Welcome back to Brandeis, and if you’re a first-year, welcome to Brandeis. As those of us who are returning are all aware, there are a lot of first-years this year. In fact, it is the largest class—ever—in the history of the university. I’ve been working with them as an Orientation Leader, and I can tell you from experience that there are some absolutely incredible people in the class of 2026. With this influx of students, however, there come challenges that the university as a whole—that means administration, education, grounds and facilities, the student union, student-run organizations and the students themselves—must meet and overcome if we are to have a successful year.
First and foremost, it is no secret that we have more lofted triples (AKA forced triples) in the first-year dorms than ever before. By nature, this is going to lead to an increase in tension and conflict between roommates; regardless of whether or not it is right, this is our current reality. These conflicts can be reduced by vigilance from the students: clear and continual communication with your roommates to make the best of the situation. However, that is not a substitute for what this means for the Department of Community Living (DCL): the efficiency of their operation, the professionalism of their conduct and the promptness of their correspondence cannot afford to be diminished in any way. This charge is made harder by the simple reality that DCL is short-staffed for the amount of people that they need to look after. DCL has an incredible challenge before them; they need to be supported by their colleagues in facilities, the Brandeis Contact Tracing Program and similar departments wherever possible. But they are not alone.
The burden set upon Brandeis Hospitality (as they prefer to be called; they are also Harvest Table or Brandeis Dining) is perhaps even greater than the charge before DCL. To start, they are new to Brandeis, and with that comes the natural challenges of growing and adapting to fill the hole left by our previous provider, Sodexo. Even if (and hopefully when) they rise to this occasion, they will be left to confront a similar reality as DCL: they do not have the necessary resources in staffing and facilities to support the population of students that rely on them. Despite this, it remains the expectation of the students and the university as a whole that they fulfill their charge as outlined by the contract they have with Brandeis to provide food. There is no room for error: there is an increased number of students with dietary needs and dietary restrictions, and those needs and restrictions must be met in full. Unfortunately, there have already been errors that Brandeis Hospitality has made: meat in the vegetarian food once, and lackluster support for those with allergies. Proper nutrition is vital to the health of students and their immune systems; malnutrition increases the chance and severity of infection from pathogens like the coronavirus. If the team at Brandeis Hospitality wishes to have a successful year, it is absolutely imperative that they communicate closely with their partners, chefs and suppliers to meet the needs of the students. Critically, these efforts, no matter how great, will not amount to the required level of success unless the needs of the students are defined by the students whom Brandeis Hospitality serves, without objection, interruption or manipulation.
The amount of students on campus is as much a boon for academic departments as it is a challenge. They will have more student interest than ever before, and class sizes will also be much larger than before. Where academics is most likely to fail is in the breakdown of communication between professors and TAs—with an increased workload, the proximity with which class leadership must work will have to be far closer than it has been allowed to be in previous years. This means that TAs must fulfill their obligations to their jobs, and their professors must support their TAs if they wish to be supported themselves. This also places a charge on the students in a set class, as they will have to support each other, their TAs and their professors. Students can do this by understanding that it may take longer than they think for a professor or TA to respond to an email, and that (especially in large, 200+ person lectures) the students should understand to email their TA before emailing a professor unless the professor says to email them directly. This cuts down on the amount of time a professor has to spend responding to questions that a TA can answer—and will make them quicker to respond to questions that only they can answer. Obviously, this is on a class-by-class basis, and I also want to make very clear that this policy is not new: it has always existed. But it has never been fully respected or understood by every student, and we can no longer afford such inconsistency. Similarly, students have to feel comfortable watching lectures online if they are unable to attend because of health or especially COVID-19 related reasons. Classes are a place where we can effectively control and eliminate the spread of COVID-19; this we all know. It is more important than ever to actually do so; this responsibility rests on the shoulders of the professors, departments and ultimately, the administration. Should the administration not adequately listen to its faculty, not only will they have made a mistake we cannot afford to make, they will place at risk the entire community.
One critical circumstance of this semester, and one that the university and students seem to be largely (and painfully) unconcerned about, is the continual presence of COVID-19 in our community. While the pandemic is not as bad as it once was, it continues to infect people. Brandeis has got to take it more seriously than they have been this semester—and that includes students, academics and administrators. That means masking while indoors, distancing, you know the rest. You’ve done this before, in high school or at Brandeis, and you can do it again. If you feel sick, test yourself; if you’re positive, let the people around you and the university know. It is basic human decency to do so. The university needs to allow people the space they need to let the virus run its course in infected persons, supporting their academic and personal needs wherever possible. Should they fail to do this, they will be failing every student who contracts COVID-19 over the course of this semester. Should students fail to follow the appropriate safety procedures as recommended by the university and requested by their peers according to personal preference, we will see a rise in cases that could balloon outside the capabilities of the university to handle. In such a circumstance, they would have very little choice but to go fully online with classes, or worse, to send students home in the middle of the semester. It is the shared responsibility of the students and the university to keep the spread of COVID-19 under control—and right now, both bodies are at risk of failing to meet these responsibilities in a way that is inappropriate and woefully unsustainable.
I want to stress: efficacy with flexibility. Professionalism with compassion. Coordination with understanding. The university as a whole must be flexible, compassionate and understanding to students, faculty and administration when they contract COVID-19 or otherwise misstep. If we are to be successful this year, we must prioritize the importance of treating each other with the basic human decency according to individual needs that must be met. Similarly, where we cannot afford to slip up, we also cannot afford to be rigid in policy or communication. This environment is a fluid, dynamic thing, and it is the responsibility of all who are a part of it to react to its changes in direction or health with grace and forethought. The challenge that we have set ourselves is grand. Regardless of who set it, it is incumbent upon us all to see this semester reach fruition to the expectations and hopes we all have for it. The failure or unwillingness of any part of this community to carry their part of this burden will mean others have more weight upon their shoulders. The particular threat to the success and happiness of this semester posed by COVID-19 is significant and underappreciated. Where failing to meet the requirements we have set for ourselves in some areas may result in some nasty consequences, those failures will also make COVID-19 that much harder to control. DCL must do the best job it can, and Brandeis Hospitality cannot afford to make any more errors; if these entities cannot meet the requirements incumbent upon them, they will place the community at an appreciably greater risk to COVID-19. And should we, as a community, fail to control the spread of COVID-19 on this campus, the consequences will be severe and we will have failed ourselves.