Brandeis’ Inexplicable War Against Its Faculty

By July 3, 2008

Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz has a problem on his hands. His administration has managed to take a student complaintthat a Politics professor uttered the word “wetbacks” in his classand turn it into an open faculty revolt. Bewildered students are left wondering how this could have happened at a university named after one of free speech’s most notable defenders.

Like so many cases of abuse at universities, this controversy represents a misunderstanding so profound that it can only be intentional. Professor Donald Hindley’s crime was explaining to his Latin American Politics class that Mexican immigrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as “wetbacks.” Hindley, who is politically liberal, condemns this usage. Yet a student complained about Hindley’s use of the word, and after a brief “investigation” that failed to follow written procedures, Brandeis’ human resources department found him guilty of making “inappropriate, racial, and discriminatory” statements in violation of the university’s anti-harassment policy.

As punishment, Provost Marty Krauss declared that Hindley, a 47-year veteran of Brandeis’ Politics department, would have his classes monitored by the administration until Krauss determined that Hindley could “conduct [himself] appropriately in the classroom.” Hindley was also ordered to attend anti-discrimination training (which would presumably include a list of all the words he should not say) and threatened with termination if he did not “correct” his conduct.

Determined not to be branded as a racial harasser simply for using a word in the process of explaining it, Hindley appealed Krauss’ nonsensical decision. According to Brandeis’s Faculty Handbook, Krauss should have immediately suspended the monitoring while the appeal went forward, but he refused to do so. Krauss also pointedly ignored various responsibilities to consult with the Faculty Senate.

Krauss’ assertion of arbitrary administrative power angered the Faculty Senate, which has refused to peacefully surrender its bargained-for rights. By February of this year, cooperation between faculty and administrators on discipline issues completely broke down in the wake of three scathing reports on the handling of Hindley’s case. And since early March, Brandeis’ Faculty Senate has been refusing even to hear discipline cases, reasoning that doing so is pointless if administrators can unilaterally make capricious and unjust decisions.

How could the utterance of one word bring faculty-administration cooperation at an American university to a grinding halt? The answer begins in the growth in size and power (and, correspondingly, in arrogance) of university administrations. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the proportion of full-time administrators in higher education finally exceeded the proportion of faculty full-timers in 2006; today, 51.4% of professionals in the field spend their time administering rather than teaching.

These bureaucrats have found much to fill their days. Last fall, for instance, no less than thirteen University of Delaware Residence Life administrators, along with dozens of resident assistants (RAs), promulgated a mandatory thought reform program, complete with curricula dozens of pages long, that required students to adopt highly specific university-approved views on issues such as politics, race, sexuality, moral philosophy, and environmentalism. Students had to attend training sessions, floor meetings, and one-on-one meetings where RAs recorded their answers to intrusive questions like “When did you discover your sexual identity?”

When this program was exposed to the public, the ensuing outrage resulted in the program’s cancellation within two days. The faculty was similarly angered, pointing out in a report this February that teaching and developing curricula for educational programs was the job of the faculty, not administrators or RAs.

Today, an outnumbered faculty class is increasingly seeing its power being eclipsed or ignored by the growing number of administrators. After all, while professors must spend time teaching or researching, administrators have eight hours per day to invent new programs and engage in bureaucratic empire-building. It’s no wonder that Krauss has stubbornly refused to admit she was wrong and remove the harassment finding from Hindley’s record.

Along with this shift in power on campus has come a value shift, from respect for free speech and academic freedom to an insistence on universal freedom from offense or disturbance. This is no surpriseafter all, the truly free exchange of ideas is a necessity for the faculty but holds little value for administrators, who would rather not have 1960’s-style student movements develop on their own campuses.

Yet administrators ignore the faculty at their peril. Nobody chooses a college based on the strength of the administration, and long-serving faculty like Hindley tend to outlast even the most senior presidents and provosts. President Reinharz can and should solve this problem immediately by overturning the harassment finding against Hindley and requiring that Brandeis follow its written commitments to its faculty. But will Reinharz choose to side with his faculty or his administrators? One can only hope that the manifest injustice of Hindley’s punishment will play a part in his decision.

Schools: Brandeis University Cases: Brandeis University: Professor Found Guilty of Harassment for Protected Speech