Making a Difference

On the remarkable 15-year legacy of President Daan Braveman.

by Erich Van Dussen

Daan Braveman

As Daan Braveman prepares for a well-earned retirement from service as president of Nazareth College, no look back on his 15-year tenure would be complete without recognizing his wife, Lorraine. After all, without her, Braveman might not have landed here at all.

“I grew up here, and I’d always thought of Nazareth as, well, a Catholic girls’ school … and I’m neither of those things,” Braveman says from an armchair in his Smyth Hall office. “But my wife told me, ‘If they invite you for an interview, you may as well go, right? It’s good practice.’”

As a former civil-rights attorney and law school dean, Braveman understands the importance of research. “So I was preparing for the interviews, and the more I learned about Nazareth, the more I got interested. There was a real commitment here to community service and community engagement. When the Sisters of St. Joseph started the College, they wanted their students to prepare to get jobs and careers that would make a difference in their communities. And that appealed to me.”

He smiles. “My wife’s a lot smarter than I am.”

A Strategic Direction

Those who have known him, worked with him and studied in his classes — yes, Braveman teaches classes — have plenty to say about the far-reaching contributions of Nazareth’s ninth president. For starters, the campus map has changed quite a bit in the last decade and a half.

“Certainly it’s true that there was growth and change at Nazareth before Daan came,” recalls Deb Dooley ’75, who knows whereof she speaks: As an alumna, an emerita faculty member, and a retired dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Dooley has a long lens with which to view the path of Nazareth’s evolution.

Braveman, she says, came to the school as the right leader at the right time. “During his time at Naz, the College has been courageous about making leaps that help distinguish the school while also remaining true to what it has always stood for. That can be a hard balance to strike.”

The list of "All That Wasn’t Here 15 Years Ago" is remarkable: new or renovated buildings supporting the sciences, health and wellness services, music, athletics, and the arts. New academic programs reflecting a thoughtful take on what students and the world are seeking from higher education today. Bold new community partnerships. And new administrative teams dedicated to fine-tuning the Nazareth experience and helping students maximize their preparations for post-college life.

“The changes in the past 15 years have been nothing short of dramatic,” agrees Steve Natapow, a member of the College’s board of trustees since 1991. “Nazareth’s offerings have grown tremendously in very specific ways. The College has also grown in population, and become much more diverse. Daan’s dedication to strategic growth has been instrumental.”

Indeed, Braveman credits two consecutive strategic plans for leading the way along the college’s most recent 15-year journey — though he admits that such plans don’t always live up to their hype.

“A lot of people do strategic planning and put it on the shelf,” he notes. “It took us the good part of a year to develop our first plan. But more than developing it, what I’m very proud of is that we actually implemented it.”

After the promise of that five-year plan was fulfilled, a 10-year follow-up plan was developed — and completed a year early. In retrospect, students, faculty, and staff should have known what to expect from Braveman from the title of his 2005 inaugural address: “Making a Difference.”

Dedicated to Students

Adora Evans ’16 has many fond memories of her Nazareth years: visiting Beijing, China, for a study-abroad opportunity as a sophomore; eating eggs at midnight prepared by the president of the college; and the thrill of graduating after only three years with a double major in communication & media and Chinese language & literature.

One of those things is not like the others. “He makes a very good omelette,” Evans says with a laugh about Braveman’s participation in Nazareth’s annual midnight breakfast event. Each year, the leader joins College faculty and staff to prepare late-night made-to-order food for undergrads craving a study break.

It made an impression on Evans. “He really gets involved,” she says. “I have friends who went through four years of college without ever meeting their president, let alone getting to know him. But President Braveman really is wholeheartedly interested in his students. You can talk to him and he listens.”

For his part, Braveman says meeting and talking with students on a regular basis is one of the two main reasons he insisted on teaching a class every year. (The other is even simpler: He loves being in the classroom.)

“I look for any chance I can get to talk with students. At the end of the day, they’re who this college is here for,” he says. “Being able to connect with them, to understand what they're interested in, to see them in class and how they learn — for me, it’s all critical to doing the job I’m here to do. I couldn’t imagine not having had that opportunity.”

So when you hear reports of Braveman running around campus, take them literally. “He’ll get into his gym clothes and go to the gym and run with students and professors. He'll go down to the canal with the track team," Natapow says.

Braveman is a regular fixture in the audience of college games and other campus events. “I’m probably the only college president who ever came close to getting thrown out of a game for yelling,” he says. “And I love going to our theater productions, and our music performances. We have incredible talent.” 

Andy Lee ’19, who first met Braveman during a pre-admission visit to the College, cites the president’s enthusiasm as a big reason for his choosing Nazareth. Later, as a student in Braveman’s Introduction to Law class and a two-sport athlete on the hockey and tennis teams, he got to know the leader well enough to ask for a letter of reference to Villanova University Law School in Pennsylvania — where he’s working on his juris doctor degree today.

“Honestly, he was my favorite professor,” Lee says. “You could tell the passion he has for the law and for teaching. I thought it was great that the president of the school still wants to be involved with students.”

The Nazareth Experience

When he was an undergraduate, Justin Young ’12, ’16G recalls he met with Braveman and the College’s head of facilities about the lack of Braille signage on campus. “I pointed out that because the signs weren’t there, a blind person couldn’t independently navigate the campus.”

Six weeks later, Braille signs were installed inside buildings and in the College’s network of tunnels. “That made an impression,” Young says. “It was clear that we had the same perspective, that higher education should be as inclusive as possible to anyone who sets foot on campus.”

(Like Lee, Young also remembers Braveman as one of his first professors: “I did United States constitutional history with him. It was a great course. Eight o’clock in the morning, but a great course.”)

For Braveman, diversity and inclusivity are keystones of any higher-education experience. “We must prepare our students to live and work in a diverse world,” he says. “Too often, difference is viewed as a threat. It’s our job as educators to change that.”

Hence the launch of Community and Belonging, the latest milestone in Nazareth’s diversity and inclusivity evolution that has made multiple strides in Braveman’s tenure; the deliberate expansion of study-abroad options in the last decade; and Nazareth’s continued and laudable nationwide record among small colleges for the number of Fulbright scholarships awarded year over year.

Although Young didn’t travel internationally as a student, he learned about different cultures through classmates from Nepal, France, and other countries. “I felt like I was able to study abroad without leaving the country,” he says.

Lee, too, describes his time at Nazareth as “not just about going to class and getting grades and learning, but also so many ways to help people really make the most of their four years at the school. I think that is a testament to President Braveman and all the opportunities he wanted students to have.”

Braveman puts it more simply: “We like to say that we’re not just preparing students for making a living; we’re preparing them for making a life.”

Committed to Community

If the campus has changed in 15 years, so has the College’s relationship with its neighbors. Nazareth has always promoted volunteerism, but under Braveman’s leadership a host of high-profile initiatives have reaffirmed the notion that Naz is a part of its community, not apart from it.

The most prominent example may be the 2019 launch of the Golisano Training Center, a state-of-the-art field house for campus sports and wellness that also accommodates the special needs of athletes from the community who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Center represents a partnership between Nazareth, Special Olympics New York, and the Golisano Foundation. A $7.5 million contribution from Tom Golisano — the largest philanthropic gift in Nazareth’s history — helped the facility make the long jump from blueprints to reality.

“From the original vision and design, Daan wanted the training center to be a place where ‘together’ is celebrated, a place that would accommodate and benefit athletes of all abilities, regardless of whether they studied at the college,” says Ann Costello, executive director of the Golisano Foundation. “His proposal for an unprecedented partnership with Special Olympics New York is now making it possible for athletes in the Genesee region to train and compete on a year-round basis. He saw the potential from a mile-high view, and made a compelling case that connected all the dots.”

Natapow agrees: “It’s probably the biggest thing that’s happened to the College since I joined the board, in that it hasn’t just added to Nazareth — it's also changed the outlook of the community about what we can do. It's a great addition for the campus, for the students, for Rochester as a whole.”

Beyond the Center itself, the idea behind its creation was a master class in the reciprocal benefits of college–community partnerships. That idea runs throughout the achievements of Braveman’s tenure — from building the York Wellness and Rehabilitation Institute that gives clinical experience to students while helping community residents in need, to developing the multidisciplinary Center for Civic Engagement that connects undergrads to structured volunteer opportunities.

None of these achievements were the sole result of one individual, but it’s not a coincidence that they occurred on Braveman’s watch — or that they align so closely with his personal priority of making higher education about more than just the pursuit of academics.

Dooley suggests that Braveman’s background as a civil rights attorney has afforded him a different view of a college’s duty to its students and to society. “He has a particular focus with regard to the communities of the world,” she observes. “He believes the academic life can, and should, intersect with the larger community in a very rich way.”

Honoring a Century-Old Legacy

When Dooley was a Nazareth undergraduate in the 1970s, the Sisters of St. Joseph still played an active role in the daily management of the college they founded in 1924. Today, Nazareth is a religiously independent institution; but throughout the tenure of its ninth president, Dooley says, a loyalty to the school’s long-held fundamental values — to the charism that guided the Sisters — has shined brightly.

“Students today look for different things from a college than they did in the 1920s,” she says. “Daan has made impressive progress in helping Nazareth fulfill its modern role to students and to the community, while still being true to what the College has always stood for.”

Costello agrees, praising Nazareth’s commitment to “ethical character and to helping students realize their desires to make the world a better place."

"Students go to Nazareth because they want to make a difference. And while every college may say that, Nazareth students actually do it, while they are in school and after they graduate," she says. “Daan Braveman’s leadership has helped make these aspirations possible for a generation of students and the communities they become a part of when they pursue their careers.”

From Braveman’s perspective, his contributions and impact are tied up with an appreciation for the same qualities that originally appealed to him about the job. “What I've found in my time here is that this is real. Our commitment to helping students is real. Our commitment to engaging with the community is real. It's part of the genetic makeup of this school. That’s what attracted me to come here,” he says.

“A lot has changed over the years, but the underlying mission of providing a high-quality education that prepares students to go out and make a difference in the world … that hasn’t changed one bit.”

That’s Nazareth’s legacy, but does all this constitute his own? “I don’t use that word,” he says. “The idea of a legacy feels strange to me. When I was a civil rights lawyer, I didn’t see myself as changing the world. I was helping people, and if I changed anything, it was maybe by making a difference in an incremental way. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. Higher education is incredibly important and it should be done well.”

He pauses. “Nazareth does it well, and I’m proud to have been a part of that. But I think it’s up to other people to decide what your legacy is.”

It suffices to say that other people just did.

Freelance writer Erich Van Dussen lives in Rochester, NY.

Thank You Daan

The tribute to President Braveman continues!

Write a farewell message to President Braveman. Share your best wishes and your favorite memories with him as he embarks on retirement.

Make a gift to the newly established Braveman SPARK Fund, which will will make possible real-world learning opportunities for Nazareth students for years to come.