Reeling from Crisis to Crisis: The Lack of Accountability at Brandeis University

By on August 3, 2009

This blog entry was authored by Daniel Ortner, a student at Brandeis University and FIRE summer intern.

Over the past couple of years, Brandeis University’s administration has shown itself to be an enemy of liberty and consistently untrustworthy through its arrogant abrogation of student and faculty rights. The policies under President Jehuda Reinharz have led to disastrous relations between the administration and those whom it represents. As a new school year dawns, Brandeis has yet to reverse its attacks against the rights and privileges of students, faculty, and supporters. Indeed, the lack of accountability and disregard for others outside the administration seems to continue unhindered.

Over the past few years at Brandeis, many administrative decisions have put a strain on the effective running of the university and caused outrage among faculty and students. First, the Donald Hindley case, in which a nearly 50-year veteran professor was found guilty of harassment for offending a single student while explaining the origins of and criticizing the use of a racial epithet, and the dramatic decision to close the campus’s Rose Art Museum and auction off its art to meet a budget deficit, both of which received a great deal of external media coverage, are just two among many egregious violations of rights and privileges on campus. (The Rose benefactors have recently sued the university.) The administration has also shown its disregard for shared governance in its attacks on student independence and in its many unilateral decisions in areas that drastically affect students and faculty alike.

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.

At the end of last semester, finally a joint statement was issued by the faculty and the administration affirming the vital role of the Faculty Senate in all proceedings against faculty. Such tentative steps toward a balance of power, while promising, are yet incomplete.

Second, the furor over the decision to close the Rose Art Museum and to auction off its extensive art collection is another example of what happens when Reinharz’s administration disregards the very people the administration should be supporting. The outcry was so loud that the University had to hire a public relations firm to deal with the publicity. The university’s lack of consultation with anyone, including those who had bequeathed large donations of art (and who have now sued the university), its Board of Directors, or even the director of the Rose Art Museum (who discovered that his services were no longer needed through the same media release that informed the rest of the community), made the university a national laughingstock.

In Tuesday’s article on the Rose lawsuit, Ariel Wittenberg notes that this is the second lawsuit against Brandeis for allegedly failing to use donor funds properly. In May, a donor’s nephew sued to keep Brandeis from demolishing the Julius Kalman Science Center and said that "there just seems to be a general disconnect between the university and its donors."

Fortunately, the opinions of employees, students, alumni, donors and outside media all converged to successfully influence administrative policy. After students and others organized protests and under the threat of lawsuits, the university relented and allowed the museum to reopen while a committee formed to examine options. Yet, there have been challenges to the legitimacy of this committee, and many have declared it a mere puppet for the administration. Thus, the administration provided a facsimile of open dialogue while still exerting overall control.

Third, the administration has taken drastic steps that violate its obligations to student organizations. For instance, without consulting with students, the administration made changes to the way that a large student club would be funded, taking it out of the realm of student oversight and into administrative control. This action showed a disregard for precedent and a willingness to centralize even more authority. Just as with its relationship with the Faculty Senate, the administration deemed itself capable of deciding at will that existing rules or relationships were merely advisory.

The grave concern underlying this pattern at Brandeis is that students and faculty continue to be in a state of complete uncertainty. The administration has maintained its ability to do anything it wants, violate any agreement regarding rights or privileges, and overstep its acknowledged powers. Students or faculty members are at best entitled to an ex post facto explanation and perhaps the ability to tweak or have input into some of the finer details, but should never expect to have advance notice or anything remotely resembling an apology. Student and faculty victories, while admirable, seem short-lived and rarely enshrined as principle so that the same abuses will not happen again. This abusive system is untenable.

Fortunately, the admirable cases of students and faculty members standing up against the administration and demanding better treatment have been increasing over the past years. Just as the faculty took a brave stance in the Hindley case, students have been vigilant in fighting for their rights. Brandeis students have been led by Student Union Presidents Jason Gray and Shreeya Sinha, both of whom have actively pushed for the protection of students’ rights. The Student Union has moved to write and ratify a Student Bill of Rights and to create a student-led organization to assist fellow students charged with violations of the Student Rights and Responsibilities rules. The Union has organized rallies, attended by hundreds, in opposition to administrative abuses.

Students have also shown that they can have some impact on administrative decisions through activism and dedication. When the decision was made to arm campus public safety officers without consulting students, a student organization, Students Opposed to the Decision to Arm, formed and began collecting petition signatures. In a meeting with President Reinharz they submitted a petition signed by 830 undergraduates, 16 staff, and 20 faculty members. The administration then agreed to form a committee that would be composed of students, faculty, staff, and administrators in order to discuss how to best implement the new policies. In part due to the advocacy of Sinha, also a member of the committee, open forums and discussions solicited the opinions and perspectives of members of the community.

Student outcry was also instrumental in overturning the sudden decision to limit the application of merit-based aid to study abroad as well as in the formation of committees to seriously consider and debate proposed academic changes in times of a budget crisis. In all of these instances, student involvement pressured the administration to at least reconsider its policies and allow some student input. Yet, in almost every instance the decision had already been made, and students were only allowed a minimal role in the shaping of the ultimate policy and its implementation. This is quite disappointing for a school with such a storied history of student activism. Brandeis could do much, much better.

Thus, I am not especially sanguine about the possibility of true reform at Brandeis University. Even though the administration seems to blunder from crisis to crisis and has brought the school close to financial ruin, there does not seem to be any sort of accountability for the Reinharz administration. Without concerted efforts by students and faculty to actively petition trustees and donors—those to whom Reinharz might actually be accountable—so that they know the real state of disorder on campus, I don’t see any substantial changes in the future. The continued efforts of groups such as FIRE to bring attention to abuses of rights is vital, but I fear that without a more prolonged and intensive campaign to finally overthrow this administration, we will keep reeling from outrage to outrage.

Schools: Brandeis University