The faculty of the Department of African and African American Studies write to express our concern about the new changes to the student handbook regarding campus protests and demonstrations. As announced by Provost Lisa Lynch in an Aug. 29, 2019 email to the Brandeis community, student groups and individuals must now “seek prior approval for schedule and location” of any campus protest. We commend the Justice for bringing attention to this important policy change that, perhaps due to the timing of its announcement at the beginning of the academic year, seems to have escaped critical attention and for reporting additional details about how this policy will be implemented.  

AAAS was established as a result of the Ford Hall student protest in January 1969.  Approximately 70 Black and Latino/a students occupied Ford Hall for 11 days, demanding that the university commit to a AAAS department, risking their futures and safety in the process.  Needless to say, they did not seek “prior approval for schedule and location.” 50 years later, AAAS stands as a testament to their courage, sacrifice and foresight. The work that we do and the impact that we have is rooted in a proud history of protest that gave rise to black studies at Brandeis, as well as dozens of other colleges and universities across the country.     

The new policy on student protests runs counter to our history as a department, as well as Brandeis’s larger history of student activism. As we know from the history of campus protest movements at Brandeis, the objectives of student activists and the institutional interests of the university are often not aligned. Students have been and remain the vanguard of change. We also know that in Brandeis’ history, whether it be increasing aid for disadvantaged students, divestment from apartheid South Africa, developing an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion or the creation of the AAAS Department, student protest has been essential to structural transformation and holding the university accountable to its purported values of openness, democracy and justice.   

The new policy on student protests calls these values into question. The policy has been imposed without sufficient student input, particularly from #StillConcernedStudents or the Brandeis Student Union. The policy also does not appear to align with Brandeis’ “Principles of Free Speech and Expression,” especially, as the Justice notes, how the introduction of prior restraint will unquestionably have a “chilling effect on speech and exchange of views on campus.” Furthermore, the lack of specificity regarding punishment for violating this policy, and that sanctions would be meted out on a “case by case basis,” is deeply unsettling and raises concerns about how justice will be fairly administered, especially when a history exists of disparate treatment of and reaction towards various types of student protest groups. 

Indeed, we are left to wonder if through this policy Brandeis is valuing order and tranquility more than justice. While Brandeis celebrates the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visited the university in 1957 and 1963, we must also take his words seriously. In his April 16, 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King cautioned against purported allies who were “more devoted to “order” than to justice” and who preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” It is the presence, as King also writes, of “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth,” that the university, whether deliberately or inadvertently, is now regulating and, ostestensibly, controlling. The University administration appears determined to impose a definition of what it deems as “reasonable” protest that emanates, fundamentally, from the institutional interests of the university itself.  Assistant Dean of Student Rights and Community Standards Alexandra Rossett’s mention of “behavioral expectations” reflects a desire to shape student protest according to restrictive modes of respectability and to dictate both the method and manner in which students decide to exercise their rights to freedom of speech and expression. 

What does this reveal about Brandeis? What does it say about how we choose to invoke the history of the university, where we are today, and what type of university we want to become?  The language of the new policy was apparently sourced from Princeton University’s student handbook. But Brandeis is not Princeton. It is a university whose birthright entailed a unique responsibility to justice and fairness. The fact that Brandeis is applying a stricter standard than Princeton, who only encourages approval of student protests, makes the decision even more disappointing. In light of the recent Campus Climate Report, and in a moment when marginalized students across the country, such as those at Syracuse University, are threatened and made to feel unwelcome, Brandeis must remain true to its founding, its history and sense of moral responsibility.

We therefore call upon the University administration to revisit its decision regarding student protests and initiate a constructive dialogue with the campus community about the University’s history of student protest and its importance today. 

— Faculty of the Department of African and African American Studies