Editorial: The University must reckon with its racist history and systems that harm BIPOC students
In his recent email about the Draft University Anti-Racism Plan, President Ron Liebowitz linked to a list of appendices that go into detail about the plan. Appendix B, “Our History of Anti-Racism Initiatives,” touches on several initiatives that the University has spearheaded, including the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships, the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program and the Brandeis Posse program. However, it largely focuses on the history of protests and occupations led by Black students and other students of color at the University. This board feels that the emphasis on these protests in a section titled “Our History of Anti-Racism Initiatives” incorrectly focuses on examples of the University’s commitment to social justice, rather than examples of the University’s racist systems and history.
Appendix B states that “a pivotal challenge to Brandeis’ commitment to diversity and inclusion arose” with the Ford Hall occupation of 1969, a phrase that strategically avoids placing blame on the University as the reason behind the Black student-led protest. The occupation is described in Appendix B as “a tense time on campus, revealing fractures between the administration, faculty and students about the occupation, as well as broad support among students for it.” This description leaves out the formal condemnation of the occupation by then-President Morris Abram and the faculty through a statement read on President Abram’s behalf at a news conference and a faculty resolution approved by a 153 to 18 vote. The 10 demands of the students included the establishment of an African and African American Studies Department, which, as Appendix B boasts, was eventually met. However, many of the other demands, including the expulsion of a white student who had shot a Black student in the face with a BB gun, were not addressed, and many students remained dissatisfied with the outcome of the occupation.
The #FordHall2015 protest took place when Black students led a sit-in in the Bernstein-Marcus Administration Center and issued a list of 13 demands. Appendix B incorrectly attributes the reasons for this sit-in to participation in “a nationwide campus movement for more diversity and inclusion,” stating that these students “cast a light” on this movement and that they “expressed the university’s ethos.” In reality, Brandeis students had participated in nationwide peaceful demonstrations a week prior in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri, who were protesting the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson. These demonstrations and the rising national profile of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired the Bernstein-Marcus sit-in, but the sit-in itself was a direct protest of the Brandeis administration and a continuation of the original Ford Hall occupation’s demands.
Appendix B briefly mentions the #StillConcernedStudents protest of 2019, explaining that students “voiced their concerns about various diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues at Brandeis, many of which were presented back in 2015 at the Ford Hall event.” There is no more context provided about the circumstances leading up to the protest or the University’s response, and it goes on immediately to say that “to this point, the university is deeply committed to supporting students, faculty and staff from marginalized populations, as well as to developing the rest of the campus community.” This implies that the #StillConcernedStudents protest demonstrated the University’s commitment to supporting marginalized populations, rather than demonstrating its repeated failure as an institution to address their needs. Following the protest, Liebowitz sent out an email saying the University would address some of the students’ demands, but he also criticized the protesters for using “loud, vulgar, and threatening tactics,” referring to their use of a bullhorn and some obscenities. This tone-policing took focus away from the students' demands and perpetuated racist stereotypes. The administration never retracted this damaging rhetoric, and now presents a sanitized version of their involvement in this protest.
This board believes that it is inconsistent and harmful for the University to frame itself as an institution committed to social justice while leaving out key parts of its history that illustrate the opposite, and claiming Black student-led initiatives as their own. As the University embarks on their newest attempt to address long-standing student concerns about racism on campus, this misrepresentation of previous student-led protests is a worrying signal that the administration has not properly reflected on past and current failings. This board calls on the University to accurately represent their harmful role in past protests and commit to doing so in the future.