Brandeis University Tramples Free Speech and Academic Freedom

By on January 23, 2008

WALTHAM, Mass., January 23, 2008—Brandeis University declared a professor guilty of racial harassment and placed a monitor in his classes after he criticized the use of the word “wetbacks” in his Latin American Politics course. Professor Donald Hindley, a nearly 50-year veteran of teaching, has neither been granted a formal hearing by Brandeis nor provided with the substance of the accusations against him in writing. Hindley has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

“Brandeis’s actions demonstrate a fundamental disregard for academic freedom and for fair, rational fact-finding procedures,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Professor Hindley is a respected scholar who until now has not faced a single student complaint in nearly five decades of teaching. Punishing him for actually criticizing the use of what is often considered an ethnic slur shows a mindless application of ‘sensitivity at all costs’ at the expense of freedom of expression.”

In his Fall 2007 course on Latin American politics, Hindley allegedly used terms that at least one student found objectionable. Despite his repeated demands to Brandeis administrators to disclose in writing precisely what offended some students in his class, they have refused to tell him. According to Hindley, he explained to his class that Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as “wetbacks.” If this statement against racism was at the center of Brandeis’s investigation, this is an extreme example of suppressing academic speech by taking it out of context.

A student’s complaint about Hindley’s speech was passed on to Provost Marty Krauss and Director of Employment Jesse Simone. Although Brandeis’s discrimination policy directs administrators to attempt to mediate the conflict, Simone instead began a weeks-long investigation, interrogated Hindley on October 22, 2007, without having alerted him to the nature of the complaint, and submitted her report to Krauss the next day without giving Hindley a chance to make final comments and clarifications-a right promised in Brandeis’s policies.

On October 30, Simone informed Hindley that he was guilty of making “statements in class that were inappropriate, racial, and discriminatory,” and that this “conduct” violated Brandeis’s “Non-Discrimination and Harassment Policy.” Krauss sent Hindley a letter the same day, notifying him that “The University will not tolerate inappropriate, racial and discriminatory conduct by members of its faculty.” Krauss threatened Hindley with termination and ordered a monitor to observe Hindley’s classroom activities until Krauss determined he was “able to conduct [himself] appropriately in the classroom.”

Hindley appealed the university’s decision to Brandeis’s Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities. This appeal, according to the Faculty Handbook, should have suspended the classroom monitoring immediately, but Krauss refused to withdraw the monitor for the remainder of the semester.

Brandeis’s Faculty Senate met in emergency session about Hindley’s case on November 8 and strongly faulted the administration in a unanimous resolution. Brandeis’s Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities also issued a series of scathing reports on Hindley’s case on November 29, December 10, and December 19. The Committee unanimously concluded that the Provost’s decision should have been withdrawn, that administrators abused the definition of harassment as well as their own power in order to punish Hindley, and that Hindley’s rights to fair treatment and academic freedom have been violated.

FIRE wrote to Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz on December 12, reminding him that “if Brandeis is to legitimately claim to provide a liberal education, it cannot prioritize individual sensitivities over the freedom of speech and academic freedom of its professors.” Brandeis has not yet responded to FIRE, but Krauss sent Hindley a letter on January 7, 2008, stating that “the University now considers this matter closed”—without a hearing, without apology, and with the suggestion that Hindley (but not Brandeis) had learned or still needed to learn a lesson.

“That Brandeis would subject a professor to classroom monitoring and then simply sweep the case under the rug reveals Brandeis’s distastefully low respect for its faculty,” Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. “Brandeis has yet to explain how administrators could have so grossly misinterpreted normal classroom speech as ‘harassment.’ FIRE will pursue this matter until Brandeis finally applies basic standards of academic freedom and fair procedures to Donald Hindley’s case.”

Kissel observed, “Brandeis has a moral responsibility to live up to the reputation of its namesake, Supreme Court Justice and free speech champion Louis Brandeis, by apologizing to Professor Hindley, withdrawing the Provost’s decision, clarifying its harassment policies and procedures, and actually following them-as Brandeis’s own faculty have demanded.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Brandeis University can be viewed at thefire.org/brandeis.

CONTACT:
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; adam@thefire.org
Jehuda Reinharz, President, Brandeis University: 781-736-3001; jreinhar@brandeis.edu
Marty Wyngaarden Krauss, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Brandeis University: 781-736-2101; krauss@brandeis.edu

Schools: Brandeis University