Honorary degrees addressed in fall Trustee meeting
The Board of Trustees considered honorary degree recipients as well as renovations to the Castle and new fundraising initiatives at their annual Fall meeting last Monday and Tuesday, according to Senior Representative to the Board of Trustees Grady Ward ’16.
The Board was not able to discuss a 30-page report on how students perceive their experiences with financial aid and tuition costs, which was compiled by Ward and Junior Representative to the Board of Trustees Emily Conrad ’17, due to time constraints. In an interview with the Justice, Ward said that his report was third from the bottom on the list of topics for the board to address at the meeting. Of the honorary degree candidates, he said, “there were some names on the list that some people objected to, and it really came down to the fact that we don’t have a clear doctrine or a clear set of policies that we follow when we’re awarding honorary degrees. And so someone was saying ‘Is X a trait that we value? Is X a trait that we value retrospectively?’”
The Board made no major decisions about honorary degree nominations at this meeting, according to Ward, because of disagreement within the Board about both the nominees being considered and the purpose of the Trustees’s votes. According to Ward, “some Trustees kind of viewed it as a rubber stamp, like ‘I think that this person deserves to get an honorary degree.’ And other trustees kind of viewed it as ‘we could let the president decide to give this person an honorary degree in some circumstance.’ Those are two totally different worlds.”
According to the University’s website, the degree nomination process involves several steps wherein different groups consider nominated candidates. Any community member can submit a nominee to the Honorary Degrees Committee. The committee, in turn, sends a group of recommended nominations to the Board of Trustees, who send their picks to the president for a final decision. According to Ward, the board will consider what role they want their votes to have in the period before the January Board of Trustees meeting. “If the mandate of the vote were to be ‘I think this person deserves an honorary degree,’ versus the mandate of the vote being ‘I would tolerate someone like this getting an honorary degree,’ those are very different voices,” Ward said. “There was enough disagreement in the room that they were like, ‘Okay, we need to talk about this further.’”
In 2014, the University rescinded an honorary degree nomination to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an advocate for women’s rights in the Middle East, due to past statements of hers that were perceived by students, faculty and alumni as Islamophobic. Rescinding the degree led to a wide public relations scandal.
In an interview with the Justice, Ward said that not being able to present his report was “definitely frustrating. There was a lot of stuff on the agenda for this meeting, and as I’ve kind of seen a couple of cycles of this now, it seems like the fall meeting is almost always way overloaded with stuff because everyone’s been working on their own stuff over the summer.”
Ward gathered data for and wrote the report alongside Conrad. The report was mainly based on the results of a survey distributed to students on Sept. 22, which asked about their personal financial aid statuses, whether and how those statuses have changed over time, how financial aid and tuition have impacted students’ choices at Brandeis and future planning and the psychological impact of the University’s tuition policies. Student Union members and Financial Aid Office administrators offered feedback and revisions to early drafts of the survey.
A public version of the report was distributed to students on Oct. 29, in an email from Student Union Secretary Shuying Liu ’16. In total, 772 students responded to the survey, with 769 responses being deemed valid, constituting about 21 percent of the student body. The report’s authors noted that respondents were most likely the students who suffer the greatest financial strain but said that while readers should bear this in mind, the survey pool still constitutes a considerable number of students. The report, which included both statistical data and individual student reflections, identified student frustration at the trend of “front-loading” financial aid, wherein the University gradually decreases the amount of scholarship and aid students receive over the course of their years at Brandeis. According to the report, administrators claim that this is not an intentional practice, but it is a common student perception. 55.7 percent of respondents said that their financial aid package had changed throughout their time at Brandeis, while only 8.5 percent said it had remained the same. One student wrote, “When I started here, I was receiving a reasonable amount of aid given my financial situation. At this point, I am receiving no scholarships from Brandeis, only loans. Because of this, I have to graduate early as I can’t afford a full senior year. … If I had known that my financial aid package would change, I would have chosen a different university.”
The report also identifies frustration toward student work-study programs factoring heavily into financial aid decisions, meaning that financial aid packages often decrease by an amount proportional to a student’s earnings from their work-study. One student wrote that their financial aid package had decreased after they earned “an outside scholarship,” became a Community Advisor and found a well-paying job outside of the University. Among the survey’s respondents, 62.8 percent work throughout the school year, with a majority of 38.9 percent working between six and 10 hours a week. Among respondents to the survey, 70.8 percent anticipate graduating with student debt and 33.8 percent say that their financial burden impacted their choices of what to study at Brandeis. Many students expressed frustration at being unable to pursue unpaid internships in their areas of study, due to needing money for tuition. “I feel I am giving up on my dreams that I cultivated here at college because of the cost of college,” one student wrote, with another saying, “Many social justice jobs are a luxury for the affluent.”
The only difference between the public report and the version given to the Board of Trustees is that interviews with individual students about their financial situations were redacted, in order to protect the privacy of the interviewees from readers who may be able to infer their identities from the transcripts, according to the public report.
The report specifically advises that the Board increase the campus minimum wage for students to $11 per hour from the current $9 per hour; to allow students to fulfill work study at unpaid internships; to educate students on financial literacy; to give out 400 World of Work scholarships annually, which provide students with $2,500 over the summer to pursue unpaid internships, advocacy and research; to pledge not to “front-load” financial aid and to only increase tuition when financial aid can also be increased. According to Ward, while the Board at large did not consider the report at this meeting, the Students and Enrollment committee discussed it for half an hour at their meeting. “It was pretty clear they’d read it, which is great for a thirty page document,” he said.