Prof investigated for offensive class remark

February 6, 2008

Though college campuses are normally considered havens for candid and challenging conversation, a Brandeis University professor recently learned some classroom topics are not always open for discussion.

After political science professor Donald Hindley allegedly used the term “wetback” in September, Brandeis students, alumni and faculty said the school mismanaged the ensuing investigation.

The comment was allegedly made during class about discrimination. Hindley declined comment for this story, but his lawyer told The Boston Globe Hindley used the word in a discussion about racist terms people use.

Brandeis sophomore Mike Mendel, a student in the Latin American politics class in which Hindley supposedly made the remark, said an overwhelming number of students in the class took Hindley’s side on the issue, including the Hispanic students who would have taken the most offense to the slur.

“The school handled the situation so poorly,” he said. “The speed with which they conducted the investigation just didn’t allow them to get all the necessary evidence to conclude anything. Even the other witnesses didn’t know what happened, because the school was so hasty and secretive.”

Brandeis politics professor emeritus Seyom Brown, Hindley’s colleague for 29 years, said Hindley’s brazenness should not be mistaken for disrespect.

“I think Donald doesn’t hold his tongue sometimes,” he said. “He says things that others might not say because he is such an open person. But with respect to racism, that would just be deeply out of character for him.”

Brown said Hindley demonstrated against apartheid in South Africa and has sympathetic views on the disenfranchised and poverty-stricken areas of Latin America. He said Hindley is among the most outspoken professors against racism and discrimination.

“What is offensive is in many cases highly subjective and it depends largely on the context of the remark,” Brown said.

Brandeis sophomore Daniel Ortner, forum editor at the school’s paper The Justice, said the Hindley case is part of an ongoing trend of the school’s administration, taking less interest in students’ opinions.

Most recently, the Brandeis administration has reallocated money from the student union, cancelled annual student events and given campus security guards guns without much regard to student discourse on these issues, Ortner said.

“We have a very [politically correct] campus and it sometimes infringes on freedom of speech because everyone, including publications, are under extreme scrutiny,” Ortner said.

Turning to the Internet to vent their frustrations, students formed the Facebook group “In Support of Hindley,” and posted the two letters Hindley received to notify him of the school’s investigation.

“Professor Hindley was one of my favorite teachers,” Brandeis 1998 graduate and group member Ofer Inbar said. “He was so experienced and cultured. He lived and taught in Latin America at one point, so naturally, he is the last person I would expect to make a racist remark.”

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education individual rights defense program director Adam Kissel said Brandeis should not waste an opportunity for discussion with its students.

“Instead of sweeping the issue under the rug, Brandeis’s provost could have initiated discussions for students about the difference between taking offense and actually being harassed,” he said. “But Brandeis has focused on trying to educate faculty about how to avoid such situations as Hindley’swhich may just chill their speech further and make the Brandeis classroom less free.”

Kissel said the implications extend to other schools, including Boston University.

“It is such a strong violation of academic freedom … [and] it can help BU students think about their own classroom experiences,” he said.

According to a Jan. 25 Boston Globe article, the university sent Hindley a letter on Jan. 7 saying that they consider the matter “closed.”

Download file "Prof. investigated for offensive class remark"

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