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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Concerns voiced but barely addressed in public forum

Published: March 21, 2014
Section: Front Page, News

On Thursday, March 20, a group of students and other members of the Brandeis community gathered in the Shapiro Admission Center’s presentation space to participate in a public forum between representatives of the university’s administration and themselves. Thursday’s forum centered around contentious issues including student meal plans, tuition, executive compensation and Brandeis’ transparency around such topics. Students asked a diverse set of questions, though the administration’s answers seemed to follow a general pattern.

The event was announced by Student Union President Ricky Rosen ’14 via email, citing “a number of concerns from [the student body] on some prominent issues” as the reason for holding the forum. Rounded out by apple cider and brownies, the forum was formatted in two hour-long parts; the first hour consisted of a contained panel discussion, and the second hour was a question and answer session between guests and the panel.

The panel was made up of three members of the Graduate Student Association (GSA), three members of the Student Union, including Rosen, with Senior Vice President of Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel and Brandeis Senior Vice President for Communications Ellen de Graffenreid representing the administration. The panel began with a discussion on student concerns with the Brandeis dining system, focusing on the large changes brought with the university’s provider switch from Aramark to Sodexo, as well as problems with meal plans reported by students.

One of the most significant issues discussed by the panel was the uneven equivalency between Brandeis currency and actual money, something Flagel said the administration was “hugely dissatisfied with.” Another concern was the issue of students living off campus and in Ridgewood suites, who rarely use on-campus meals and often pay more for housing, yet will still be required to have meal plans. Flagel asserted that such issues were all part of “creating a great and memorable dining experience.”

“There has been a huge improvement in student participation,” added de Graffenreid. “But people in my and [Flagel’s] position would prefer if the Student Union started submitting thoughtout systems for those kinds of issues.” She said that this way there would already be a student-friendly system in place, rather than the Student Union simply waiting for complaints to come in.

Flagel also said that the administration is at the moment “trying to spread [the dining] model to as many students as possible.” “Remember, we’re talking about a system that doesn’t yet exist,” he concluded. “There are going to be a huge amount of changes in the next two years, what with renovations to all the dining halls.”

The next topic brought up by the panel was the issue of budget transparency, specifically around Brandeis’ executive compensation policy and the large amounts of money given to former president Jehuda Reinharz. It was announced that current President Fred Lawrence received close to $1 million per year in 2012 and 2013.

As reported by The Hoot this January, Brandeis now provides information on said payments to the faculty almost immediately after the Board of Trustees approves them, though the student body still has to wait for Brandeis to release its tax information for the year to see the full numbers. The policy, which has been met by increasing student opposition, including recent protests and online petitions, was defended by Flagel and de Graffenreid, the latter stating “[Brandeis is] possibly the most transparent when it comes to executive compensation.” Flagel supported this, adding that Brandeis’ budget is unaffected by the policy.

The question and answer section of the event yielded similar answers from the panel. Questions came from different groups, including student senators, regular students and clubs. The most vocal of these groups was the Brandeis Labor Coalition, represented at the forum by Andrew Nguyen ’15 and Marissa Budlong ’14. Nguyen and Budlong both asked detailed questions about issues such as executive compensation and student debt, even questioning if Brandeis courted executive faculty with money, rather than social justice.

These sentiments were echoed in other students’ questions, including those from Charles River Senator Michael Stein, who wondered why President Fred Lawrence rarely attends public forums and similar events.

Flagel and de Graffenreid reiterated several times that Brandeis has lower averages of student debt than most universities, and that students should reach out to their representatives, who voice concerns directly to the Board of Trustees. They also mentioned that though President Lawrence is currently in New York, he holds office hours during the week and is available by appointment.

The forum ended with a reception and refreshments.