Report details campus shortcomings on diversity
University President Ron Liebowitz released the Campus Climate Report last Thursday, which detailed the “exceedingly high standards” and broader shortcomings of the University, as well as the steps the administration is taking to address them. This second and final report, authored by independent investigators the University hired last spring, follows up on the initial findings regarding the complaints lodged against former men’s basketball coach Brian Meehan.
For the second half of the investigation, the Board of Trustees tasked the investigators — Walter Prince, Malcolm Graham and Daniel Tarlow — with examining the systems, climate and culture of University’s procedure for handling complaints related to bias or discrimination and to recommend corrective action accordingly.
Throughout the report, the investigators stressed their role as “lawyers and investigators,” not experts in the educational field, writing, “We will not substitute our judgement for [the administration’s].” They pointed to the steps the administration is already taking, and declined to give their own specific recommendations, saying that doing so would be “presumptuous.”
To understand the campus climate, investigators interviewed a number of faculty, staff, administrators, students and alumni to examine concerns about the way the University handles complaints. They then placed their findings in a larger context of how the Brandeis culture has contributed to problems such as Meehan’s behavior, and what steps are being taken to prevent such problems from arising in the future.
Brandeis’ climate and culture
The University was founded on principles of “anti-discrimination, inclusiveness, academic freedom, independence, and the highest standards of academic quality” in an era of segregation, discrimination and quotas, the investigators wrote.
However, some community members brought up controversies surrounding the University’s Jewish identity, which many agreed is important to Brandeis. One faculty member explained that identity-based schools face additional pressure to maintain their reputations, which discourages individuals from raising issues with the institution. Others mentioned confusion about whether or not Brandeis markets itself as a Jewish institution, and noted that conversations about Israel have become “charged,” which in turn put “fundraisers on the defensive with Jewish donors,” according to the report.
Many students spoke well of the University’s academic rigor and relationships they formed with faculty, and faculty praised the “niceness culture” that exists within the school. Others raised concerns about faculty members’ cultural sensitivity. One Diversity, Equity and Inclusion expert said professors and staff are “ill-equipped to respect cultural differences,” according to the report. This issue of culturally insensitive “bullying” was prominent in Meehan’s behavior toward his players.
The investigators also described “widespread anxiety about lodging complaints” among the Brandeis community due to concerns about retaliation, confusion surrounding procedures and a lack of belief that things will change. For example, student athletes may fear being forced off the team or not being allowed to play, according to Liebowitz. However, over the course of their interviews, the investigators found no evidence of retaliation and determined there was simply a perception that it was occurring.
To combat this perception, Liebowitz explained in an interview with the Justice and The Brandeis Hoot on Monday that the administration needs to build the community’s trust in the system, which will take time. Previous policies were unclear, he said, and made it difficult to report issues. Liebowitz said he believes the University must ensure that the community is aware of resources that are available to them — such as the Reporting at Brandeis web page — and create alternate channels for reporting, along with educating them on why reporting is important.
In addition, investigators learned that instead of reporting issues, many in the Brandeis community choose to speak about them among themselves — an example of what they call a “small town mentality.” Administrators admitted to investigators that they are “too quiet” about their progress in improving the campus culture, which further adds to the climate of poor communication.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Brandeis has historically faced issues of race and segregation, the investigators noted, citing both the original 1969 Ford Hall protest, its 2015 counterpart and Meehan’s firing. From their interviews with the community, the investigators found that while there was “deep and wide acceptance of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion” among students, administrators and deans, there was “notably less consensus” among the faculty.
Administrators tended to focus on the “business case” for increasing diversity, but also pointed out that the University’s “lean budget” prevents easy fixes such as additional financial aid and enhanced outreach efforts. They also acknowledged students’ concerns that administrators were ignoring the issue, as well as the University’s lack of diversity in top leadership.
A diversity-focused search process starts with “desire and convictions,” Liebowitz said. He aims to address the lack of diversity among the President’s Management Council by expanding the pool of diverse candidates and ensuring candidate search firms understand the University’s priorities. He also draws inspiration from the Rooney Rule, which requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for leadership positions, he said.
While students generally believe racial diversity at Brandeis is on par with other institutions and that there is significant amount of socioeconomic diversity, they are aware that there is still a lack of diversity among faculty members, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Students feel isolated, and as though they don’t belong at the institution, according to the investigators. They want campus diversity to increase quickly, the investigators found. The investigators speculated that students’ impatience may be influenced by their relatively short time at Brandeis, which makes them uninterested in slower, process-oriented approaches.
Students of color, particularly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, reported feeling that the community was unwelcoming and did not respect their worth. In addition, many Black students said they experience microaggressions and feel singled out in classrooms. A substantial majority of Black students said they are subject to direct or indirect discrimination.
The investigators found high levels of cynicism among minority students, some of whom expect Brandeis to be “better” than comparable institutions. However, the investigators labeled these expectations as “unrealistic,” and pointed out that students overwhelmingly responded “yes” when asked if they would attend Brandeis again.
Speaking to faculty members about diversity, investigators found reports of increased tension, with some saying they felt “used,” and others comparing diversity goals to quotas. Some faculty members said an increased minority presence could “water down” the University’s “‘Jewish character’ and even its academic excellence.”
Liebowitz disagreed with this, saying that diversity does not lead to a decrease in quality. “A student body that is diverse, that is an environment with different cultures, life experiences and world views, provides a better quality of education than a homogeneous environment,” he said in Monday’s interview.
Looking specifically at the University’s Board of Trustees, the investigators found that diversity is not a pressing concern for the Trustees and that the Board itself lacks diversity. There is no member tasked with “DEI as an area of focus,” and there is no direct relationship between the Board and Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas.
There are efforts underway to diversify the Board, however, as it looks to expand the number of diverse candidates in the future, according to Liebowitz. The Trustees have created a special subcommittee under the Nominating and Governance committee to address this issue.
In the report, investigators highlighted the fact that diversity, equity and inclusion are complex issues that are not unique to Brandeis. Concerns about the University’s management of such issues were also often offset by positive attitudes toward Liebowitz’s administration. The report indicated that the new administration itself is a “breath of fresh air” and a good starting point for addressing these concerns.
Liebowitz said he was “not surprised” by the report’s findings, and agreed that the issue is common among other institutions, but feels that the University is still different. “We’re Brandeis,” he emphasized. “We aspire to be something different because of how we were founded and what we stand for.”
Policies, procedures and systems for handling concerns
Investigators found a number of potential causes of management problems when dealing with complaints. Community members often have good intentions and ideas, but there is no follow through on the administration’s part, they found. The complicated allocation of administrative responsibilities results in people “not knowing where to go.” Due to the poor distribution of roles and responsibilities, administrators often focus on putting out the “biggest fires,” while smaller problems “fall through the cracks.” Some interviewees expressed frustration with a perceived “inverted pyramid” of power, with faculty at the top and the president at the bottom.
The investigators noted a lack of good information and tracking systems for complaints, which puts added pressure on administrators and increases their workload. Management problems are also created by a lack of training, poor communication, personal relationships that undercut chains of command and the perception that friendships between administrators sometimes get in the way of reporting issues, the report found.
The Brandeis Equity System/Structure Proposal, which was announced in October 2017 and restructures many reporting policies and procedures, was applauded by the investigators. They also suggested that some responsibilities for anti-discrimination/harassment policies and procedures be moved from Human Resources to the newly formed Office of Equal Opportunity. Better tracking systems should be put in place for discrimination and harassment complaint resolution processes and reporting, the report concluded.
The investigators also endorsed a number of initiatives already put in place by the administrators, such as the implementation of Workday, a cloud-based financial management and human capital software platform. This will modernize the Office of Human Resources, which has had a “history of management turbulence, resource deficits, and antiquated information technology,” per the report.
The Brandeis University Staff Committee, launched earlier this year, brings administrators together and improves their work environment through “policy improvement, professional development, training, recognition and wellness,” according to the report. The investigators praised how the committee gives its members a “voice.”
The University has been quietly building up infrastructure to enhance opportunities for marginalized communities, the investigators found. This includes creating the positions of the assistant dean of Student Life for the Support of Diversity position in 2005, currently held by Jamele Adams, and the senior vice president for diversity/chief diversity officer position in 2016, held by Brimhall-Vargas. More diverse faculty and administrators are also being hired, according to the report: since 2015, the number of Black faculty members has increased from 14 to 21; in the same span, Latinx faculty members rose from 15 to 17 and Asian-American faculty members rose from 31 to 37. The administration has also conducted a concerted effort to continue working with the Posse Foundation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship and Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program, which provide disadvantaged minority students with academic and financial opportunities.
Initiatives such as the new General Curriculum, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Office of Equal Opportunity, the Student Union Diversity Officer position, the Ombuds Office and the “Support at Brandeis” and “Reporting at Brandeis” websites are all important strides the University is taking to enhance complaint reporting as well as diversity, equity and inclusion, the investigators wrote.
Investigators commended the University for creating the December 2015 Draft Implementation Plan for Diversity and Inclusion at Brandeis, which has set dates and goals. The Draft DEI plan outlines the goal of increasing applications from minority students by 5 to 10 percent annually starting in fall 2017. It also increases outreach to these communities in the form of an increased admissions staff and funding for campus organizations.
While the University is doing what it can at the moment by re-appropriating funds on the margins of its budget, the only way to fix the chronic underfunding issue is to simply raise more funds, Liebowitz said in his interview. For example, the recent $50 million donation to the University’s financial aid program has also eliminated the “gap” between a student’s proposed financial package and cost of attendance, per the report.
Top administrators have also undergone 18 hours of intensive training in diversity, equity and inclusion, and will soon determine how this training will roll out to other administrators and staff, according to Liebowitz.