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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Brandeis will stay on Red Alert list

Published: September 25, 2009
Section: Opinions

One would think that with a title like Office of Student Rights and Advocacy, this newly reconstituted Student Union organization would be concerning itself with righting the many abuses of student rights and trust that I wrote about extensively a few weeks ago. Indeed, I naively wrote that the increased visibility of this organization was a promising sign that students would be asserting their rights on campus to a greater degree. So, imagine my shock when OSRA director Lev Hirschorn ’11 approached me in Usdan last week and informed me that one of the first actions taken by the committee this year was to write an e-mail to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education arguing that Brandeis should be removed from FIRE’s Red Alert list because of our excellent record of protecting student speech rights!

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that a subsidiary of the Student Union—the same organization that several years ago passed a vitriolic resolution condemning students for publishing an offensive satirical advertisement and urging the administration to consider disciplinary sanctions—a subsidiary that is tasked with defending student rights would instead become an apologist for administrative policy. Over my years at Brandeis I have become a jaded cynic with regard to Union decisions. I know that the Student Union is traditionally more concerned with public relations and looking good than getting substantive change. Still—in part because Hirschorn’s actions confirmed to me that when activists from “outsider” websites such as get elected into power they are quick to abrogate the principles that propelled them into power—this action stood out as particularly inane and disappointing.

Student Union President Andy Hogan ’11 and OSRA director Lev Hirschorn among others argued in their e-mails to FIRE that the referendum passing of the Student Bill of Rights and the success of students in bringing controversial activist Bill Ayers to campus are indicators that all is well at Brandeis, that the administration is clearly supporting students’ rights, and that FIRE should take Brandies off its “worst of the worst” list.

There are several major problems and inconsistencies with this train of logic. The first is that FIRE put Brandeis on its Red Alert list because of a specific and yet to be resolved case. Indeed, FIRE has a very visible article with a specific web link featured in a recent ad run in both the Justice and The Hoot, saying exactly what Brandeis must to do to get off the Red Alert list. These actions directly concern the case of Donald Hindley. While I have written much about the Hindley case, the lack of resolution continues. Harassment is still on Hindley’s official record, and the substantive dispute between the Faculty Senate and the administration was at best glossed over. Indeed, the lack of faculty involvement in the lead-up to the initial announcement to close the Rose Art Museum clearly showed that a proper balance between faculty and the administration had yet to be struck. Yet, despite these underlying problems, all the Brandeis Administration has to do to get Brandeis off the Red Alert list is acknowledge that Hindley’s due process rights were abused and remove the letter that declared him guilty of making “inappropriate, racial, and discriminatory” statements in class. It really is as simple as that.

Yet, getting Brandeis off FIRE’s Red Alert list is just a beginning to mending the Administration’s dismal record regarding academic freedom and individual rights at Brandeis. If it is taken off the Red Alert list, Brandeis would still likely be coded as Red under FIRE’s rating system. This is because merely addressing the Hindley case does not change the fact that the Administration’s harassment policies ban a great deal of expression that would be protected speech on any public campus.

Moreover, the administration considers itself a sole decision maker without the need to respect the rights of anyone else involved. The “Student Bill of Rights” is actually a great example of this. The Union was able to make a big show by passing this bill of rights, but the administration of course views it as non-binding and will still side with the less protective language of Rights and Responsibilities in a dispute. For instance, the Student Bill of Rights stated that students had the right to see all evidence against them before a trial, while the Rights and Responsibilities only promised students the right to see evidence during a trial. A magnet put out by the Union promoting the Bill of Rights was changed in favor of the administration’s language. This student declaration is thus ultimately without force or authority. A Student Bill of Rights that does not actually expand or protect rights is not evidence of an improvement in the protection of students’ rights or a substantive change worth bragging about. The Student Bill of Rights is still NOT a part of the Rights and Responsibilities. When it becomes part of it, then maybe the Union will have ground to brag, but not before that day.

Likewise, students were able to get Bill Ayers to campus, but this was only after the administration attempted to impose an outrageous security fee and to censor speech in that fashion. We are too quick to forget the removal of Palestinian artwork several years ago, or the embarrassment the administration brought to Brandeis over its response to Jimmy Carter’s visit. Has anything actually changed in those few years? Has the administration ever admitted it acted wrongly in any of these instances? Has a statement protecting the rights of students and faculty ever been clearly articulated by the administration?

Substantially, it comes down to this question: Have any measures been put in place that could prevent the administration from charging another student or professor with “harassment” based on heresay evidence or from violating clearly stated due process rights? What we have today is at best a truce, a ceasefire, and certainly not something worth bragging about. Rights protected out of convenience and without force cannot truly be declared rights at all.