Brandeis University Called Out for Free Speech Abuses in Its Student Newspaper

By on August 26, 2009

Yesterday I announced a national ad campaign by my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calling out colleges across the country that have consistently and unapologetically stood by actions that violated the free speech rights of their students or faculty. At the same time, we placed this half-page ad in the Brandeis University student newspaper The Justice:

The ad refers to an appalling case that seems as though it sprung fully-formed from a Philip Roth novel. In the fall of 2007, Donald Hindley, a Brandeis professor of nearly 50 years was found guilty of racial harassment for using the word "wetbacks" in his Latin American Politics class in order to explain the origin of the term and criticize its use. Despite the fact that only one student complained, and the rest of the students understood that the explanation was relevant to class discussion, Brandeis has stubbornly stood by its finding against Hindley. Brandeis student and FIRE intern Daniel Ortner wrote a scathing critique of the Brandeis administration and President Jehuda Reinharz just a few weeks ago titled, "Reeling from Crisis to Crisis: The Lack of Accountability at Brandeis University." As he says in his article:

In the Hindley case, the administration violated its own stated policy and ignored its obligations to Brandeis students as well as Brandeis faculty. A major problem in the controversy was that students in Hindley’s classes were not allowed to be called as witnesses of Hindley’s alleged statements and their context in the classroom. The administration might even have relied on indirect or even fabricated accounts of students taking offense, for Hindley was never given any written account of what he allegedly said that had gotten him in trouble.

The Faculty Senate’s criticism of the administration’s actions was ignored, for its official findings that the charges were both wrongheaded and handled badly was declared to be merely the statement of an advisory committee without any real voice. This led to a standoff between faculty and the administration and a near two-year shutdown in the hearing of grievances by the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities.

Richard Gaskins, the Faculty Chair at the time the Hindley incident broke, deserves to be commended in particular for his vigilance on behalf of faculty rights and prerogatives. Unfortunately, the administration has yet to admit any fault in the Hindley case and has failed to articulate a clear policy for the investigation of incidents of harassment or shown any inclination to follow its stated policy. Among the tragedies of the Hindley case is the fact that the administration believed itself above any other authority and able to make unilateral decisions about faculty members’ classroom statements without caring whether the Brandeis faculty actually might have something to add about classroom pedagogy.

The Hindley case, the university’s bungled decision to close down the Rose Art Museum, and various other abuses of student and faculty rights have continued to embarrass the university. All Brandeis would have to do to get off our Red Alert list and save itself from further public humiliation is to simply repeal the finding of racial harassment against Professor Hindley. It is a small but very important step that is long, long overdue.

Schools: Brandeis University