizes, for the first time in her life faced discrimination because of her Jewish heritage. At one job interview, a principal told Raizes he didn’t like Jews.
“I told him exactly where he could take that comment,” recalls the formerly timid freshman. Raizes said sensitivity training at Lesley helped her deal with the rare but jarring discrimination she faced in Durham. “I do think it empowered me to stand up against injustice.”
Raizes also pushed the norms when she refused to give up teaching during her first pregnancy in the early 1970s.
“The principal came to me and said, ‘You can no longer teach.’ I said, ‘Oh yes I can,’ and I did until about a month before I gave birth,” she says. “I thought it was ridiculous and I wasn’t going to leave. He never mentioned it again.”
Being a schoolteacher also opened Raizes up to poverty she had never faced in her Westchester upbringing. After one second-grade child continually came to school in the same clothes and deteriorating shoes, Raizes decided to make a visit to her home – a one-bedroom shack heated by a potbellied stove.
“The smell of that potbellied stove will stay with me forever,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘I really don’t understand what some of my children are going through.’ I hope that experience helped me to be a better teacher.”
When it was time for her family to return to the northeast, Raizes did so with a much-changed perspective and an unwavering commitment to education.
“It put me in a very different world,” she says. “It made me more empathetic towards what it feels like to be discriminated against and hopefully more sensitive.”
Early days of involvement
The family, which had grown to include two children, moved to New York where Raizes became involved in both the local school system and Lesley. Her father, Jack Schwartz, for whom Schwartz Hall on Doble Campus is named, had been a trustee since Raizes’ junior year, and he kept her up-to-date on Lesley news.
“I always felt that Lesley made an important contribution to education, both in the state level and also nationally,” she says. “I thought what was happening was exciting. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Raizes was no longer a teacher, but she maintained her interest and involvement in education as a senior consultant for Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a superintendent search firm. As Raizes’ involvement at Lesley grew, she was voted into the Lesley Corporation in 1985, eventually serving as chair from 1999 to 2009. She joined the trustees in 1991.
“I saw right away that she had real enthusiasm for Lesley. If anyone knows Debbie, they know that,” says former President Joseph Moore, who retired in 2016. “Beyond the enthusiasm, which you might associate with an alum who is on the board, she had a real understanding of key issues in Lesley and in higher education.”
As chair of the presidential search committee in 2007, Raizes was instrumental in hiring Moore, one of many major undertakings she has handled as a trustee. Fellow board members recognized her leadership and appointed her as vice-chair of the trustees in 2004 and chair in 2009.
“There was no ego,” says MaryPat Lohse, vice president for strategy and implementation. “She went out of her way to create an inclusive environment.”
Raizes’ dedication is legendary among board members and administrators, particularly her willingness to make regular trips to Lesley, a three-hour trip each way, and sometimes for a mere two-hour meeting.
Incoming Chair Hans Strauch estimates that Raizes added at least 40,000 miles to her odometer in her eight years, the equivalent of 14 trips across the United States.
“I’d call her a gamer,” Strauch says. “I love gamers because they’re there for the purpose of winning, not for themselves.”
Raizes has even been willing to downplay her love for a certain New York baseball team for Lesley’s sake.
Moore recalls one Lesley event in which Raizes and her husband arrived wearing Yankee paraphernalia. They were, of course, greeted with “boos.” Following a Lesley-sponsored game at Fenway, however, the couple arrived at a reception wearing brand new Red Sox hats and jackets.
“They had adopted the clothing just in honor of Lesley,” says Moore. “She’s got a great sense of humor, but it also kicks back to her caring about the place.”
Leaders praise Raizes’ dedication to Lesley as well as her willingness to support change. During her time on the board, she has encouraged growth and innovation rather than keeping the status quo.
“She’s not trying to make sure that everyone has the exact same experience, but it should be a transformative experience,” Moore says. “I think that really helped make her an effective board member and board chair.”
She also created an inclusive culture on the board, initiating informal dinners and taking time to listen to everyone.
“She has an almost intuitive ability to understand how best to communicate to the board,” Strauch says. “It’s a unique style that she brought to the board chair that created trust among the board members and allowed us to move forward through good and tough times.”
Raizes doesn’t like to talk about herself or take credit for the progress made during her tenure. Instead she says that the board plays a supporting role to president, faculty and staff. But Raizes’ decades on the board have coincided with a transformative era at Lesley, including:
- Going co-ed
- Merging the Art Institute of Boston with Lesley
- Reducing undergraduate tuition rates
- Purchasing University Hall and creating Porter Campus
- Acquiring Brattle Campus
- Building the Lunder Arts Center
Also during that time, Raizes supported dozens of fundraising efforts, and her family personally kicked off the development of the Lunder Arts Center, making the initial $1 million donation for the arts complex, which opened in 2015.
Strauch agrees that the trustees aren’t supposed to be “headline news,” but says, “she was part of an era of significant accomplishments and able to orchestrate the board during that time.”