Reaction to Brandeis University’s plan to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its esteemed collection was swift—and scathing. Within the Brandeis community, President Jehuda Reinharz’s proposed fire sale provoked howls of betrayal from students, faculty, alumni, and donors. In the art world and news media, the move was met with blistering condemnation. Even the Massachusetts attorney general’s office launched an investigation.
The press reported that Michael Rush, the Rose’s director, expressed "shame and deep regret" at the university’s plan. (Adding insult to injury, Rush was notified of Reinharz’s plan just an hour before the press release was issued.) In Rush’s assessment, by shuttering the Rose, Brandeis would place its "intellectual capital and very credibility as an institution of higher learning on the auction block." That the museum director was not involved in such a momentous decision is perhaps as revealing and important as the decision itself.
A strict adherent to the corporate model of university governance, Reinharz responded to the furor with an empty apology, expertly crafted by a public relations firm to sound palatable while leaving the decision largely intact. But the backlash against Reinharz’s announcement stems not only from its wrong-headedness, but also from the arrogance and lack of process with which the decision was made.
Brandeis is named after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, one of the Court’s most eloquent and oft-quoted champions of free speech and fair procedure. His admonitions on these subjects adorn plaques throughout the campus. Justice Brandeis’ celebrated commitment to individual rights is as much a part of the university’s legacy as the Lichtensteins and Warhols that hang (for now) in the Rose. But the shadows in which the administration has recently operated betray that legacy.
During the fall 2007 semester, Brandeis Professor Donald Hindley was accused of "racial harassment." His offense? Critiquing the use of the derogatory term "wetback" in his course on Latin American politics. For this, Hindley—a political liberal who had not received a single student complaint in his almost five decades of teaching—was summarily found guilty by Reinharz’s administration. Never mind that Hindley didn’t use the term pejoratively. Never mind that explaining the term in class doesn’t come close to meeting any rational harassment definition and is fully protected by academic freedom. Hindley’s mere discussion of the word in class was enough for Reinharz’s administration to find him guilty.
Making matters worse, Hindley was denied anything resembling a fair and rational process. (How else, after all, could such an academic use of a word be deemed "harassment"?) Hindley was subject to summary investigation without even being told precisely what words were deemed harassing. He was not allowed to comment on the investigatory report prior to its submission.
Soon after the report’s filing, Hindley was notified by Reinharz’s Provost Marty Krauss that he was guilty of harassment. As a consequence, Krauss informed Hindley that a monitor would observe his classroom until Krauss determined Hindley was "able to conduct [himself] appropriately in the classroom." Hindley appealed the punishment to the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities—an action which should have temporarily suspended the punishment and removed the monitor, according to university policy. But Krauss maintained the monitor for the semester.
Shocked by the administration’s blatant disregard for contractually-mandated procedure and a full professor’s academic freedom, Brandeis’ Faculty Senate passed an emergency resolution unanimously condemning the administration. Echoing the Senate, the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities issued reports concluding that the ruling was an abuse of power. Reinharz’s administration ignored the uproar. Instead, Krauss notified Hindley at the beginning of the spring 2008 semester that Brandeis considered the matter "closed." This unilateral declaration cut short Hindley’s pending appeal and left the guilty finding apparently intact.
Like the reaction to last week’s announcement about the Rose Art Museum, the fallout from Brandeis’ utter disregard for Hindley’s rights to free speech and fair process was intense and sustained. The Faculty Senate declared that the matter had "damaged the collegiality of our University, its academic and intellectual function, its faculty governance procedures, and its public reputation." Students were equally unhappy: the Justice, a student newspaper, observed that "the administration’s disregard for the voice of its faculty members means free speech is in serious jeopardy."
Hindley’s mistreatment continues to earn Brandeis negative reviews across the country. The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression awarded Reinharz’s administration a "2008 Jefferson Muzzle," citing the university’s "flagrant disregard of its patron’s timeless principles of free speech." The ACLU of Massachusetts and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education similarly chastised Brandeis.
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.