Supporting survivors while maintaining neutrality
In the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and the resulting protests across the nation, University President Ron Liebowitz emailed the Brandeis community last Tuesday. The email focused on the importance of creating a “supportive environment” while stressing that the University would remain “non-partisan.” While this board recognizes Liebowitz’s attempt to acknowledge the impact of recent events and commit to keeping the University officially non-partisan, we believe that Liebowitz should have used this opportunity to send a stronger message of support to sexual violence survivors on campus.
After the University posted Liebowitz’s letter to its Facebook page, some Facebook users argued that perjury and “right and wrong” are not partisan issues. Others suggested that the school was abandoning its mission of social justice, with one person saying, “I do not think Justice Brandeis would have approved of the Supreme Court nominee.” In the current political climate, this board does not believe that the school’s place is to endorse or denounce a political nominee, especially when public opinion of that nominee is divided along partisan lines.
In light of the allegations brought by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and other women, many community members may feel that the University should condemn Kavanaugh’s appointment outright and that failure to do so is a failure to denounce sexual violence. This board respects the opinions and concerns of these community members but acknowledges that, in our increasingly polarized society, Kavanaugh’s confirmation has also become a partisan issue subject to ongoing national debate. Democrats argue that Dr. Ford’s testimony was convincing and that Kavanaugh’s divisive opening statement was further evidence that he was unfit for the job. Republicans argue that Dr. Ford’s testimony needed corroboration before Kavanaugh could be rejected and that Kavanaugh’s impassioned opening statement was not only appropriate but indicative of his innocence. The divisiveness and partisanship in Congress is only intensified by Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and as a non-partisan entity, the University does not need to issue an opinion on this.
As an institution with an express commitment to social justice, the University is often expected to take a stance on potentially controversial issues. This board understands this expectation, but we also respect that the University must remain conscious of differing opinions within the community. On contentious topics such as this, the University should look to facilitate open discussion. In his letter to the University, Liebowitz did state that Provost Lisa Lynch has reached out to deans and faculty of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department with coursework relevant to recent events to make time for discussions about sexual assault and the state of civil rights in the country. This board approves of the decision to consult experts on these issues and encourages the University to continue fostering informed discourse.
However, regardless of its stance — or lack thereof — on the Kavanaugh nomination, the University must support survivors of sexual assault in our community. Even as Brandeis attempts to present a non-partisan image, it must be careful to avoid alienating or invalidating survivors of sexual assault. In this regard, Liebowitz’s email did not issue a sufficiently forceful statement of support for sexual assault survivors in the community.
While we appreciate that the University “stand[s] compassionately by any members of our community who feel anguish” and “cares” about those who have faced sexual violence, this broad language is in stark contrast to that of a Wednesday email from the Prevention Advocacy Resource Center. “To those who have experienced violence: we want you to know that we believe you,” the email reads. The contrast in tone between these emails is not trivial. A student protest last Monday — and another one yesterday — called on the University to “believe survivors,” and Liebowitz’s letter last Tuesday should have directly addressed this demand.
In the Q&A session following Sunday’s annual Diane Markowicz Lecture on Gender and Human Rights, Liebowitz explained that his letter was intended to address “divisiness, right now, in the United States” and that “as an institution, we don’t take sides in that.” He went on to say, “I believe survivors.” We appreciate that Liebowitz expressed this belief — albeit belatedly — and wish that he had recognized the importance of clarifying it in his email, as PARC did. Sexual violence survivors in the community deserve to know that the University’s political neutrality does not affect its commitment to supporting them. Sending the message that Brandeis believes survivors, while underlining that doing so is not a partisan statement, would have been an appropriate balance to strike.
Criticisms aside, this board appreciates that Liebowitz’s letter includes links to University resources. Resources such as the , and should be easily available to anyone who is need of them, and the administration has an obligation to make these resources known and accessible to the community at large. Likewise, the inclusion of information about registering to vote and obtaining an absentee ballot is also helpful. In his letter, Liebowitz called on the community to “participate in democratic institutions in order to keep them strong and functioning.” We echo that sentiment and urge members of this community to vote on election day, Nov. 6.