Will the real Brandeis please stand up?

By on February 12, 2009

I spent most of the summer of 1996 on my brother’s couch in Long Beach, California. I had just graduated from college and was discovering that it’s extremely difficult to find a job in the greater L.A. area without a car. I remember watching the evening news one night: four stories into the broadcast, almost as an afterthought, it mentioned a meteorite that seemed to strongly indicate the presence of life on Mars. I sat there bewildered that this news station actually considered two stories about the private life of O.J. Simpson more important than a discovery that we were probably not alone in the universe.

That was not my first lesson in the peculiar and fickle world of media prioritization, and it certainly would not be my last. This month, however, the lesson seems to be that shutting down an art museum because you are dead broke is much worse (and more newsworthy) than trampling on student and faculty free-speech rights repeatedly.

I am talking, of course, about Brandeis University, where President Jehuda Reinharz finally had to apologize for his arrogant and heavy-handed decision to close down its famous Rose Art Museum and sell its art in order to help deal with the university’s financial nosedive. Of course, the apology was not actually his (he hired an expensive PR firm to handle that), and it wasn’t really much of an apology anyway (he essentially told the community Brandeis was still probably going to shut down the museum and eventually sell most of the art). The whole kerfuffle was enough to catch the attention of the Associated Press, Reuters, UPI, The New York Times, Boston Globe, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Time magazine, CNN, and many other media outlets.

The media barely noticed, however, when, even in the context of the Rose Museum controversy, the university was caught red-handed telling students that they were not allowed to talk to the public about the case.

Meanwhile, in incidents met with comparatively little media interest, Brandeis University–a school named for almost certainly the most influential Supreme Court Justice on freedom of speech issues in our history–has engaged in acts of censorship so galling they could fill a half dozen Philip Roth novels. The case that I’ve hammered time after time in my posts concerns Professor Donald Hindley, who was found guilty of racial harassment for explaining and criticizing use of the word "wetbacks" in his Latin American politics class. While the school removed the monitor it had placed in Professor Hindley’s classes (presumably put there to prevent future imaginary cases of harassment) after the semester ended, Reinharz, showing the same arrogance and heavy-handedness he did with the Rose Museum donnybrook, still refuses to overturn the racial harassment finding. Why did Reinharz back down in the Rose Museum case, but not in the case of Donald Hindley? The major difference seems to be media coverage.

One could argue that the Rose Museum situation was genuinely more compelling, and the media just reflected that interest. Perhaps, for example, the student and faculty outrage distinguished it from Hindley’s case. That would be a good argument if it were true. The problem is that students and faculty were in open revolt about the treatment of Hindley and numerous other violations of the university’s glowing but unrealized promises of freedom of speech.

One could also argue that after so many instances of censorship on campus over the years, cases like Hindley’s may simply no longer be considered shocking. This may be true, and if so, I worry deeply for our society. Censorship on college campuses should be especially galling to our sensibilities as a society, not considered benign non-events. After all, these actions not only are brazenly unconstitutional at public colleges, and in stark violation of contractual promises at most private colleges, but they also involve the lives and reputations of real students and professors.

Rather than wait for the media to give this case the attention it deserves or the trustees (all of whom were directly sent letters about the Hindley incident, virtually all of which were ignored), my colleagues at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have written some terrific pieces about how the current scandal is part of a larger pattern of misbehavior by the Reinharz administration. One of those articles, authored by Adam Kissel, appeared yesterday in the student newspaper, and I can hardly wait to see if the administration bothers to respond. Another piece, authored by Harvey Silverglate and Will Creeley, is up on "Minding the Campus."

Silverglate and Creeley really hit the nail on the head with the conclusion of their article:

Brandeis’ president and his administration appear to have not heeded the lessons from powerful executives in other arenas of American life. Leaders who believe that their high positions endow them with both infallible wisdom and unfettered authority all too frequently wreak great destruction on their institutions and, incidentally, on their own reputations. Only too late do these leaders realize that inevitable downfall follows executive hubris.

Well said. Now I just hope people are paying attention and will demand that Brandeis University live up to the life and words of that champion of free speech for which they are named, Justice Louis Brandeis. It’s your turn, President Reinharz: it’s about time Brandeis University undoes the injustice it committed against Donald Hindley. I hear that while the first apology is the hardest, the rest are comparatively easy.

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Schools: Brandeis University