HENTOFF: Fear and intimidation at Brandeis U.

September 29, 2008

Having reported on many cases of college and university administrations attacking students and professors for purported prejudicial speech that could be "offensive" on campus, I have just discovered an even more appalling case than in my book, "Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee – How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other."

At Brandeis University in Massachusetts, professor Donald Hindley, on the faculty for 48 years, teaches a course on Latin American politics. Last fall, he described how Mexican migrants to the United States used to be discriminatorily called "wetbacks." An anonymous student complained to the administration accusing Mr. Hindley of using prejudicial language. It was the first complaint against him in 48 years.

After an investigation, during which Mr. Hindley was not told the nature of the complaint, Brandeis Provost Marty Krauss informed Mr. Hindley that "The University will not tolerate inappropriate, racial and discriminatory conduct by members of its faculty." A corollary accusation was that students suffered "significant emotional trauma" when exposed to such a term. An administration monitor was assigned to his class. Threatened with "termination," Mr. Hindley was ordered to take a sensitivity-training class. With no charges against him, no evidence of misconduct given him and no hearing, he refused in the spirit of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom this university is named.

A passionate protector of freedom of expression in a series of seminal Supreme Court opinions, Brandeis wrote in "Whitney v. California" (1972): "Those who won independence believed … that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are … indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth." The Brandeis Faculty Senate, joined by Brandeis’ Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, objected to this assault on academic freedom. So did the Massachusetts affiliate of the ACLU, and in what would have greatly pleased Justice Brandeis, so did the university’s student newspaper, "The Hoot," declaring: "The administration’s instant punitive response made Hindley’s guilt a foregone conclusion … With this kind of an approach, how will the University attract the high caliber professors who will be able to give the incoming classes of students the education they deserve? How will it draw students who want a free and open academic environment?"

Mr. Hindley tells me that despite the response of the faculty Senate and the Committee on Faculty Rights, individual tenured members of his department, though outraged, would not stand up publicly on his behalf. One of them explained to him, "I’m about to retire." He and others fear retaliation.

I first heard about this dishonoring of the name of Brandeis University from FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I’m on the board of advisers but never have time to attend any meetings. FIRE has advocated, and sometimes litigates for, the free-speech rights of students and professors across all ideologies and beliefs. This shows, as Justice Brandeis said, that "sunlight is the best disinfectant." Notwithstanding the indignation on campus, and elsewhere, on how this university, despite its name, has harassed Mr. Hindley as if he were a danger to what the provost accusatorily described as "the welfare of the University’s students," the administration remains certain it is acting in the best interests of its students, present and future.

Indeed, in January, the provost actually wrote Mr. Hindley, not with a pledge to give him a fair hearing, let alone an apology, but with this imperial statement: "I trust [by now] you understand your responsibilities regarding the University’s policies on nondiscrimination and harassment. The University now considers this matter closed." No, it isn’t. Says Adam Kissel, director’s of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program: "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." So will I.

Before writing this column, I left a message for Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz, asking for his response. My call has not been returned. If Justice Brandeis were still here, I am sure he would call Mr. Reinharz instantly and would get a response. How I would like to hear that conversation! Said Justice Brandeis: "It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears." And from undereducated college administrators? Are any of the trustees of Brandeis University at all concerned with restoring its good and once-honored name? FIRE has written to each of the 45 trustees. There has been only one response, saying that the matter is being handled "competently."

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