After 70 years, the Justice remains a ‘scolding conscience’
Analyzing the history of the Justice from its founding to the present day.
Final exams at the end of the semester — at nearly every university, that’s just a matter-of-fact aspect of campus life. But in 1949, Brandeis was only in the second semester of its first academic year. Buildings still had to be built, professors still had to be hired and students still had to be recruited. The school was not even fully accredited yet. Suffice it to say, there was plenty of work left to do to get the fledgling university off the ground.
So the close of the first exam period for Brandeis’ 107 first-year students was, indeed, a significant accomplishment. And that’s why, when the Justice published its first issue that March, the four-column headline at the top of the front page was “Exams Climax First Brandeis Term.” It was literally big news.
Since then, the independent student newspaper of Brandeis University has covered it all: from the challenges of campus planning to student activism to goings-on in the greater Waltham area, and much more.
Just as important, in its 70 years of existence, the Justice has served as the independent mouthpiece of the student body and remains an essential read every Tuesday. Even in this day and age when every member of the campus community has their own social media megaphone, and even though it is currently not the only student newspaper or media organization on the Brandeis campus, the Justice continues to put the news of the week into context, adding needed clarity and perspective and serving as a tireless advocate for student rights.
It is easy to look at the Justice today and almost take it for granted. But in the second semester of Brandeis’ first year, when Paul Levenson ’52 and his classmates hatched their plan for a student newspaper, it was not an easy endeavor to take on. For one thing, the editors actually had to go to a print shop where linotype was being used and physically create the newspaper there. “It was very primitive, very hands on and not forgettable,” Levenson recalled in an interview with the Justice. After that premiere issue, another one was not even published until nine months later, in December 1949.
But that first issue set the stage for what was to come: its six pages included a mix of news reports about campus happenings, multiple commentary and humor pieces, arts and culture reviews, intramural sports recaps, advertisements from local businesses and an editorial in which Levenson, the paper’s first editor in chief, presented what was essentially the Justice’s mission statement: “Let us be your voice.”
Early issues documented many milestones of the University’s development, including the progress — or lack thereof — of its large-scale construction projects. And the Justice quickly became an outlet for students to express their concerns about the school’s growing pains, citing the “Ridgewood Quagmire” and the “dark, damp and crowded” dining hall, among other grievances — none of which pleased administrators.
In fact, Levenson can still vividly recall being summoned to Founding President Abram Sachar’s office multiple times for fiery lectures about the paper’s less-than-positive coverage. “Sachar was concerned that some of the dissatisfaction might leak out and discourage potential donors from contributing to the school,” Levenson said. “To give him credit where it’s due, though, [Sachar] never interfered with anything that we printed. There was no censorship, and there were no restrictions. He would just, from time to time, when something appeared in the paper that he didn’t like or didn’t agree with, he would let me know in very direct terms.”
Years later, in “A Host at Last,” Sachar’s 1976 book about Brandeis’ founding and early days, Sachar would describe the Justice as “a scolding conscience” for the school.
Activism and controversy
When Ford Hall was taken over by about 70 student members of the Brandeis Afro-American Society in January 1969, the students published their list of demands in the Justice. That’s just one example of the key role the paper has played in the University’s history over the years. Equally important, the paper serves as the school’s collective memory of what has transpired.
“If something happens on campus, the Justice will cover it, and then in 50 years there’ll be that Justice article that someone can look back at and see,” Jocelyn Gould ’21, who recently became the paper’s latest editor in chief, said in an interview with the Justice.
There are many other cases where the Justice had a significant effect on the school. For example, in 1953, the Justice’s editorial board argued strongly that Sachar’s plan to build one Jewish chapel on campus went against Brandeis’ inclusive ideals. Their articles, combined with feedback from the student union and other parties, led Sachar to change course and opt to build three different religious chapels instead.
In 1978, the Justice published multiple articles encouraging the University to divest from 15 companies that had commercial ties to South Africa, which was then operating with a formal policy of apartheid. Following additional protest, the Board of Trustees eventually agreed to use the University’s leverage as a stockholder to urge for improvement.
The fight for social justice also inspired Justice editors to raise questions about the merits of invited 1994 honorary degree recipient Jeanne Kirkpatrick, United States Ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan. Thanks in large part to the paper’s reporting and advocacy, she declined the honor, calling the school “ideological zealots.”
More recently, in 2014, the Justice’s coverage of the controversy regarding an honorary degree offered to feminist and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was cited by Al Jazeera America, The New York Times, Reuters and others as an instrumental part of the community backlash.
Although much about the Justice’s mission and its coverage of campus events and news has remained consistent over the years, technology advances such as computer layout programs and digital photography — as well as the internet — have changed the paper’s reality beyond just how the weekly issues are produced.
For example, since issues are now posted to the paper’s website, those outside of Waltham are able to keep tabs on the school quite easily. This has brought wanted and unwanted national (and sometimes international) attention to Brandeis. It has also eliminated a professional development opportunity for Justice editors and staff members, who used to be hired by The New York Times and Boston Globe as campus stringers, a role that is no longer needed.
Such exposure has inevitably led to personal challenges, as well. Prof. Maura Jane Farrelly (AMST) told the Justice she has offered counsel to multiple editors who struggle to balance their journalistic responsibility with being part of a campus that seemingly grows smaller every year, thanks in large part to social media.
“It’s like being a journalist in a really, really small town,” Farrelly described, adding that she can recall at least one incident every year in which a student who has been photographed or quoted in an article sees it online and asks for it to be taken down.
“It happened. It was in public. [The Justice] reported on it. You have to keep it up,” she explained. “But it’s hard. It’s hard for the student journalists to say no to their friends.”
On the other hand, social media has made finding article ideas easier, and changed some of the types of stories the Justice publishes. “A lot of times, when I see big campus conversations pop up, there’s misinformation,” Gould said. “So, one role of the Justice today is to figure out what the whole story is, write an article that can lay that out for people, and then use social media to share that article across platforms so people can have more informed discussions.”
Another motivation for current editors is a friendly rivalry with other media organizations — specifically, the Brandeis Hoot, which was launched in 2005. Though there have been discussions about dechartering that publication and merging it with the Justice, the Justice has supported The Hoot. The proposal was ultimately withdrawn in April 2019.
The Hoot hasn’t been the Justice’s only competition over the years: In 1949, there was also the Turret, a publication that Levenson recalled as having been started by some more “bohemian” students. It did not last very long.
And while there is now an official journalism minor, the Justice remains an independent publication. But that may soon change: In April 2019, the Student Union passed a bylaw saying that all secured clubs, of which the Justice is one, would be required to have a faculty consultant. Gould says the specific advisor, as well as the specific role this person plays, is up to the organizations to decide. As of press time, editors are still deciding on their next steps.
For now, as the Justice celebrates its 70th birthday, the editorial board remains focused on creating the best possible newspaper every week, because the board knows that, one day, future editors will look at their work as an important piece of campus history, just as they look at former editors’ work today.
“Being a part of the Justice’s history means you’re not just independently working for your year and then leaving. You’re joining a legacy and building a legacy, and also taking on the legacy that other people have left you,” Gould said. “It’s great to be part of something that’s been around for so long.”