Faculty emails draw criticism
University President Frederick Lawrence responded to the recent publication of controversial comments made by faculty members over a restricted email list, called the “Concerned” listserv. The emails sent to the listserv, which was created in 2003 as a private forum for professors to express their concerns surrounding the Iraq War, and has since evolved to bring attention to other issues in recent years, were exposed by Daniel Mael ’15.
The listserv drew criticism from various news sources as emails from a number of Brandeis professors were publicized concerning controversial issues such as the war in Iraq and other United States involvement in the Middle East, as well as the University’s original selection of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a recipient of an honorary degree last semester.
The original article, which Mael posted on Breitbart News Network, an online news source, specifically quoted Profs. Mary Baine Campbell (ENG), Donald Hindley (POL), Bob Lange (PHYS) and Sabine Von Mering (GRALL). Hindley’s remarks were considered particularly inflammatory, one of which, according to the article, read: “Zionist olive trees grow wondrously on Palestinian corpses. In that way, we combine great trees with our own holocaustic ethnic cleansing.”
Although Mael would not comment on how he had access to the listserv, he said in an interview with the Justice that he was able to view all emails sent to the listerv. Mael said that he released the emails from the private listserv because he “had an obligation as a student,” and added that students and stakeholders “deserve to know” about these professors’ stances. “I put out the information and other people can decide,” he said. “My intents were in no way negative.”
Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC), one of the founding members of the listserv, said in an interview with the Justice that there are now about 100 members on the listserv, including faculty, students, alumni and other individuals who might have heard about and requested to be on the listserv.
He noted that not all members post, and that there are also a number of individuals with a variety of differing viewpoints that are a part of the listserv.
Fellman did say that he had previously asked one professor to “tone it down,” Fellman said. “You write within the range of what is tactful … and he didn’t." However, he explained that the articles portraying the listserv “characterize the list as represented by these few postings,” which, he said, is “simply not true.”
Mael, however, explained that he needed to share what these professors were saying, regardless. “There are some very nice, very great professors here. In no means am I attempting to overlook that. But it’s unfortunate that great scholars are potentially grouped with some radicals,” Mael said.
Several national online news sources, including the Washington Free Beacon, the New York Observer, the Daily Caller and the National Review Online, picked up the story and wrote reaction pieces to the emails as reported in the original article.
Lawrence wrote a public letter, which was posted as a community message on the University’s website on July 28, to faculty in response to the listserv and the criticism it garnered. In the letter, he urges everyone to “repudiate [the] statements” made by the public media. He acknowledged that some of the remarks included “anti-Semitic epithets, personal attacks, denigration of the Catholic faith, and the use of crude and vulgar terms in discussions about Israel,” but emphasized that these statements do not represent Brandeis University as a whole.
He went on to note that “it is necessary for us all to take responsibility for debating and challenging opinions with which we disagree in a full, open, civil and decent manner.”
Lawrence then charged the faculty with condemning “disrespectful, offensive and inflammatory expression when we encounter it,” adding that “this [condemnation] is particularly true when particular statements of a very small number of individuals threaten to mischaracterize our community as a whole.”
However, Lawrence wrote that both he and the University “maintain our staunch support of freedom of expression and academic inquiry.”
Mael thought that Lawrence’s reaction was appropriate in condemning “the ridiculous comments,” saying that what he said was “not a violation of free speech. You’re allowed to say that.” He explained that Lawrence is in a “very tough” position, and attributed much of this to tenure.
Lange, one of the professors who was singled out in the press, expressed concerns about Lawrence’s response in an interview with the Justice.
“I think he’s not very thoughtful about what the real deep issues are and he should not feel the need to separate the University from what was going on,” he said. “I think there was no controversy. Some right-wing Zionist got a hold of some old emails, decided to use them to humiliate some critics of Israel.”
Campbell, another professor who was mentioned in the press, wrote in an email to the Justice that her first reaction upon reading the Lawrence’s letter was “one of sorrow and shock.”
She wrote that in 43 years as a student, professor and research fellow in colleges and universities in the U.S. and Britain, she has not experienced “so direct a challenge to academic freedom issued by a president.”
“A president’s special charge is to preserve and protect the space of free exchange and inquiry that is a university,” she wrote. “[A] university president resists [pressure from the society at large] to protect an institution whose raison d’etre is free inquiry,” Campbell wrote.
Prior to the release of Lawrence’s response, former Senior Vice President for Communications Ellen de Graffenreid provided statements for the press. In a July 16 Free Beacon article, de Graffenreid was quoted as stating that “[t]he opinions expressed by individual faculty members do not reflect the opinions of Brandeis University.”
She proceeded to defend the professors’ freedom of speech. “Brandeis University—like our peer institutions—upholds the principles of free speech and academic freedom for our students and faculty, which means that members of the community may hold many different opinions on a variety of topics and express them in ways that do not reflect the university’s official position on a given issue.”
In a July 23 Breitbart article, de Graffenreid was quoted as stating that “[t]he e-mails are from the archives of a faculty listserv. A number of statements are taken out of context and come from a broad range of periods and times.”
Fellman said in an interview with the Justice that de Graffenreid’s response was “all that needed to be said.”
When asked which comments he believed Lawrence was referring to in his letter, Fellman said that he did not believe Lawrence was upset about any of Fellman’s remarks in particular, but “angry remarks.”
However, he proceeded to defend his colleagues’ freedom of speech. “I don’t like it when people are rude. I don’t think that gets us anywhere. It distracts from education. But if somebody insists on being rude, she has the right to be, I’d just rather she not be,” he said.
—Kathryn Brody contributed reporting.