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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Interview with Jehuda Reinharz

Published: April 15, 2005
Section: News

THE HOOT: Did you write the response that he posted online?

JEHUDA REINHARZ: It wasnt a response. I didnt respond. I sent an e-mail to John [Hose] which unfortunately I punched the wrong key, but it was not a response.

THE HOOT: Your final response was posted online.

JR: I am glad I get so much publicity, thats fantastic.

THE HOOT: Why did you want to know about the scholarship?

JR: Because he in his email to me, mentioned at least 3 times money issues. When somebody writes to me about money issues repeatedly and about the fact that his money has been misspent by the university, I do fact checking. I fact check any time somebody says to me A, B, C and D and Ive done this and that, I always check and so I sent an e-mail to John and figured maybe the guy has real financial difficulties, maybe his family couldnt meet those expenses. I wanted to know if, sometimes students think that they are not on scholarship and they actually are on scholarship because of loans or other things so thats the reason.

THE HOOT: What do you think of the allegations in his e-mail for instance about the ice rink?

JR: As far as I know, from Mr. French, students came to Jean Eddy or Rick Sawyer or whatever and said they wanted to have an ice rink. So they thought it was a good idea and built the ice rink. If Mr. Snyder does not use skates, well, what can I do? Hes not the only student here.

THE HOOT: Have you gotten many complaints about commencement speaker?

JR: No. Maybe three, four, not more than any other year. Also got lots of complements. Every year, doesnt matter what happens, its been my twelfth year and this year is no different than any other year.

THE HOOT: What are you thoughts about the compliments and complaints?

JR: You know, I think that what students, faculty, staff, administrators and trustees for that matter all have to know is that there is a process. The process is a very careful process anybody can nominate anybody. A nomination comes up, it comes to the committee. It has to be a reasoned recommendation so people can actually deal with it. The committee deals with it, if it's [voted] down, the name never appears again. If it's [voted] up the name goes to the Board of Trustees, the Board of Trustees hears the reasoning, votes on it.

I think whats also important for students to know is that [there are] at least two student representatives who participate in it and have as much say as anybody else. It then goes into a pool. So students can nominate anybody they want, except Ive told students over and over again: You cant just send me an e-mail and say, by the way here is a good guy for you to look at. I am not going to do the research on this guy. If somebody feels passionate about somebody being nominated, theyve got to do the research, theyve got to write it up just like any trustee. I dont accept [e-mail requests] from trustees either. If a trustee writes to me and asks you know, how about Joe Schmo? I say too bad. Write it up, cause otherwise we cant really discuss it.

JOHN HOSE: They have a specific protocol that they have to provide a letter with a written protocol basically saying why is it this individual among all of the individuals in the same category.

JR: But let me tell you what the problem is. The problem is in order to create that pool of honorary degree recipients, Ive got to start the process, very often, two years in advance. The problem with that is peoples plans, life changes. Sometimes they die like in the case of Jack Lemmon who died a few weeks before commencement a few years ago. Sometimes they were in favor two years in the past, but by the time theyve come up [to speak] theyve fallen from grace. Its a very difficult process. If students or anybody else is interested and if there is somebody in particular they want to see at their graduation, they need start well in advance and even then, there is no guarantee that theyll be there.

JH: There are also some prominent people, not from Brandeis, who only accept for a very substantial fee. We dont pay anybody. The University does not pay. People expect $25k, $30k.

THE HOOT: Was Jon Stewart ever recommended?

JR: To the best of my knowledge, hes never been recommended.

JH: Two e-mails have now come in, in the last 24 hours suggesting him. And the President asked me to write back to the two students to explain the process.

THE HOOT: Have you fact checked any of the other information in the e-mail?

JR: I was just beginning to fact check when all of a sudden, literally with in an hour, I realized that he already put it on the internet so at that point, I didnt pursue it. I figured I am going to write him back in the next two or three days, which is what I did. But he didnt give me a chance to write back. I cant fact check his emotions and his complaints. If he says he had four miserable years, my question would be, in four years you had no chance of airing your complaints? Five weeks prior to commencement you remember that youve had a miserable time at Brandeis? Looking at his web site, it looks like hes been having a very good time so I am just surprised he knows that there is so much human infrastructure herehe can come to my office hours any time, he can come to John hose, his advisors, he can go to student life. I cant believe that for four years, hes pent this all in and all of the sudden it came out five weeks before. There is something that doesnt make sense.

THE HOOT: Lets get back to the accuracy of his e-mail: In his e-mail he mentions that Harvard and UPenn have given honorary degrees to Will Farrell and Ali G weve found out that its not true.

JR: I didnt as I told you I started to fact check and then he surprised me by making this public. I just heard it this afternoon that Harvard has this year for commencement speaker an actor and apparently a lot of the students at Harvard are unhappy about it.

You know that I remember very clearly that my predecessor chose an honorary degree recipient Liv Ullmann. Many of the students have never heard of her but she came and gave the best commencement speech Ive ever heard. Its the first time Ive heard about ethnic cleansing. It was a very powerful speech. I think the beauty of an honorary degree ceremony is to bring people that the students dont know about. Do you want to see the same person you see all day long on television or do you want to learn something? Its a question we should all ask. Is it about entertainment? Is it about glitz? Is it about fame? If I brought a big sports person, would that make a difference? And I dont get the same answer from all the students. I get email from some students who are upset about the Justice and other think this is the best thing ever done. I think its not a bad idea to have a little discussion on the subject and use this as a catalyst.

THE HOOT: Do you think it speaks something of the Brandeis education when the student writes the president of the university and has a factual inaccuracy in every single paragraph?

JR: Let me put it this way to you. It wouldnt be the first time, and thats one of the reasons I do fact check. I Have people who write to me and say, and I swear to you Ive had 100s of these, my father was a founder of Brandeis. My father was the first trustee. Here they are (points to a picture on his wall of the first trustees), my father was an original trustee of the University. No one has every heard of him. The archives have no notice of him. But I always fact check because I dont want to write back and say yes your father was a great man or your father was a bum. So I fact check. I fact check everything. This wouldnt be the first time. People who write me and say, which happens quite often in the year, they are upset about something the University has done:

Ive supported you and given thousands and thousands of dollars every year and this is the last time youll ever get a penny. I check with development the often have not given a penny, not one penny. And sometimes I call people on that. Not often because I dont have time for this. And sometimes they apologize and say well I am sorry I made these claims, but most of the times I never hear from them again.

So I dont have the time in the day to fact check everything but what I try to do is I try to take the most emotional or strongest statement in the letter and check at least that and this is why I said to John to check on the scholarship.

THE HOOT: In your mind, what does an honorary degree from Brandeis mean?

JR: A person who receives an honorary degree from Brandeis to my mind is a person who reflects some of the values of the University. Do you know that I received one comment that really blew my mind on the degrees this year. One comment from one person said why do you have so many Brandeis graduates? I mean it really blows my mind. It would seem to me that students here would be thrilled that a Brandeis alumn is a Nobel Laurieat in chemistry and is probabably one of the best, well known authors in this country. I think people would be thrilled. So I dont understand a lot of the reactions. I also think that like in any kind of situation, the silent majority doesnt speak. When some people are really unhappy about something, theyll make of it whatever theyll make of it. But I think its healthy to have these discussions and debate them.

THE HOOT: Some of the allegations from an online blog about this email say that you wanted to know if he was on scholarship to see if you could revoke it, is that true?

JR: You know, on the face of it, it so idiotic. Lets assume for a second that I wanted to revoke it, I couldnt have revoked it five weeks before he graduates because hes already received it. So the idea is so idiotic.

THE HOOT: The other suggestion was that you wanted to see if he was on scholarship to see if he is worth to reply to as in there two different classes of citizens at Brandeis those on scholarship and those off is that true?

JR: If there is a student at Brandeis who can say he did not receive a reply from me, ever, Ill take him out to dinner. There isnt such a person on this campus. Now sometimes they have to wait two or three days, but there is not a single student or anybody, student staff, faculty or administrator who usually, Id say within 48 hours does not get a reply from me. Even when I am away. I can be out of a country, theyll receive a reply from me. So on the face of it its absurd.

THE HOOT: So you check your own e-mail?

JR: Absolutely.

You know, in 12 years, I messed up once. Actually, I may have messed up more but I dont know about it. Who knows where my e-mails have gone, but its been a good record and as I said if I got that kind of e-mail that harps so much on finances. Id do it again.

He actually says that his four years at Brandeis have been a waste. Its pretty sad. It really very sad and thats the spirit I wrote the email.

JH: Something else is going on. Its not just the question of Chief Justice Marshal. Something else is happening in his life that is provoking anger or upset or whatever and we want to find out what it is if we can.

THE HOOT: One of his other allegations is that Brandeis is, hindering the students from actually attempting to enjoy their college life, and one example this year was the rules placed on ModFest by the University and the subsequent cancellation until next week. Is this in fact true?

JR: You know, I just met with the woman who was going to be head of the Senate, Jenny Feinberg, and she raised the issue more generally speaking about parties I said to her that I have some sympathy for the fact. I didnt know that students have to actually apply ten days in advance to have a party. Ive taken it up immediately with Jean Eddy and so forth. I went to talk to her about that. I said why does it have to be ten days? It seems that its a very long period of time and even though I know that the police and others have to be prepared, ten days seems unreasonable to me. And we are going to examine it. Because I want students to also have some spontaneity so we have to weigh spontaneity versus safety and all the rest and I am sure well arrive at some equilibrium that makes sense.

JH: As well as home owners in the area who would like us to have a rest home atmosphere.

JR: Thats a different issue. I have sympathy with that. I dont know if our rules our stricter than others schools.