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Debating the Great Questions at Brandeis: A Look Forward

With orientation sessions, meet-and-greets, and motivational speeches, college and university leaders are ushering in the Class of 2014. One such welcome message, delivered this past Sunday by Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz to the school's freshman class, caught FIRE's attention. Here's a portion of Reinharz's address, as reported by the Boston Globe:

"The next four years of your life are going to be, in my view, the best of your life. They are going to be a real new beginning for all of you," Reinharz said to students and their families, according to a statement released by the university. "You're going to be able to debate the great questions that have been debated by every generation before you and new ones that my generation and your parents['] generation never even dreamed of."

That is, unless these debates happen to offend someone's sensibilities. It is well-documented fact that, under the current Brandeis administration, the wrong words can be grounds to shut down debate. This was made especially apparent in the case of Brandeis Professor Donald Hindley, whose critique of the racial epithet "wetbacks" in his Latin American politics course led to his being found guilty of harassment in 2008.

As Torch readers know, FIRE has long pushed for Brandeis to right this wrong. That's because, in the course of Hindley's mistreatment, not only was academic freedom grossly violated, but so too was due process. Without ever getting an official statement of the words that caused the controversy, the nearly 50-year teaching veteran was found guilty by the Brandeis administration, and a monitor was placed in his classroom. When he attempted to appeal, Provost Marty Krauss responded that the matter was simply "closed."

Reinharz's steadfast refusal to acknowledge Hindley's innocence only adds to the irony of his professed commitment to "debat[ing] the great questions." And as far as "new ones that my generation and your parents['] generation never dreamed of," how can students and professors push the outer bounds of debate when certain discussions are subject to punishment?

Reinharz's tenure is set to end this January. Perhaps his successor, Fred Lawrence, currently dean of the George Washington University Law School, will have a different take. From FIRE's vantage point, there could be no better way for Lawrence to begin his presidency than by revoking the finding that Hindley made "inappropriate, racial, and discriminatory" statements. It would go a long way toward removing Brandeis from our list of Red Alert schools and, more importantly, toward living up to the promises Brandeis makes to incoming students.

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