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Alumni honored for activist contributions

Alumni honored for activist contributions

By Emily Sorkin Smith

Section: Featured, News

October 30, 2015

Roy DeBerry ’70 MA ’78 Ph.D. ’79 and Susan Weidman Schneider ’65 were awarded the highest distinction for alumni in the Faculty Lounge on Saturday, Oct. 24. DeBerry, an activist and part of the student-led occupation of Brandeis’ Ford Hall in 1969, and Schneider, editor-in-chief of Lilith, a Jewish Feminist magazine, were given their awards by Interim President Lisa Lynch as part of Family Weekend.

Both DeBerry and Schneider sat down for interviews with The Brandeis Hoot before the ceremony started. Their experiences at Brandeis, though different from that of current students, were defined by many of the same issues Brandeis now faces. Creating an accepting and socially just campus environment was one of their most important struggles.

DeBerry has continued his efforts in fighting racial injustice after leaving Brandeis, co-founding the Hill Country Project, which collects oral histories from people who lived through the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. He was the president of the Brandeis Afro-American Society during the Ford Hall occupation, a movement in which he played a key role.

DeBerry stressed the spirit of inquiry he honed during his time at Brandeis.“Brandeis encouraged me to question and not just accept things, to be a skeptic,” he said.

For Schneider, like DeBerry, questioning norms was another important part of her Brandeis education. “Brandeis was a place for inquiry, and I think that the skills that I gained here as an inquiring mind, as someone who was encouraged to ask a lot of questions and to look for what was going on behind the facts was a useful education.”

The feminist environment on campus, when Schneider was an undergraduate, was much different from what exists now. “Brandeis was a very interesting place to be as a female students in the early ’60s because it was an era when the [Ivy League universities] were closed to women,” Schneider explained.

The consciousness of feminism has grown, and the number of female faculty members has gotten considerably larger. She spoke of nepotism rules prohibiting husbands and wives to serve on the faculties of the same department, sometimes forcing the women to step down.
“There was the kind of sexism that one might have taken it for granted,” she said.

Most of the professors whom Schneider described as being worshipped by students were male. She recalled an incident when she and a male professor were discussing sexual harassment in the context of cat-calling. The professor had suggested to her that she take these advances as flattery, something most would now consider inappropriate.

Both honorees stressed the increased diversity that Brandeis sees now. As DeBerry attested, Brandeis has not always been very diverse, saying, “You could pretty much count the people of color on your hand.”

When asked about the university’s polarization of social justice and student initiatives that are unpopular with the administration, such as the reinstatement of the Al-Quds partnership, DeBerry said, “It’s one thing to say a statement, social justice, but how do you operationalize it?”

“You operationalize it by doing things,” he argued. “If you look around and you see there is not the kind of equity, the kind of human rights and educational rights and diversity that there ought to be, then you change it to reflect the statement.”

The conflict between students and administration over certain issues has remained noteworthy after DeBerry and Schneider graduated. The Al-Quds partnership, which former President Frederick Lawrence suspended in 2013, is one such conflict. The program created an academic and social link between Brandeis and the Palestinian Al-Quds University. Students and faculty have since been working to re-instate this partnership, encouraging Lawrence and now Interim President Lisa Lynch to reinstate the partnership. Lawrence’s suspension of the partnership has created some tension between its proponents and the administration.

Tension, in DeBerry’s view, is to be expected when people try to change their institution. “Anything you engage in now that’s going to really change in a significant way the status quo, you’re going to get push-back,” he argued.

Alumni Achievement Awards have been given, in past years, to Olympic Fencer Tim Morehouse ’00, author and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin ’59 and a number of other distinguished members of the Brandeis community.

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