Known for her dedication to education, memorable catchphrases and the heart she brought to every interaction, Associate Head of School Liz Resnick will be a deeply missed presence on campus. Her spirit and passion for both the well-being and learning experience of students and teachers catalyzed important and meaningful changes that will be felt for years to come.
Resnick died March 26 after a two-year battle with cancer. On April 14, students, faculty, alumni and community members honored her life and contributions to the school at a memorial service.
Following the news of her passing, the school community has come together to appreciate the many ways Resnick impacted each of their lives on campus. President Rick Commons, who worked almost daily with Resnick since starting at the school, said he faces an embodiment of her presence each time he looks up from his desk.
“Now when I look for [Resnick], I see that painting of the heart [in her office window],” Commons said. “It’s a potent symbol for me of who she was and what she gave to this school and me, and I intend to take that painting when that office is occupied in the future, and hang it in this office as a reminder of [Resnick].”
Beyond their professional relationship, Commons said the two of them formed a close friendship.
“We were pals, too,” Commons said. “She was sick for a long time, so the office was not always occupied. But when it was occupied, I crossed the hall ten times a day to check in on something, to share something funny that happened and to talk about our kids, who are exactly the same age. We’d talk about our families; we’d talk about our educational halves and find funny things to laugh about.”
Resnick was one of the leading voices in the debate surrounding limits on Advanced Placement courses, which will begin with the Class of 2022, Commons said. She believed regulating the number of AP classes a student could take would give that student the opportunity to explore subjects in greater depth, Commons said.
“She was key in recognizing that while we didn’t want to abandon the APs, that there was real value in the standardized curriculum that the AP program offers, that there was a real opportunity for us to make our curriculum stronger by limiting the number of APs,” Commons said. “[This would] create more honors courses and more courses that were not structured according to the same way that everybody else across the country was learning from.”
Despite some backlash that these changes received from members of the community, Commons said Resnick was able to thoughtfully and successfully communicate the benefits of the new changes.
“She was the one who could articulate best the ways in which our academic program becomes more excellent by having fewer APs, which is counterintuitive on the surface of things,” Commons said.
Resnick also spearheaded the creation of the new schedule for the 2020-2021 school year.
When Head of Upper School Laura Ross started at the school in 2017, Ross said Resnick incorporated her into the scheduling project, which was approved recently, a month after Resnick passed.
“[Resnick] would always recite that same mantra about feeling worried that we were just exhausting students and not really allowing them to thrive,” Ross said. “She cared so much about true learning and student well-being. When we approved the new schedule it was such a bittersweet moment because she wasn’t there, and it was her birthday. We were so excited that this had happened but so sad she wasn’t here to celebrate this huge accomplishment that she was centrally apart of.”
Resnick also had a large influence in Ross’ initial desire to start working at the school, Ross said.
“I always felt she was my biggest fan,” Ross said. “Every so often she would stop and say, ‘You are doing a great job.’ She was just that person that she always made people around her feel valued and known. What we were so struck by [at the memorial] was that she was clearly the exact same human from the time she was five years old to when she died. She just had this specialness about her that was always there.”
This support that Resnick offered was not limited to Ross. Math teacher and Department Head Kent Nealis said he received constant guidance and words of wisdom from Resnick.
“She was one of the wisest and kindest and most compassionate people I’ve ever known,” Nealis said. “She just was amazing. She was just this thoughtful voice that was wise, she was soulful. She just cared about education, she cared about students; she cared about this institution, she cared about everybody that worked here.”
While reporting to Resnick during her time as Interim Head of Upper School, Nealis said he deeply admired her leadership style.
“I always felt like she wasn’t really supervising as much as she was just directing people in the right directions,” Nealis said “I don’t mean in a manipulative way at all; she really just allowed me, and I think others, to just connect the dots. She would help us see things so that we could make the right choices.”
Nealis also said that Resnick selflessly worked through issues with faculty, ultimately helping a person reach their own conclusion.
“She has this capacity [where] you walk away from something thinking, ‘Wow, I just made a good decision,’ when really it was [Resnick] that made a great decision, and you just sort of discovered it,” Nealis said. “I used to say that all the time in meetings with her that it’s like [she] wanted me to connect these dots, and I could tell she wanted me to connect these dots, so I’m just gonna go work on that and then I would connect those dots and make the decision that was probably the best one.”
Since her passing, Nealis said he has felt her absence often and in large ways.
“I can’t think of a day that’s gone by yet where I haven’t thought to myself, ‘Gee, I wish I could talk this through with [Resnick] and let her help me sort this out,” Nealis said. “I mean, let her help me, because that’s what she did. She helped people help themselves, and she had a way of dealing with very difficult, sometimes contentious issues in a way that was honest with compassion. She could deliver hard news, but you always felt like it was delivered fairly and honestly and that everybody walked away feeling better.”
Even though Resnick did not formally teach a class at the school, she found ways to connect to students. In Will Newhart’s ’19 sophomore Choices and Challenges class, he said Resnick became a co-teacher throughout the year.
“She was very important to me,” Newhart said. “Not even in the sense that we were always in contact or something like that, but just whenever I saw her, even without being around and on campus all the time, she just felt so present to me. I felt she really cared about me, and I think, overall, about all the individuals on campus.
Resnick would check in with Newhart periodically, asking him about his junior year and how the college application process was going, Newhart said.
“A lot of her great contributions were behind the scenes, and that kind of just points more to her selflessness and the way she did not feel any need to take so much credit for anything, and that she just cared about doing good for the school and doing good for the students,” Newhart said.
Reflecting on his own times with Resnick, Commons said the perfect description of Resnick came after he gave her the Thomas C. Hudnut Leadership Chair award last year. Head of Athletics Terry Barnum commented on why she deserved the award, Commons said.
“When I think about what I want Harvard-Westlake students to be when they grow up, I think of Liz Resnick,” Barnum said.