Administration updates policies on student protests and diversity, equity and inclusion

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September 6, 2019

President Ronald Liebowitz responded to calls for university action to address issues pertaining to Brandeis students of color on Aug. 28 in an email to the Brandeis community. 

“This has been a year of growth for Brandeis,” said Liebowitz in his email. “Last fall, through the Independent Investigators’ report on campus climate, we learned that the university had fallen short of our aspirations in upholding standards of equity and fairness. Since then, we have taken a number of actions toward strengthening our commitments in this area.”

In a following email on Aug. 29, Provost Lisa Lynch and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stewart Uretsky expanded on university actions taken, which included a mental health review, ombud staffing, reporting of complaints, the public release of data and evaluation of the student conduct board. Additional policies addressed in the email also included a changing policy on room inspection, revision of the student handbook on posted notices, changes in policies on campus protests and demonstrations, increases in transportation equitability and accessibility and increases in Department of Community Living (DCL) and Public Safety accountability for the safety and overall well-being of students. 

The administrators were responding to students protesting under the name #StillConcernedStudents in the spring at the end of the past academic year. These students led a protest on May 1 in which they marched to the administrative building, Bernstein Marcus, and read a series of demands.

The demands included increased transparency from DCL, the end to excessive policing of students of color, further transportation options for low-income students and students of color, the use of police body cameras and a statement from the university in solidarity with two simultaneous protests at Johns Hopkins and Yale University against racialized policing and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). 

The Brandeis Hoot reached out to students involved in the spring protest, but they did not respond by press time.

The University meets with students

Liebowitz, Lynch and Stewart Uretsky met in early May with the #StillConcernedStudents. Five students, Professor Chad Williams and Michelle Thomas, an academic advisor, were present at the meeting. 

In the meeting, the group spoke about a posted banner that said “Fossil Fuels or Our Future” and its subsequent removal by the university. While the protest last spring began at the top of the Rabb steps, student activists were working early that morning to hang banners outside of Usdan. The banner was removed by university police, who compiled a report on the incident, according to the Brandeis police log. 

This led some students to question why these banners were removed, according to Liebowitz, while banners from a climate activism group on campus hung just two weeks prior remained up for several days.

Liebowitz spoke about the banners in an interview with The Hoot.

Liebowitz said, “We spent some time on the banner removal. There was a lot of upset about that, we acknowledged there was an error there. We were in error there, and it’s something we’re very much going to look at and try to address in terms of education of our policies.”

In their meeting, the students also stated their disapproval with Liebowitz’s May 3 email to the university following the May 1 protest and other issues that had been brought up at the protest. Liebowitz told The Hoot that a major issue that was discussed at their meeting was how room searches were conducted. 

Student protesters called for mandated “informed consent for DCL room inspections,” independent advocates that can inform students of color of their rights if a student has been accused of violating a code of conduct and a third party investigation into potential racial bias among code violation reports. 

DCL will report to Vice Provost of Student Affairs Raymond Lu-Ming Ou, who will work with DCL to assess when non-emergency room inspections will happen, who will be notified and what the goals will be. There is interest from the Branda app team—a Brandeis informational mobile app—to be helpful in the process of scheduling room inspections. 

Student protestors also asked that “If quota systems exist in regards to student conduct and punishment, we want to be informed, and ask that this process be eradicated as it disproportionately targets Black and Brown, and immigrant students.” 

The administration said that they were not aware of any quota systems for conduct reports and that the concern did not come up in their May meeting with the students. 

The students also called for the end of “excessive policing of student of color organizations on campus,” Brandeis police officers to begin using body cameras and strengthening community engagement with students of color. 

Uretsky said that there was no evidence of policing of students of color. He said, following an independent investigation into the campus’ culture and climate following the athletics investigation, that there wasn’t anything that supported a claim of excessive policing.

Another area where students raised concern was on the composition of students on the Student Conduct Board. Three issues presented were how to make the board more diverse, what kinds of training they receive, and if it is a conflict of interest to be a resource for students who are facing student conduct charges and serving on the board. The university plans to recruit more students to the board to address these concerns.  

“A lot of this is meant to be ongoing dialogue with the folks on campus and the Dean of Students office,” said Liebowitz. “The goal here is not to squash free speech but to make this campus an open campus where people can raise concerns in a way that’s safe, that we’re not having people hanging from dangerous places putting up banners, so we’re engaged in the dialogue,” said Lynch. “People can protest, but we’re doing it in a way that’s safe for the community.” 

Liebowitz said that the appeal doesn’t necessarily have to go to the Dean of Students office. 

“Even free speech has limits,” said Liebowitz. “I think that’s where we’re trying to strike the balance. We’re not trying to quell civil disobedience or protest, we think that’s part of the students’ education and a part of our history, and it’s also important in higher education.”

Student protestors also called for expanded transport options other than police cruisers in instances of emergencies, transportation routes for students who, financially, cannot travel home during academic recesses and expanding transport routes, such as the BranVan, from the Brandeis campus to Market Basket Plaza in order to reduce costs and food insecurity for low income students.

Brandeis is now supplying two preliminary routes to Market Basket Plaza Mondays through Fridays, between noon and 4 p.m. and on-campus and Waltham service during holidays and recesses, from noon to midnight daily. 

“One of the reasons when talking about some of the transportation issues, we were deliberate in suggesting that these be pilot programs because we’re looking for community input on how well they’re working, whether or not we’re hitting the mark in terms of hours of operation, for example,” said Uretsky. “All of this is subject to continual improvement and feedback.”

The preliminary estimate for the mini-coach vehicle for on-campus and Waltham service during defined holidays and recesses is approximately $1,200 per day, and the administration is working to see whether they can make the Market Basket Plaza route expansion cost neutral through other savings, according to Assistant Vice President for Communications and External Relations Max Pearlstein.

New hires, new training

Lynch said that much of the summer was focused on hiring the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, the new Athletic Director and the Vice President for Operations, who has control over areas such as transportation and public safety, which was a large component of this conversation, according to Uretsky. 

Liebowitz, Lynch and Uretsky also discussed additional training for higher level Brandeis administrators, conducted by Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington, who specializes in senior leadership in institutions and assessed group dynamics and unconscious biases in the administration. 

Washington began training administrators who report directly to Liebowitz after an independent investigation into Brandeis athletics—the result of the Brandeis’ men’s basketball coach being fired for racially discriminating against players—as was announced in a November 2018 email from the president.

Washington returned monthly and conducted four group sessions with the senior administrative team, and every member of the senior team had at least two individual sessions. The topics included white supremacy, institutional racism, microaggressions, white fragility and organizational dynamics related to demographic changes over time, according to Pearlstein.

Looking Forward

Lynch said that she reached out to some of the concerned students to organize a meeting and introduce them to some of the new faculty and administration. They plan to continue to meet with those students and other students that have ideas. The concerned students were not involved in the policy changes since they were away during the summer, but the administration received concrete suggestions for policy change during their original meeting, according to Liebowitz.

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