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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Defending the student code from criticism

Published: November 15, 2013
Section: Opinions

I come from Morris County, a very conservative part of New Jersey, where for the past 18 years, a Republican has represented my neighborhood and the area around it in Congress. The 11th district is stereotyped to be middle class white folks who are afraid of change and wish to maintain the status quo. In my own home, my father ate his oatmeal to “Fox and Friends,” listened to Rush Limbaugh at work and fell asleep to Bill O’Reilly. It was safe of me to assume that coming to Brandeis would be a whole different world where progressive ideas met diverse backgrounds and used free expression as a lubricant in their passionate peace-making. Yet, I have found that liberal critics of the school are present, and it seems to claim that Brandeis is the exact opposite of that liberal utopia I expected.

After researching for a recent article about the student code, I came across a foundation’s website that had listed Brandeis among the 12 worst colleges for free speech in the nation. It piqued my interest, as well as the little red stoplight they used to display how bad the university’s speech code was rated, based on prior practices and the current student code. I was surprised by this. Like any other college student, I have my reservations about the administration; I always want more and to forfeit less, but I viewed the school as willing to protect as many rights as possible, as well as being open to good, but not necessarily new, ideas.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in 2012 listed the university as one of the worst in the country in regards to protecting free speech. The majority of their grade was based on a single case from 2007 that involved faculty member Donald Hindley, as it was used in a short video produced by FIRE listing all 12 of the worst schools. Professor Hindley had explained the origins of the term “Wetbacks” to a class, and was condemned and found guilty of racial harassment for doing so. The problem with the case was that Hindley was not afforded a formal hearing by the administration nor was the basis of the accusations presented to him in writing. FIRE has every right to call out Brandeis on their handling of this case. I agree with them fully. Yet I do take issue with this being used in 2012 as an example of the dictatorial administration.

While a five-year-old case is still relatively young, one has to look at the context surrounding it to understand how relevant it is now. Since 2007, there has been a great deal of change in the administration here at Brandeis. Notably, a new president and provost have been put in place, and have certainly shown a different way of handling things compared to the old regime. Many other administrative positions have changed hands recently, some with controversy, some without, but Brandeis in 2013, and 2012 when this list was created, is a much different environment.

Delving deeper into the FIRE profile on Brandeis, they list all of the different areas of the student code that could be held to debate and grade them on their ever-so-official traffic light scale, where green means it does not inhibit free speech and red means it does. The majority of what was listed as part of their grading was ranked with an amber light, which is not good, but maybe should not constitute an entire red light grade for the school. The only policy they actually do list as red and “clearly and substantially reflects freedom of speech” is sexual misconduct information provided by the Department of Student Rights, which is not necessarily an official part of the student code that actually governs the students. They specifically highlight examples of sexual harassment listed, which include “subtle pressure for sexual activity,” “offensive sexual graffiti or cartoons” and “whistling, cat-calls, or obscene gestures”.

I am to believe that this section was called into the highest disregard due to its ambiguity in language. However, this phrasing has to be ambiguous in order to provide an umbrella over any activity not specifically stated. Even harassment itself is ambiguous, since it is defined by the accuser and how the actions affect their emotional state, an ambiguous place already. As previously mentioned, these examples are only provided as part of an effort to better inform students of what can be considered harassment, not what is declared as unethical by the student code and could be grounds for punishment. These words are not used to rule student behaviour.

Yet this is the section found to drop Brandeis from an amber light to a red light, according to FIRE, even though there are two areas they graded as a green light. If you look at it mathematically, you would say that the one green section would cancel out the red, and the average of the whole policy would be amber. Maybe FIRE needs to reassess their grading scale, because they state that even one red-lighted section gives the whole school a red-light, even if the rest of the policies are given the green-light. This should not be a bunch spoiled by a single rotten apple.
Even if FIRE were to change their grading scale, that would still leave Brandeis with an amber light. Maybe that is due to Brandeis being a very liberal school to begin with; substantially more liberal than the rest of the typically-liberal college community. Dean Gendron would let you know every day and twice on Sunday that the student code is what its name implies–the student code. While the actual student code is physically written by Gendron, input from students is always taken into consideration. There is also a panel, which includes students, that actively assesses the Rights and Responsibilities handbook yearly.

With that knowledge, it is fair to say that it is not the administration that is restricting the rights of the student body, as FIRE is all so eager to claim, but instead the students who might be too apathetic and ignorant about the student code to try to change it. Either way, the code does not have a death-grip on the rights of students; it is an ever-changing document that has to live up to the will of the community and provides protection for those that need it. Brandeis would not be any less vibrant a community if we were not allowed to draw vulgar cartoons on our friends’ notebooks.