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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Maestro of Dissent: Give students a voice

Published: October 23, 2009
Section: Opinions

Regular readers know that I have hardly been the most passionate defender of the Student Union, but I have to give credit when it’s due. Student Union President Andy Hogan ‘11 has been doing an excellent job of fighting to ensure that students have a say in the process of selecting a replacement to University President Jehuda Reinharz. In recent weeks, there have been unfortunate suggestions that students should not have a say in this process, and it is encouraging to see a Student Union leader fighting for student involvement in this critical time.

Indeed, one thing that I have learned in my years at Brandeis is that students are not the President’s first priority. President Reinharz did not attend the class of 2010’s orientation in person, for instance, because he had pressing business concerns. In four years I’ve seen him perhaps a half dozen times. Indeed, his absence has been more notable than his presence. His conveniently “unalterable plans” on the day of former President Jimmy Carter’s visit stand out in particular as an infamous display of cowardice.

It is this absence that created such a void that allowed for such abusive and questionable decisions as the Hindley case, Student Activities Fund changes, or the attempt to close the Rose Art Museum to occur without consultation or consent. Students and faculty took a backseat to lofty fundraising goals. While the latter skyrocketed, trust between students and faculty and the administration hit new lows. The increased academic prestige and fundraising success of Brandeis is an accomplishment to be proud of, but the corrosive and deteriorating relations are not.

Reinharz is not the first president to make the mistake of not listening clearly to student voices. Former President Evelyn Handler’s attempts in the 1980s in “dejudification,” as her critics called it, was especially notable for its lack of student input. Handler forgot to actually ask the student body whether they felt Brandeis should reduce emphasis on its Jewish roots. The result was uproar among students and the Jewish community that led to Handler’s resignation.

It seems like University leaders learned all the wrong lessons from this incident. While attempting to untangle the paradox of a “non-sectarian Jewish University” is of course problematic and bound to upset people, the biggest problem was the unilateral and unexpected decision on the part of the administration. Interestingly, this is the same combination that led to the explosive and debilitating Rose Art fiasco this year. It seems that our administration has yet to learn the value of consultation with students and faculty.

The only way to get the kind of accountability needed is to give students and faculty a vital stake in selecting the new university leader. The trustees involved will likely be the same ones who supported the Rose decision and did not speak up during other administration debacles. Thus, a significant change is dependant on the involvement of outsiders. The faculty is going to be given one or two slots on the roughly ten-person search committee, which is satisfactory but seems like a bare minimum to me. Students, on the other hand, have not been involved in the search committee. There will be advisory committees of students and faculty involved in the process, but their role has yet to be clearly defined.

President Hogan should work with the search committee to ensure that the student advisory committee has a real impact on the process. Unfortunately, as I’ve written about in the past, the Union has a history of forming neutered committees that do nothing. The student committee should be intimately involved in the selection and interview process even if its members do not have a final vote. The faculty should likewise work to ensure that its advisory committee is representative of the will of the Faculty Senate and that it gets a voice in the proceedings.