Brandeis University’s closure of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism leaves a blind spot in the school’s commitment to social justice. For the past 14 years, the Institute has given students and professional researchers alike a structured avenue to practice what Brandeis preaches in terms of social change — allowing them to learn directly from professional researchers how to use their knowledge and skill sets for the good of others. According to its mission statement, Brandeis “affirms the importance of a broad and critical education in enriching the lives of students and preparing them for full participation in a changing society, capable of promoting their own welfare, yet remaining deeply concerned about the welfare of others.” The Schuster Institute, and specifically the Justice Brandeis Law Project, embodied this philosophy better perhaps than any other university. In their absence, Brandeis must create new opportunities for students to apply the rule of law to real-world cases. 

First, we must evaluate the projects Schuster will leave behind. Schuster employees and fellows felt that accomplishment in summer 2015 when their work in the Justice Brandeis Law Project helped free Angel Echavarria, who served 21 years after a wrongful murder conviction. Schuster researchers took Echavarria out for dinner and bowling nights to celebrate, according to a June 2015 Boston Globe article. While policy work is integral to the achievement of social justice, the direct case research Schuster sponsored with the JBLP showed students another, more human side of law. According to the JBLP’s website, it differs from most innocence projects in that it used time-consuming research methods to investigate cases where DNA wasn’t available, rather than focusing on DNA-based exonerations. With the Schuster Institute closing due to funding issues, the fate of the project hangs uncertain. As a uniquely focused program not only within the University but within the country and the world as a whole, Brandeis should find a new home for the JBLP so that its work can continue.

Next, we should look to the other institutes and fellowships Brandeis houses. At latest count, the Heller School has 11 research institutes and centers, from the Institute for Behavioral Health to the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, all of which are policy-focused. Within the Lurie Institute, the Nathan and Toby Starr Center has a student fellowship which involves undergraduates in the process of policy reform and advancement, on behalf of those with disabilities. Julia Brown ’19, a Starr fellow, says that opportunities to do research in the humanities and social sciences “haven’t been as plentiful or concrete as they are in the hard sciences,” and that “the creation of the Starr Fellowship has been an amazing start.” 

Another group, the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy, focuses on marketing and driving grants to social justice-related causes and organizations. Sillerman offers Heller School students placement and stipends to work in philanthropy-related internships. These are unique Brandeis programs where undergrads and grad students can practice what they study. 

Perhaps the most impactful program the Sillerman Center runs in terms of driving undergraduate engagement with public good is the sponsorship of a sociology course, Social Justice and Philanthropy. Students in this course learn about grantmaking and feel the weight of real-world decision-making as they distribute actual grant money to three organizations they choose at the end of the semester. This applied component of the course is essential because it forces students to weigh real-world consequences and experience the sense of accomplishment of making a decision that has a direct impact on others. 

In the sciences, students have opportunities to work in labs, apply for summer research funding and research alongside professors and graduate students. Additionally, Brandeis was awarded a $1 million grant from The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in June 2018 that is aimed at providing resources and additional research opportunities to undergraduate students. The grant will fund smaller classes and is intended to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to engage with STEM curriculum and research. Brandeis recognizes the need for undergraduate research in the sciences and is working to provide more opportunities for students wishing to partake in independent scientific study.

While the Heller programs present opportunities for humanities students to engage practically with their coursework, the programs themselves are competitive to be accepted into and leave pre-law and journalism students looking for ways to get engaged. Hands-on, experiential learning is a great way to cultivate a skill set or discover a passion. The Schuster Institute offered a unique opportunity for those undergrads to combine these pursuits and develop alongside researchers. Associate Director Lindsay Markel ’08 commented to the Justice last week that she began her time at Schuster as “an unsophisticated college graduate” but soon met “incredible role models” who helped her grow. Encouraging undergrads to start the journey early and develop skills by working on real-world problems is one of the best things Brandeis can do to prepare them for life. 

The Justice summarized President Ron Liebowitz’s statement last week, saying that “research centers like Schuster are supposed to be able to sustain themselves by getting money from external donors instead of being subsidized by the University.” While this is true, and the Schuster Institute was established by a generous donation to the school, Brandeis is now responsible for filling the hole left behind. Whether they do so through existing channels or by establishing new research projects aimed at law and journalism students, Brandeis must strengthen its commitment to impactful student research across academic disciplines.