The University added caste to its list of protected criteria under its non-discrimination and harassment policy, President Ron Liebowitz announced in an email to the community on Dec. 17. 

“Going forward, the Office of Equal Opportunity will oversee issues and complaints of discrimination related to caste brought forward by members of the Brandeis community, just as it does for other types of discrimination,” Liebowitz explained in his email.

“To our knowledge, within the United States, we’re the first university to actually pursue this at a level where we would actually amend our non-discrimination policy,” Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas said in a Jan. 15 joint interview with Prof. Larry Simon (Heller), who is an expert on the caste system. 

According to the Office of Human Resources’ website, the University defines caste in the non-discrimination policy using the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition: “Caste is a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion.” The website states that caste is not a protected class under U.S. federal law or Massachusetts state law. 

Formal and informal caste systems exist all over the world, but the most prominent and widespread caste systems are in South Asia, especially India, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. In South Asia, members of the lowest group in the caste system are called Dalits, while members of the highest caste are called Brahmans, who were typically priests or warriors historically. 

Simon explained in the Jan. 15 interview that in rural India, Dalits often have to live in separate parts of villages called “caste ghettos.” He also said that Dalits tend to be poorer, face more housing and employment discrimination and can experience physical violence based on their caste. 

Brimhall-Vargas explained that caste discrimination looks very different at Brandeis than it does in South Asia. “There are ways that … students, faculty and staff informally identify each other” at Brandeis, he said, such as by last names, dietary preferences, religion and more, which can lead to informal social exclusion. 

Brimhall-Vargas pointed out, however, that the policy change was largely preemptive. “We do not have to wait for rampant discrimination to exist to proactively address caste and caste discrimination,” Brimhall-Vargas said. 

Simon recalled that when he started a graduate program on sustainable development at the Heller School, he met several Dalit students who “felt uncomfortable given some remarks that were being made … about them by other Indians.” For the most part, however, caste is a “hidden discrimination” in most U.S. universities, Simon explained. “Unless you come from a society and culture where caste is still a major determinant of your social well-being, it’s unknown,” he said. 

According to an Apr. 25, 2018 NPR clip, a survey called “Caste in the United States” found that two-thirds of Dalit respondents said they had faced workplace discrimination because of their caste and that 41% said they had faced discrimination in education because of their caste. 

Simon said that he and Brimhall-Vargas first started discussing caste at a conference Simon held about caste a few years ago. Brimhall-Vargas and Simon later called together a committee of staff, students and faculty who expressed interest in the issue of caste discrimination. 

The committee decided that the first step in mitigating caste discrimination would be moving forward on this policy change, Brimhall-Vargas said. They drafted language for the policy change and put it before the University Policy Review Committee. Like most other policy changes, it next went to the University’s General Counsel and was finally approved by Liebowitz. Brimhall-Vargas said the committee work took eight or nine months, while the administrative process took another two or three. According to Brimhall-Vargas, the committee’s proposal received no pushback from the administration. 

Brimhall-Vargas said that the next steps in lessening caste discrimination at the University are through education, including equity training and beyond. Both he and Simon said that the policy change is meant to protect people of any caste, not only Dalits. “Caste in its essence is wrong and should not lead to discrimination against anyone. And that is, I think, very consistent with the founding of Brandeis University,” Simon said.